By Bill Simons
The 2023 Broadway theater season featured revivals of two plays, “Parade” and “Funny Girl,” highlighting divergent versions of the Jewish American Dream. Pursuit of personal and public affirmation provided thematic paths for “Parade” and “Funny Girl.” From April 24, 2022, to September 3, 2023, the August Wilson Theater, at 245 West 52nd St. in the heart of the Midtown Manhattan theater district, hosted “Funny Girl.” A short stroll away, “Parade” played at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th St., from March 16-August 6, 2023. Despite the close physical proximity of their theater homes, common musical genre and mutual grounding in history of the same era, “Funny Girl” and “Parade” present radically different perspectives on the Jewish American Dream. For me, the contrast was heightened by attending both plays on March 25; a “Funny Girl” matinee followed by an evening performance of “Parade.”
Based on the life of Jewish entertainer Fanny Brice, a celebrated star of stage, screen and radio during the first half of the 20th century, “Funny Girl” chronicles the comedienne’s ascent. The original 1960s Broadway play and subsequent film announced the talents of the inimitable singer-actress Barbra Streisand. While Streisand remains nonpareil, the three performers – Beanie Feldstein, Lea Michele and Julie Benko – who played Brice in the most recent revival gave pizzaz to the lyrics of songs such as “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” and “I’m the Greatest Star,” displayed dance talents that ranged from elegant to comical, and delivered dialogue that, by turns, expressed yearning, disappointment, Jewish shtick and unstoppable determination. Neither jibes concerning Fanny’s unconventional appearance, nor her disappointment in her romance with the charismatic, yet irresponsible, Jewish gambler Nick Arnstein, undermines the contagious feel-good spirit of “Funny Girl.” As her rags to riches story took her from the poverty of the Jewish Lower East Side to stardom in the Ziegfeld Follies, the audience roots for Fanny, cheering her chutzpah and laughing with her, not at her.
The “Funny Girl” revival featured a strong supporting cast, particularly Tovah Feldshuh as Mrs. Brice, Fanny’s mother. Feldshuh summoned the strength, warmth and sardonic barbs of the Yiddishe momme.
“Parade,” a dramatization of one of the most infamous episodes of American antisemitism, occupies a different emotional universe than that of “Funny Girl.” The play depicts the persecution of Leo Frank, the Jewish superintendent of the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta, GA, who was falsely accused of sexually assaulting and murdering a 13-year-old, white employee, Mary Phagan, on April 26, 1913. Chronicling the virulent controversy surrounding Frank’s trial, conviction and death sentence commutation, “Parade,” adhering to the historical record, ends with Frank’s lynching by a vigilante mob.
During the first preview of the production on February 22, neo-Nazi protesters rallied while accosting attendees, shouting vituperative and false slurs, including, “You’re paying $300 to... worship a pedophile.” Masked disrupters, loud and aggressive, shoved antisemitic pamphlets at playgoers. The posthumous defamation of Frank and “Parade” continued online, accompanied by links to white supremacist websites.
The leads, Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond, portraying Leo Frank and his wife, Lucille, are Jewish. Confiding that he found playing an innocent Jewish man demonized and lynched by antisemites emotionally and physically draining, Platt, frequently wearing a Star of David necklace, asserted an obligation to convey Frank’s truth. As a gay Jew, Platt has insight into prejudice. He debuted in “Parade” at 29, Frank’s age when accused of Phagan’s murder.
On an afternoon trip to Brooklyn, Platt visited the Prospect Heights apartment where Frank grew up and where his body was returned before internment. To gain further insight into his stage identity, Platt, consulting the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, poured over the letters Frank wrote during his long confinement. Portraying Frank, Platt recites the Shema, the central tenet of Judaism, before he is lynched.
The role of Lucille Frank heightened and challenged Diamond’s Jewish consciousness. Diamond reflected on similarities to the character she portrays, “I can relate to Lucille – her Jewishness, her lack of Jewishness, her insistence on assimilation.” Diamond revealed that before most performances the cast gathered around to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.
“Parade” is not an easy play to watch. At the performance I attended, the house was full and the audience intent, serious, quiet and primarily Jewish. In a prologue scene, set during the Civil War, a young couple expresses affection before the youthful soldier leaves to join Confederate defenders of the Southern homeland. Departing, he sings of the red hills of Georgia. A half-century later, on Saturday, April 26, 1913, the boy soldier, now a wounded old man, is honored along with other veterans by a Confederate Memorial Day parade. On that Confederate Memorial Day, Mary Phagan, the epitome of the purity of Southern womanhood, was murdered by strangulation in a factory owned and managed by a Yankee Jew.
“Parade,” taking its name from the celebration of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, moves with the inevitable force of a Greek tragedy. As a Northerner, a Jew and an industrialist employing young girls, Frank symbolized the outsider that the impoverished, defeated, displaced agrarians of the South despised. Parade’s aggrieved Southern men, their resentments fueled by demagogues, viewed the Yankee, Jewish industrialist as a taunt to their failure to protect their wives and daughters. At several points in the production, the angelic Mary Phagan descends from the heavens in a swing, singing in celestial voice. Despite the tragic trajectory of “Parade,” the heartbreak is leavened by the depiction of the deepening love and respect between Leo and Lucille Frank.
Which of the two plays – the ebullient “Funny Girl” or the tragic “Parade” – represent the true Jewish American Dream? The answer? Both. The Jewish American Dream is Janus-faced, triumphant aspiration juxtaposed to celebration morphed into nightmare. In life and on stage, the applause of adoring fans celebrated Fanny Brice. For Leo Frank, the parade ended with mocking antisemites hanging him from an oak tree. As the people of the book, we are obligated to confront the perils and potential of the Jewish American Dream.