The connection between three queer Broadway talents, a Tony-winning revival, & the lynching of Leo Frank

The connection between three queer Broadway talents, a Tony-winning revival, & the lynching of Leo Frank

You are currently viewing The connection between three queer Broadway talents, a Tony-winning revival, & the lynching of Leo Frank
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(l-r) Jay Armstrong Johnson, Michael Arden, and Eddie Cooper from Broadway's 'Parade,' photographed at The Skylark in New York City. Photo by Seth Caplan for Queerty
(l-r) Jay Armstrong Johnson, Michael Arden, and Eddie Cooper from Broadway’s ‘Parade,’ photographed at The Skylark in New York City. Photo by Seth Caplan for Queerty

Michael Arden, Eddie Cooper, and Jay Armstrong Johnson meet me in the secluded billiards room at The Skylark, a rooftop venue overlooking midtown Manhattan. From our vantage point — with the theater district just blocks away and skyscrapers piercing the skyline — the world feels full of limitless possibilities. But history has shown us otherwise.  

We’ve gathered to talk about their experiences working on Broadway’s Parade, the musical revival based on the real lives of Leo and Lucille Frank (Ben Platt and Michaela Diamond), a newly married Jewish couple living in 1910s Atlanta. Leo worked as a pencil factory superintendent, where Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old factory worker, was found murdered. Prosecuting attorney Hugh Dorsey led a racially and religiously charged trial, resulting in Leo’s conviction and death sentence.

The case made national headlines, and after two years, several appeals, and a change of heart by then-governor John M. Slaton, Leo’s case was commuted to life in prison. But on August 16, 1915, several dozen men kidnapped Leo, drove to Marietta, and lynched him near where Phagan had once lived.

The cast of 'Parade' on Broadway
The cast of ‘Parade’ on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus

Parade — despite a title that evokes patriotic American flags and marching bands — tells a much different story, one that our nation continues to reckon with. Our ideologies around race, religion, and sexual orientation continue to collide. And with the next presidential election looming, the threats against marginalized communities are more vulnerable than ever.

The following are excerpts from our conversation, just days before Parade won the Tony Award for Best Revival and Arden was honored with Best Direction of a Musical.

Allyship onstage and off

I saw the original 1999 production of Parade at Lincoln Center as well as this revival— both at City Center and its Broadway transfer. Each time, I’ve been moved by the uncompromising exploration of racial and religious discrimination and how that intersects with my queer identity. Michael and Jay — you’re both from Texas — what kind of impact did that have on you in relation to your LGBTQ+ identities?

Michael: In Texas, I certainly felt that being queer was being queer. Meaning that whether you felt shame about it or not, it was something that was on the outskirts of what was accepted.

I was lucky enough to have a coming-out moment that was really supportive. My ninth-grade English teacher asked us to write an essay on the first day of school about what we learned about ourselves that summer. I revealed that I was gay, and she pulled me aside and said, “I just want you to know that this place that we are in can be very judgmental. But you always have a friend, a supporter, and an ally in me.” And this was before we used words like “ally.”

That first interaction was incredible. But, you know, in acknowledging where we were, it was like, yeah, this, this is going to be hard. But there are people who will always support you. If you look at states like Florida or Texas, or many places that are seemingly very conservative, the people who are allies and who support queer folks like us are so incredible and so vital.

It’s easy to say, “Oh, the South is one thing.” But it’s actually those allies who work twice as hard.

Tony-winning director Michael Arden
Tony-winning director Michael Arden. Photo by Seth Caplan for Queerty

What about your experience, Jay?

Jay: I started out Southern Baptist. Yikes. And then we went to Disciples of Christ, which is a bit more of a liberal denomination, but my whole life growing up, gay was “bad.” As a straight-A student who went to church every Sunday and considered himself a good Christian boy, I did not fully believe I was gay even though everyone could smell it on me, and I was being called slurs from a very early age, like third grade.

I started doing professional theater at 13 years old. They would fly in talent from New York City, and it was the first time I met gay people that were smart, kind, and successful.

How does it feel now — to show up as your authentic self? Your outfit is fantastic, by the way.

Jay: What’s wild is that I was always strolling around in my grandmother’s closet and trying on her heels, muumuus, and wigs. That was a secret I kept hidden from the world, and if I got caught, I’d probably be in a lot of trouble.

It’s only this year that I’m leaning into this kind of nonbinary way of dressing and thinking about appearing anything other than hypermasculine. My friend DW [costume designer David Withrow] dresses me, and that’s helped me step into what has always been me but I’ve always been so scared of.

I even had a manager when I was in my early 20s that told me to not be seen in public with my boyfriend. When I got to New York, there were still those who tried to keep me as closeted as possible.

Jay Armstrong Johnson at The Skylark in New York City
“It’s only this year that I’m leaning into this kind of nonbinary way of dressing and thinking about appearing anything other than hypermasculine,” says Jay Armstrong Johnson. Photo by Seth Caplan for Queerty

Michael: That’s why it’s so important to have a teacher like mine, being like, “Hey, it might be difficult, but you have to live your life, and I will support you in whatever you want.”

Who are the allies in Parade?

Michael: There are allies and people who become allies. Leo Frank’s defense attorney, Luther Rosser [played by Christopher Gurr], certainly. But then we see people like Minnie McKnight [played by Danielle Lee Greaves], the Franks’ household servant, who would be an ally, but because of who she is and the time she is living in, isn’t able to function as the human she dares to be. She is a victim of this place, but I believe she is an ally. [In the musical, McKnight gives false testimony against Leo Frank but eventually retracts her statement.]

By the way, Danielle is absolutely phenomenal. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her during the lengthy trial scene, where her character is forced to sit in the back of the courtroom. I could feel the heat of that room by watching her. As is Micaela Diamond as Lucille. That character evolves into a powerful advocate.

Eddie: The play is just as much about feminism as it is about anti-Semitism. 

Michael: You also see allyship in very small ways, and tiny little lines of dialogue, like Officer Ivey [played by Jackson Teeley], questioning the district attorney — “But we got no evidence” — people trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, it’s the systematic structure of the American judicial system—

Eddie: — and white supremacy. The story takes place during a time when this is ever-present; it’s just the way of the world.

Michael: It’s so present that it’s invisible.

Queer artistry and the lasting impact of AIDS

Eddie Cooper at the Skylark in New York City
Eddie Cooper grew up in Manhattan Plaza housing development in New York City, which at one point had the highest per-capita concentration of AIDS-related deaths in the world. Photo by Seth Caplan for Queerty

Eddie, you grew up in Manhattan Plaza, a famous New York City 1,692-unit housing complex known for its theater residents.

Eddie: Yes, I grew up in a theater family in a building that was for people in the arts. On paper, I should have been super comfortable coming out the second I had an inkling. But I didn’t. I mean, my father’s an actor; my mother is wonderful. Intellectually, I knew that they would have no problem with it. But I guess, just growing up and taking in the media that I took in, it still scared me.

What do you think was holding you back?

Eddie: It’s something I’ve asked myself a lot.

Jay: You’ve mentioned the AIDS epidemic, Eddie, and how that was so visible to you. Could that be part of it?

Eddie: Yeah, growing up in Manhattan Plaza during the 80s and 90s, people were dying all around me.

[According to the NYC LGBT History Sites Project, at one point, the building had the highest per-capita concentration of AIDS-related deaths in the world. Residents established the Manhattan Plaza AIDS Project, a community initiative that provided care for those living with HIV/AIDS.]

I would see someone in the elevator — and I was very young — and notice a lesion and think, “Oh, I’m not going to see him for much longer.” So maybe there was some internalization that I darkly equated with being gay.

Jay: When I came out in 2005, the first words out of my mother’s mouth were, “Don’t get AIDS and die.”

Michael: That was so much of America’s introduction to the idea that there were actually queer people right around them. I’m certain some kids now have trouble coming out, but we’re not living with “you’ll probably die” in the way kids of the 80s faced. But that particular response to AIDS and the fear of it was really, really big. And so we became silent.

Eddie: It was scary watching that. There was a table in the lobby and every time someone in the building passed away, they would put their name, the day that they were born, and the day they passed. Before I even looked at the name, I’d look at the date — and they’d be in their 20s or 30s.

So I didn’t come out until much later and was actually living in Japan at the time. My mother called me at 3 a.m. and said we need to talk. I asked about what, and she said, “About you being gay.” And I thought, oh, that just happened! So, I said, “Yeah, I’m gay. What do we need to talk about?” And she said, “Well, nothing, I guess.” And it was amazing. There’s no feeling like that moment when it’s just out there and you’re accepted.

Michael: Ian McKellen taught a masterclass when I was in school, which was wild. And he said that he couldn’t actually be the artist he is until that moment when he came out because he was spending so much of his energy acting in his life that he couldn’t live his life and absorb the tools he needed in order to do his work.

Do you feel that way, Michael?

Michael: Totally. When I fully came out to my grandparents, who raised me, it was huge. I had a panic attack, which led to me realizing that’s what I need to deal with. You know, fear can take many different shapes.

Assimilation as a survival skill

Ben Platt and Michaela Diamond in a publicity photo for 'Parade.'
Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond in a publicity photo for ‘Parade.’ Photo by Emilio Madrid

I suppose we all find ways of getting by, depending on our circumstances. Growing up in a primarily Italian suburb of Cleveland, I knew I was a Jew before I knew I was gay and felt like an outsider with just a handful of other Jewish students. But like Jay, I was pegged as queer long before I had the vocabulary to describe or defend myself. So I found a way to fit in.

Michael: We spend an unbelievable amount of energy assimilating.

Jay: And that’s so baked into Parade and the character of Lucille as a homegrown Southern Jew—

Michael: — to the point where she’s perpetuating white supremacy. Like she’ll wave a confederate flag because she doesn’t want to be seen as different, but she’s hated just as much, though she thinks she can hide in her assimilation.

Eddie: Early in the play, when Leo tells her not to be such a “meshuggeneh” [“crazy” in Yiddish], she says, “Why do you use words like that?”

It’s interesting that this musical is playing on Broadway at the same time as Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, which deals with the repercussions of generational assimilation, and Alex Edelman’s Just For Us, in which the comedian examines the source of anti-Semitic online threats.

Michael: When you think about it, most religion is based on the idea of an afterlife. People are obsessed with our insignificance on Earth. If I’ve only got 80 years to live — if I’m lucky — then what is the rest of eternity going to be? So we wake up, build buildings, and form societies, because we have to believe in something. But don’t we have better things to talk about, to figure out, like the lives of those after us, and not just our own?

Eddie: Religion is a very big part of my character’s story in Parade. [Newt Lee, a night watchman at the factory, discovered Phagan’s body and was initially considered a prime suspect.] When all is lost for him, he turns to God, which is something incredibly foreign to me. But it’s been interesting to step into that, question it, and live that onstage.

(l-r) William Michals, Jackson Teeley, Paul Alexander Nolan, Eddie Cooper, and Max Chernin in ‘Parade.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

It’s interesting — I hadn’t drawn the parallel between Leo and Newt. Your character repeats a passage from John 11:25-26 while being interrogated. And in Leo’s final moment before being lynched, he sings the Shema, a central Jewish prayer and affirmation of God. It’s very haunting in retrospect to see that connection. Michael, as a director, how do you tackle these broad themes of collective consciousness with detailed story arcs and character development?

Michael: In the case of that particular moment with Leo, the lights come up. I wanted to leave the play for a moment and have the audience see each other. To shine a light on ourselves that we’re actually part of this, too. The audience can take that as they will, whether they’re culpable in the death of this man who may or may not have been innocent, to examine their own relationship to religion, and ultimately be seen by this person who is hoping to hold someone both accountable or as a witness.

What I’m hoping to do in Parade is to break the time continuum. Who knows what happens in the moment of death? The audience can find their way toward their own version of truth.

A century of shifting narratives

Jay Armstrong Johnson, center, in Broadway's 'Parade.' Photo by Joan Marcus
Jay Armstrong Johnson, center, in ‘Parade’ on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus

Jay, your character, Britt Craig, is an opportunistic reporter who wrote for the Atlanta Constitution and colored the public’s perception of Leo Frank and the circumstances surrounding the trial. Can you speak more about that?

Jay: He was absolutely opportunistic — the “fake news” of it all is very much 2023. My approach was Tucker Carlson meets Charlie Chaplin in terms of spreading so much misinformation and the physicality of the performance.

It’s interesting to me because some of my family are such Fox News aficionados. I can’t walk into my mom’s, dad’s, or aunt’s home without Fox News being ever-present. Dipping into those actual facts — I am a racist in recovery because of how I was raised in Texas — it’s been difficult for me to play this character, and also cathartic. He’s a hateful dude. It’s been a gift and also a scary excavation, but Michael has created such a safe space. And we’ve been given some really great tools, with sensitivity and wellness coaches to help us navigate the harder parts of our jobs.

Michael: The Civil War was lost by the South, and they were told this is the new way of life. They needed an outlet for hate, and the easiest outlet is the “other.”

Eddie: There’s the moment in the show where two suspects are being investigated: a Black man and a Jewish man. It’s old hat to hate Black folks. There’s a line where prosecuting attorney Dorsey says, ‘Hangin’ another nigra ain’t enough this time. We gotta do better.”

Jay: I’ve thought about this a lot in our process. And we’ve had a lot of tough conversations in our rehearsals about what it was to be a person of color or a Jewish person of faith in the South in 1913. We never really touched on queerness.

There’s a starkly crafted moment when defense attorney Rosser questions Leo before the trial. Rumors spread that Leo frequented a “cat house” (brothel), and Rosser insinuates that he liked boys, too. Leo exclaims, “That is vile! I never in my life – Oh my God!” He shutters in a way that, at least for me, portrays someone who, despite being pegged for a crime because of his religious beliefs, can be prejudiced. It’s a potent reminder of how fear of “other” runs so deep. Can we as a society change?

Jay:  The dial has been moved, but the opposition is moving even fiercer, and I can feel that in a terrifying way. Pride is a protest, and it really does feel like we have to continue that energy. Because it’s still so scary out there, especially for our young ones. You know, I’m thinking about kids in Texas. With all of this legislation, our trans and nonbinary youth are having their identities shut out and being told that they don’t exist. I’m nervous about it.

Eddie: There is so much anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, but it also feels to me like the death throes. Young people are with it, right? And the people doing all this stuff don’t get that. They’re just scared of change that is so beyond their control. It’s their screams of desperation.

Jay: We had neo-Nazis show up at our first preview.

Michael: I was buoyed by the fact that a handful of protesters showed up who were incredibly ugly and loud —and yet, when we were united on stage with the audience, we outnumbered them by 100 times, and how beautiful we sounded.

I have faith. We are the consumers, we are the voters, and the children are smart. We have to look to them and reach out. I’m hopeful that we can offer a hand in dark moments and sing even louder.

And get them to vote!

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


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