Broadway has known its fair share of musical extravaganzas that shed light, sometimes earnestly, sometimes satirically, on life and death in the American South. Over the past 100 years, composers and librettists have delved deep into a rich regional history, producing memorable pieces ranging from Showboat and Shenandoah to Violet, Waitress and The Color Purple. But even among this vast gallimaufry of tragic, playful and highly sonorous hits, there is only one musical that boldly dares to make its home in the Southern Gothic tradition. Parade — a recently revived dramatization of two twentieth century murders — skillfully combines genuine horror with relentless irony and casual irreverence. Like so many other Southern Gothic tales, it is simultaneously rapturous and disturbing.
Fans of classic fiction will be familiar with the literary style — originating with Twain and Faulkner, among others — which seeks to expose sinister undertones inside gently lilting voices and sunny arcadian bliss. Novels and plays included within the Southern Gothic ‘canon’ frequently feature jarring acts of violence, grotesque characters, and a macabre passion for decay and moral perversion. Unlike the necrophilic penny dreadfuls of old, these works are not intended to merely shock a prim and unsuspecting readership. They are, instead, carefully designed portraits of mass psychology that reveal, in often surprising ways, mankind’s remarkable tolerance for evil and the uncanny.
Parade’s subject matter is certainly dark enough to fit the bill. The forever intertwined tragedies of Mary Phagan and Leo Frank are so horrific as to seem at times unreal. Rape, deadly assault, virulent bigotry and murder by lynching successively propel the musical’s narrative arc from start to finish, while simultaneously raising prickly gooseflesh on not a few theatergoers’ arms. And yet, we must remember, there are many other modern musicals that freely depict death and suffering. A thoroughgoing dramatic work, it could be said, relies on engagement with harsh realities in order to cadge intense emotional impact. If Parade falls within the realm of Southern Gothic artwork, it is not simply because innocent characters endure dreadful and infuriating fates onstage.
In musical theater, as in fiction, the writer’s tone and thematic design can give electrifying color to otherwise straightforward material. Art becomes naturalistic, elegiac or satirical long after its basic framework (skeleton or chassis) has been constructed. Ultimately, it is skillful stylization and a keen eye for paradox that transforms Parade from monotone tragedy into Gothic tour de force.
Far and away, the musical derives its vivid gothicism from composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s use of contradictory lyrics and overlapping musical textures. This score, which incorporates a variety of jazz, theater and American folk styles, intentionally disorients the listener by swiftly altering tempos and reintroducing previous leitmotifs at unexpected moments. Like the traditional Southern Gothic novel, Brown’s music frequently lulls listeners into a false sense of security. Gentle, sweeping ballads and lighthearted comic numbers entrance the ear just long enough to produce a sort of cognitive dissonance when more sinister melodies come creeping in their wake. The obverse is also true. Often Brown deliberately confuses the senses by setting a painful and dispiriting scene to jocose, upbeat music. The Act One finale, “Closing Statement and Verdict,” is a perfect example to this point. Nothing says Southern Gothic like an inescapable death sentence drowned underneath increasingly loud and jaunty ragtime. Life, this clever musical cue implies, will defiantly roar on, even as injustice cries out in agony.
Perhaps more than any other theme, the Southern Gothic tradition is interested in society’s dualistic relationship to spiritualism. It examines with unfailing discernment the ways in which extreme religious devotion can exist alongside vicious and intolerant urges. No author has investigated this binary quite so thoroughly as Flannery O’Connor, the 20th century Catholic chronicler of life in rural Georgia. It is an apposite coincidence that O’Connor’s longtime town of Milledgeville just happens to house the prison complex from which Leo Frank was fatefully abducted one night in 1915. Ingenuous readers often wonder how a sweet and humorous author, known for her deep piety, could have managed to conceive such horrifying tales of gruesome death and violent theomachy. For answer we must look no further than the blood-stained grass and haunted trees among which she bided for so many years. The same South that lynched Leo Frank later instructed Flannery O’Connor to abhor the fearful ways of evil and apostasy.
As a dramatist of the Southern Gothic, O’Connor made a habit of closely contrasting holy convictions with grotesque realities. Parade does much the same thing. Musically, as well as textually, it arranges a slate of ancestral ideals and virtues alongside bloodthirstiness and vicious anti-semitism. In both cases, the intention is to disrupt default assumptions by forcibly propelling readers and viewers towards a broader understanding. Parade, like many of O’Connor’s finest and most gothic stories, alternates between two primary modes: the sacrosanct and the demonic. No sooner has the company finished a sorrowful, tear-rending eulogy of little Mary Phagan, than they begin swearing vitriolic and unsavory vows of vengeance against the innocent Frank. In that moment we are forced to acknowledge that righteous regrets (for lost girlhood and untimely death) can be accompanied by the coarsest kind of cruelty and bigotry.
Brown brings this fraught dualism to life time and again, coaxing listeners’ sympathy with rich, mesmerizing music, then just as quickly shocking them into dull confusion. The musical, in its entirety, refuses to make a definitive moral suggestion. It presents instead a defiantly ambiguous panorama of heroism and villainy that grows muddled in the mind’s eye and unsettles the soul. Flannery O’Connor was, of course, wildly successful at invoking this same effect. Her stories frequently incorporate a handful of repeated motifs, including perverted innocence and ‘wise’ sin, all of which send the reader’s mind spiraling into unknown and uncomfortable realms. Her particular brand of Southern Gothic storytelling subtly winds through Parade, surfacing in its cacophonous songs and briskly syncopated rhythms.
It can be exceedingly difficult to translate an essentially literary style onto the stage. Satire, in particular, threatens to come off as campy and meaningless when roughly imposed on top of a song-and-dance property. Leonard Bernstein’s Candide features perhaps the most telling example of a satirical valence that has historically failed to communicate itself effectively. We might wonder how Parade manages to avoid a similar fate. When a musical treats traumatic material on such complex, subliminal levels, it necessarily risks skirting audience members’ comprehension. Only look at Flannery O’Connor, who could never completely ward off accusations of blasphemy and heresy, though she was a publicly devout Catholic and friend of many prominent churchmen. Involute art that refuses to preach or moralize in plain terms will always be risky.
In the end, Parade owes a great deal of its critical success and enduring popularity to an artistic device first extensively developed by Southern Gothic authors like O’Connor. The mysterious appeal of the casually horrific will ever surge in audiences members, drawing them to the theater and the cast recording, just as it draws them to read “Good Country People” and “Greenleaf.” This unspoken curiosity for all things fearful and taboo does not stem from motives of voyeurism or schadenfreude. The Southern Gothic does not, in other words, satisfy some congenital, Hobbesian desire to observe our fellow humans endure suffering and tragedy. It does, however, feed the psyche’s silent need for complexity and variation. Simple childlike tales of good and bad may be convenient, but they can never fully occupy our rational capacities.
In every possible way, Parade is a musical of paradoxes. It is grander and more intricate than a Gothic cathedral, brimming over with reversals, complications and sublime discoveries. The endlessly syncretic music and lyrics composed by Brown engage listeners by keeping them constantly on guard and in a state of destabilizing anticipation. When, as audience members, we watch the horrendous twin stories of Leo Frank and Mary Phagan play out before our very eyes, we may feel a slight tinge of moral discomfort. It may strike as unfitting or even irreverent to freely depict past atrocities on the stage. But then, we remember, the material has been treated with such care, insight and intelligence. We delight in Brown’s invigorating score, then shudder to think of the long-expired, stunted lives that animate it. One moment passion, one moment discomfort. That is the stuff of the Southern Gothic. Few could do it better.