FACE TO FACE: Alfred Uhry - After the "Ballyhoo"‹Comes the "Parade"

FACE TO FACE: Alfred Uhry - After the "Ballyhoo"‹Comes the "Parade"

Playwright Alfred Uhry suggests there's an irreconcilable gap between being Southern and being Jewish. "If you're a Southerner you're a Southerner for the rest of your life, whether or not you're living in the South anymore. In fact, southern Jews define themselves as Southern first, American second, and Jewish third.

"Yet to be a true Southerner, to be part of the "in' group," Uhry continues, "You have to be Christian." And even if Jews boast deep southern roots it makes little difference, he says, pointing to his own ancestors who arrived in Atlanta, Ga., in the 1840s and served in the Civil War. "My great-great uncle was a blockade runner for the Confederates! And there were many southern Jews in the Civil War, which we called "The War Between the States.' Southerners find nothing civil about it."

But none of that affected the south's dormant anti-Semitism, which surfaced‹virulently so‹in 1913 when Leo Frank, a Jew, was falsely accused of killing a child, framed, convicted, and later lynched. Uhry has dramatized the infamous case; penning the book for the musical "Parade," slated to open Dec. 20, at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. Harold Prince directs the vivid production‹ironically juxtaposing the era's darkness and vitality‹and newcomer Jason Robert Brown wrote the music and lyrics. The title "Parade" refers to the Confederate Memorial Day festivities that occurred on the night the child was murdered.

The horror of the Leo Frank story lends itself to theatre, says Uhry. The charges against Frank were trumped up, witnesses at the trial were coached, and the kangaroo court proceeding was a circus‹the media frenzy of its era. Frank was tried and sentenced to hang. The sentence was ultimately commuted, but an enraged mob broke into the prison, kidnapped, and then murdered him.

"I was always fascinated by the story, in part because my grandmother personally knew Lucille Frank, Leo Frank's widow," recalls Uhry, a 60ish Atlanta native. "But silence surrounded the subject. It was a very painful event that marked the watershed of the disenfranchised southern Jew."

He recounts a personal experience, illustrating his own lack of connection. "When I was a youngster I sang in the Atlanta Boys' Choir. One Easter, we all wore surplices and formed the shape of the cross. I had the solo. I sang "Lord, I want to be a Christian.' I asked my mother why she let me do it. She said..." Uhry impersonates a frail southern voice that is both baffled and hurt: " "You have such a lovely voice...'."

The southern Jew's inner conflict, his peculiarly dual position within the culture, is Uhry's subject. Indeed, it's his dramatic calling card. That theme resonates in his two best-known plays‹"The Last Night of Ballyhoo" and "Driving Miss Daisy"‹which both won a host of awards. "Ballyhoo" garnered the 1997 Tony, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, and American Theatre Critics Association awards. "Daisy" earned the 1988 Pulitzer Prize, Outer Critics Circle Award, and the l989 Academy Award for Uhry's screen adaptation.

Despite his impressive track record, Uhry is devoid of airs and pretension. Consider our meeting place: The Vivian Beaumont's lobby. We sit at one of the small cocktail tables on an upper level, facing the Henry Moore statue in the Lincoln Center Plaza. Uhry arrives toting a container of carrot juice that he drinks directly from the jar throughout the interview. His easygoing affability brings to mind a benign junior-high-school teacher who sees a student's abilities when nobody else does.

But then he knows what it's like to be an outsider: To begin with, success came rather late in life. In fact, for many years, he taught part-time at Calhoun, a progressive private school on the Upper West Side. And, more fundamentally, there's his ongoing ambivalence over his own identity. "I married my college sweetheart, an Episcopalian, and we have four kids. Each of them is married to a non-Jew and a couple of my grandchildren have been baptized. That made me a little uncomfortable. My wife said, "What did you expect?' Truthfully, she was always more interested in celebrating the Jewish holidays than I was. I felt it wasn't honest, and was somehow artificial for me when I wasn't a believer. I now wonder if my thinking on this may have been all wrong."

These concerns indirectly inform his new work-in-progress. This play‹also based on a true story‹takes place in 19th-century Italy. A Jewish family's non-Jewish governess has one of the kids baptized. When the church hears about this, it abducts the kid, claiming that Jews cannot raise a Christian child. The family never sees the child again. "It's about a Jew who becomes a Christian. But that's what my plays are about, my wife points out." She is a professor of education at Fordham.

A Playwright Early on

Uhry's father was in the furniture business‹design as well as selling. "But at heart he was an artist," Uhry remembers. "He called himself a "weekend artist.' He was quite a good watercolorist and his paintings were frequently exhibited in jury shows."

Early on, Alfred Uhry's goal was to write for the theatre. At Brown University he majored in English literature and wrote college musicals with Bob Waldman. The latter, Uhry's best friend and a composer, was instrumental in getting both of them a job at Frank Loesser's publishing company, following their graduation from Brown. "We wrote songs for him and got $50 a week as an advance against royalties," Uhry chortles. "It was essentially a master class."

Still, working with Loesser was a stepping-stone. "Bob [Waldman] loved the Jimmy Dean movie "East of Eden' and wanted to do a musical based on it. Through Loesser we met John Steinbeck, who was open to the idea and put us in contact with an aspiring writer, his children's tutor‹Terrence McNally!" The three men joined forces to pen "Here's Where I Belong!" "It opened and closed on Broadway in one night [1967] and none of us mentions it on our bios."

A number of misguided musical projects followed, although Uhry's tuner "The Robber Bridegroom," suggested by the Eudora Welty story, garnered him a Tony nomination in 1976. "I had sort of arrived, but I still had no money."

Uhry's career turning point was "Driving Miss Daisy," the first straight play he ever wrote. But "Last Night of Ballyhoo" had far more significance, he says. "I had so much real success with "Miss Daisy,' after years of semi-success,'' that he was paralyzed‹afraid he would not score again. Indeed, 10 years passed between the two plays. "During that time, I worked in movies, mostly rewrites and writing films that never got made.

"I needed to work up the nerve to write "Ballyhoo' and that happened because I was commissioned by the Cultural Olympiad to do a play for the 1996 Olympics. I felt I had to do it. "He marvels even in retrospect. "And when I realized that the piece worked and that my ability wasn't a fluke..." The sentence remains unfinished. "That's when I saw the art of playwriting in a new light."

Movie writing‹specifically adapting a play or novel for the screen‹presents its own challenges, he remarks. "You have to learn to write shorter scenes with less dialogue or no dialogue. And turning a novel into a screenplay is especially difficult because novels have so many pages of interior monologues. The screenwriter's job is to find the meat of the character, determine what he wants, and then translate that into dramatic action. The screenwriter has to see the movie as he writes."

On the emotionally charged‹and much touted‹subject of age discrimination against older screenwriters, Uhry says he has not faced that problem. Still, he acknowledges that the scenario might be very different if he were a first-time screenwriter. And although he was hardly a youth when he sold his first screenplay‹the adaptation of his "Driving Miss Daisy"‹he was in a position of strength. "They wanted the property and I said I wouldn't sell it unless I did the script."

"Parade," more than any other theatre project has brought his screenwriting experience into play. "We were consciously trying to do something cinematic and I deliberately wrote scenes that were tight, concise, and in some cases open-ended, leaving it to the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps."

Too Dark for a Musical?

Not unexpectedly, the team's central concern was the suitability of Leo Frank's lynching for musical treatment‹despite the success of "Les Miz" or "Miss Saigon," two long-running shows based on grim subject matter. "Of course we talked about it‹but, no, I was never uncomfortable with the idea. I'd be uncomfortable if someone said, "Let's do a musical of, say, "Sleepless in Seattle'‹precisely because it seems like such an obvious idea. There'd be no challenge. Nothing for me to invent."

He acknowledges that some audience members‹admittedly, few‹have walked out in the middle. "I suppose they were expecting to see "Hello, Dolly!' or something like it. The most surprising response, however, is the round of applause the governor's wife always gets when she says, "I'd rather be the wife of a fine ex-governor, than first lady to a chicken.' " Uhry suspects it has something to do with Hillary Clinton‹an oblique endorsement‹but he's not sure exactly of what.

Although "Parade" is inspired by a historical event, there were still issues the team addressed imaginatively. Balance was the password. "I did not want to write a tract about a wonderful Jewish man [from New York City] brought to death by a pack of crazed, stupid, yelping southern rednecks. I feel for their pain as much as I do for Frank's. That's why we start in the Civil War period and dramatize their losses, like the soldier whose leg was blown off. We also make it clear that the murdered child's [Mary Phagan's] father lost his farm to taxes when the Yankees came in, and that Mary and other children were forced to work in a sweatshop, six days a week, 10 hours a day, at 10 cents an hour. These defeated people had genuinely suffered."

One of the most challenging recreations was Jim Conley, the African-American who maliciously accused Frank under oath and perhaps more than any other witness sealed his fate. "I knew nothing about him, except that he told the same story on the stand without varying one detail, which is suspect. And, after the trial, he was in and out of prison for the rest of his life," says Uhry. "I wanted Conley to be the smartest man in the show‹he has a mordant wit‹who was so embittered he was sociopathic."

The relationship between Leo and his wife, Lucille, also required some retooling. "The dramatic form needs a love story. And while we don't really know what they said to each other, I surmise from their published letters that theirs was an arranged marriage without much passion. But that changed. We emphasize the growing warmth between them. I don't know if the conjugal visit in jail that we dramatize ever happened. That was‹[he doesn't want to say fiction]‹imagined."

Uhry's hope is that audiences leave the theatre "entertained, even though there hasn't been much laughter. It's a story about real life, but this is not a history lesson. I have no wish to instruct anyone." q

PULL-QUOTE:

"I did not want to write a tract about a wonderful Jewish man brought to death by a pack of crazed southern rednecks."