Monday, July 29, 2019

Struggling to Find the Truth - Talking with PARADE Director Phillip Fazio

Phillip Fazio, right, and Seth Tucker
photo courtesy JALT Media
by Gil Benbrook

From classic musicals such as AnnieFiddler on the Roof, West Side Story and Sound of Music, to more modern shows like Shrek, Legally Blonde and The Addams Family, there are dozens of musicals that are constantly produced by theatre companies year after year. So, it's a pleasant surprise when a lesser know show such as the Tony winning Parade comes to town in a large scale production with a talented director at the helm.

Arizona Regional Theatre presents this fact based musical that features a score by Jason Robert Brown and won two Tony Awards as well as the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical from August 2nd to August 18th under the direction of Phillip Fazio.

New York based, Phoenix native Fazio has directed over a dozen shows at theatres across the Valley as well as Off Broadway productions and is currently pursuing his Master of Fine Arts in Directing at Pennsylvania State University in a program that only accepts two students each year.

Fazio has proven to be a director who brings passion and complete dedication to the many shows I've seen him direct and he took a few moments between rehearsals to answer some questions about what drew him to Parade and how he thinks the topics and themes this play touches upon, even though it is set over 100 years ago, are still relevant today.

Phillip, while Parade won Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Book, it's a show that isn't that well known. For someone who hasn't heard of the musical, what would you tell them it's about?

"To me, Parade is a love story. Granted, it's not your typical musical theatre love story, but this musical is at its core the tale of two people coming together amidst unimaginable circumstances. Leo and Lucille Frank have only been married for around three years when their lives are ripped apart by an accusation of murder against Leo. When it seems like the whole world has prematurely convicted Leo of the crime, there is still one person who believes his innocence. His wife, Lucille. Through painstaking research, constant pressure on local politicians, and a thorough examination of the facts, Lucille fights morning, noon, and night to set her husband free. Lucille's battle to clear Leo's name brings them closer than they have ever been, demonstrating how life is better with a loving, smart, and inspiring partner by your side."

Phillip Fazio
photo courtesy JALT Media
What drew you to this show and made you want to direct it?

"I first came upon the Parade cast recording while flipping through CDs at an old Borders Books and Music in 1999. I was unfamiliar with composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, but the show billing listed that the production was directed by my theatrical idol, Harold Prince. That was all the reassurance I needed and I made the purchase. From the first moments of the opening song, "The Old Red Hills of Home," I was completely mesmerized. The lush and mysterious melodic themes blended beautifully with the heightened emotions of the characters in the story.

Over the past twenty years, I have thought a lot about what I would do if I was ever fortunate enough to have the opportunity to direct Parade. Throughout that time, the country has gone through many changes. We saw the election of the first African-American President and the toppling of many Confederate statues while simultaneously we witnessed a rise in Neo-Confederates and a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, VA where Americans openly chanted, 'Jews will not replace us.' Our country once again finds itself at a crossroads, just as it did in 1913, the year in which Parade is set, as we struggle to find the truth while working through our own ingrained prejudices."

Why do you think this is musical isn't that often produced?

"The original Broadway production had 35 actors on the stage and 25 musicians in the pit. That is a recipe for an extraordinarily expensive show. So unless a musical of that size is a recognizable title or starring a bankable name actor, chances are it is going to lose a ton of money.

Eight years after the Broadway production closed, the writers reworked Parade for its London premiere. This new version featured a streamlined script, two new songs, and the ability to perform the piece with much fewer actors and musicians. Arizona Regional Theatre is producing the Arizona premiere of this new version of Parade and I honestly think all of the changes are an improvement on an already fantastic piece. In my opinion, the new version is better at focusing the action more on the relationship between Leo and Lucille while cutting some of the extraneous characters and moments in the original text.

While I think the original Broadway production was ahead of its time, I believe the moment is right for the world to hear this story again. "

The show centers on the trial of Leo Frank who was accused of raping and murdering a teenage girl who worked for him, though we are never certain if he murdered the girl or not. What are your thoughts on his guilt or innocence?

"Well, I don't want to give away any spoilers, but I think our production makes a clear statement about whether or not we think Leo Frank actually committed the crime. To find out the answer to this question, I recommend coming to see Arizona Regional Theatre's production of Parade, running August 2-18 at the 3rd Street Theatre at Phoenix Center For The Arts.

Mary Ott and Seth Tucker
photo courtesy JALT Media
What can you tell us about your cast for this production?

"Oh my goodness, where do I even begin? Our production is headed by Seth Tucker, a dear friend of mine who I actually went to high school with many (MANY) years ago. It has been a joy to collaborate with Seth on a few projects, but this is our first time working on a fully produced show of this scale. We have both shared a deep passion for Parade for decades, so it really is wonderful to finally get the opportunity to work on this show together. Co-starring as Lucille Frank is Mary Ott, a graduate student at ASU by way of South Carolina. I had never met Mary before she walked into auditions and she unanimously won over our entire team with her gorgeous voice, vulnerability, and southern charm. Speaking of, there are actually several ASU students in the show and they have all blown me away with their talent and depth of training. Jesse Berger is playing prosecuting attorney Hugh Dorsey. I have known Jesse for years, but this is our first time working together. I was lucky enough to direct his father and sister in Follies at TheaterWorks. The family talent is in Jesse's bones and he is giving a fantastic performance. Also in our cast is Valley favorite D. Scott Withers. Scott was actually one of my very first theatre teachers from back when I attended the Childsplay summer theatre camps as a kid. We have since worked together on a few shows, but this is the first time I have directed him and It really is an honor to get this full circle experience.

I could literally go on for hours about every member of our cast. They are each uniquely talented actors with incredible voices who are working so well together to bring this important and complex material to life."

What have been some of the biggest challenges in directing this musical?

"In a show that takes on such heavy themes as this one, the challenge is always finding some lighter and comedic moments where the audience can have an opportunity to smile (or hopefully even laugh). It would be very easy to make this musical unrelentingly dark and depressing. However, I want our audiences to have a complete theatrical experience and luckily the text offers several moments of hope, joy, and even comedy. "

Since this is a show based on actual people, what type of research did you do to prepare to helm this production?

"I always enjoy directing a show based on real events and actual people. Granted, there is an added layer of pressure to honor the truth of their lived experiences, but if you invest the time and do the necessary research, the results can be extremely rewarding. I always like to start by reading articles and books that were actually written at the time of the events of the play. This gives me a direct link to what people were thinking, feeling, and saying during the period in which the show is set. The website leofrank.org was a great resource for us. This site has all the newspaper articles from around Leo Frank's trial and categorizes them to the names of the major players of the time, who are all characters in Parade."

What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing Parade at Arizona Regional Theatre?

"Well, I have no doubt that people will walk away talking about how gorgeous the music was in our production. Jason Robert Brown wrote an absolutely thrilling score and our cast is brilliantly bringing it to life. Add on music director Steve Hilderbrand's incredible chamber orchestra and we have the makings for an unforgettable musical experience. I also think audiences will be moved by the story of Leo and Lucille coming together against unimaginable circumstances. Finally, I hope audiences see some parallels between the events of this true story from 1913 and the world we live in today. While this show was written 20 years ago and it is set over 100 years in the past, so many of the lines, lyrics, and themes are still so shockingly relevant to our current day struggles. It would be a dream come true if this production sparked a conversation about how we treat those who are different from the people marching in our own familiar parades of life."

CLICK HERE for more information on Parade at Arizona Regional Theatre, which runs August 2-18

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