James Vagias co-founded the East Brunswick-based American Theater Group in 2012. An attorney-turned-theater-nerd, his idea was to present new works by American playwrights and revive what he considers undeservedly neglected classics.
In the decade or so since then, ATG has produced more than 50 plays, but probably none are as timely as its current production of “Parade.” (See box.)
“Parade” is the story of the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta falsely accused of raping and murdering a 13-year-old employee. He was convicted, and then he was taken from prison by an antisemitic mob and lynched.
The original Broadway production had the best possible creative pedigree. The play was written by Alfred Uhry, with music by then-wunderkind Jason Robert Brow and direction from Hal Prince. Based on those genetics alone, it should have run for years. Moreover, it received rave reviews; it got nine Tony nominations and won two (one each for Uhry and Brown). Surprisingly, however, it did not perform well at the box office, putting it in Mr. Vagias’ neglected classic category.
“We’re doing this today because we feel the topic is more relevant today in 2023 than it was when the musical was written in 1998,” Mr. Vagias said in a Zoom interview.
“The topic is painfully relevant today. A few weeks ago, only miles from where we are going to be producing it, someone was arrested for throwing a bomb at a synagogue. My God, this is 2023, and it’s still happening.”
Mr. Vagias of course was referring to the Molotov cocktail that was thrown at the entrance of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield.
Hate reared its head in Manhattan, too, where another revival of the production is playing. “In front of the theater where ‘Parade’ is opening, a group of Nazis were protesting. This is mind-boggling. So our response to that, our response to this level of hatred and bigotry, is to produce a play that shows where that kind of thinking and talking and words can lead to.”
Will it make a difference? “I hope so. Do I think by producing this we’re going to eradicate bigotry? No, of course not. Do I think it’s going to open some people’s eyes? I certainly hope so. To that end, we’re going to have a talkback after the March 9 performance. A panel discussion. The topic is ‘1913-2023: Antisemitism. Has Anything Changed?’ And hopefully we’ll have a spirited discussion about that.”
To put it all together, Mr. Vagias hired Hunter Foster to direct, based in large measure on the recommendation of the show’s musical director, Keith Levinson, who’d worked with Mr. Foster and Jason Robert Brown on “Bridges of Madison County.”
(For the record, yes, Hunter Foster is Broadway superstar Sutton Foster’s older brother. Yes, I asked but, no, that relationship is not a burden. They get along very well — and yes, that ruins an opportunity to make this story social media click bait.)
It turns out that Mr. Foster was a perfect choice, since he’d been involved with the original production. “We did a workshop when the show was first being put together, in ’95 or ’96,” Mr. Foster said in another Zoom interview. A workshop is a table read, where actors sit around and read the script.
“I was offered the Broadway production but had to turn it down,” he continued. “I was getting married at the time. I was upset, because I thought the show was so powerful. But obviously I wanted to get married. I wrote Hal Prince a letter saying sorry I can’t take it because I’m getting married. He wrote back and said, ‘Go get married. It’s more important.’
“I knew it was such a powerful story that needed to be told. And I really wanted to be part of it. But the experience itself was memorable.”
In many ways, Mr. Foster is perfect as the director of “Parade.” He grew up in Waffle House and Cracker Barrel country. Born in Lumberton, N.C., and raised in Augusta, Ga., he was familiar with the mindset if not the Leo Frank story.
“Growing up in Georgia, you get a lot of Georgia history,” he said. “It’s a very proud state, and they teach you a lot about it. But they don’t teach this. And it’s such a shame, because it is a very important part of our history.”
As a child, Mr. Foster’s first impressions of Jews were overwhelmingly positive. “I grew up in a Christian home,” he said. “We’d watch ‘The 10 Commandments’ and read stories about Moses and David. So to me the Jewish people were like superheroes. And they were known as God’s children.
Later, he learned his pastors had a slightly different point of view. They preached a kind of Protestant tikkun olam, repairing the world by saving Jews (and Catholics). Don’t hate them, they taught — but save them.
Mr. Foster brings this interesting perspective to the show. I ask how much freedom he has to make changes from the original. “I always approach a show as though it’s never been done before. I want to make sure I do what the writers intended. And then you listen to your actors.”
What he’s come up with is a show that is leaner than its New York competition, at least in part a function of budget.
By the same token, lean and mean has advantages for the audience, as well. Both theaters — the Sieminski and the one at the JCC — are far more intimate than Broadway theaters. Ticket prices are much lower, and as Mr. Vagias notes, “you don’t have to deal with parking and tolls and the tunnel and all that stuff.”
Parade runs through March 5 at the Sieminski Theater, 8000 Fellowship Road, Basking Ridge, NJ and from March 9 to March 11 at JCC MetroWest, 760 Northfield Road, West Orange.
Tickets are $45 to $55. Learn more at www.americantheatergroup.org/tickets.
The Talk Back discussion will immediately follow the March 9 performance at JCC MetroWest and feature panelists Linda Scherzer, the director of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, and Rabbi Cliff Kulwin, rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.