For anyone who wants a breakup movie for Valentine’s season, The Last Five Years is currently playing in select theaters. Starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, the film adaptation of the Jason Robert Brown musical tells the story of a New York couple’s courtship, marriage, and eventual divorce. At 44, Brown has already had a prolific career as a theatrical composer and lyricist, with three Tonys to his name and a Sondheim-like insistence to work on shows that inspire him to think outside the box.
Early on in The Last Five Years, in a song called “Shiksa Goddess,” Jamie Wellerstein, the male lead, declares to his new, non-Jewish love: “My people have suffered for thousands of years/And I don’t give a shit!” The line, and song, are so absurd they’re deliberately tone deaf.
Probably less intentional were the film’s incongruities in set dressing. Not all intermarried couples have a chuppah at their wedding, fine. But in a bizarre moment at Christmastime, amidst all the tinsel stands a token menorah in the couple’s apartment. It appears to have the four middle candles lit up (accompanied by fake tea candles?), with a Birkat HaBayit, the blessing for a Jewish home, hung in front of it like a Christmas stocking.
The original 2001 stage production of The Last Five Years—in Skokie, Ill., no less—came on the heels of one of Brown’s finest works: Parade. If it sounds like a bad idea to write a musical about the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, you wouldn’t guess it from the final product—a gut wrenching show with a score that both moves and unsettles. Jewish southern playwright Alfred Uhry wrote the book, and the musical ran on Broadway from late 1998 to early 1999.
It’s a good time to be a Jason Robert Brown show (in addition to all of this, his Honeymoon in Vegas is currently playing on Broadway). Also, in New York City last month, there was a special one-night performance of Parade with Broadway A-listers like Laura Benanti and Ramin Karimloo. Starring as Leo Frank was Jeremy Jordan, who plays Jamie Wellerstein on-camera in The Last Five Years.
In all the ways that The Last Five Years is dismissive of any sort of complexities of Jewish identity (Jamie’s Jewishness manifests itself in occasional Yiddishisms, attraction to gentile women, and little else), Parade runs at them headlong. Yes, it tells the story of an explicitly anti-Semitic historical anecdote, with evidence of the racism endemic to the South, but it also subverts Jewish stereotypes in a way that The Last Five Years instead jokingly indulges. Leo Frank is an easy scapegoat for the murder of a little girl because he’s cold, nebbishy, and frankly obnoxious. Even though he’s personally highly moral, he plays into Southern stereotypes of what a Yankee Jew is, and this allows them to dehumanize and convict him.
Yet what’s most remarkable about Parade is its depiction of Leo’s wife, Lucille Frank (Laura Benanti in the recent concert), who gets second billing. The musical is as much the story of their relationship as it is about Leo’s murder, but at no point does it fall into the cultural stereotypes of a Jewish marriage. Lucille doesn’t come from Jamie Wellerstein’s dismissive list of “Heather Greenblatt, Annie Mincus, Karen Pincus, and Lisa Katz.” She is not the forbidden allure of a non-Jewish woman, nor is she one out of a mass of gray, Jewish-caricatured faces.
There are few Jewish women like Lucille Frank in popular culture, in any medium. She’s a self-identified Southern woman, but is also extremely Jewish, on her own terms. At Parade’s beginning, she’s quiet, unsure, and afraid to express dissatisfaction. The Southerners hounding her husband dismiss her as “mousey,” and she isn’t inclined to disagree.
Then, as she has to become an advocate for her husband, she completely transforms. She is his hero, and while she ultimately doesn’t rescue him, she isn’t defeated. As Leo’s freedom and life are gradually taken from him, Lucille helps make him a better person and their relationship becomes strong in a way it never was. She finds her own courage, partially derived from her faith, and asserts after her husband’s death that she will honor him by living her own life. By the time it’s cut tragically short, their marriage becomes an egalitarian relationship, a beautiful Jewish couplehood.
Jewish contemporary culture certainly has its fill of Jamie Wellersteins. What it needs is more Lucille Franks.
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