We are in Marietta, in the American state of Georgia, in 1862, near the start of the American Civil War. A young optimistic Confederate (‘reb’) soldier, a member of a small troupe, is bidding farewell to his sweetheart Lila as he goes to fight the Yankees for his homeland (“The Old Red Hills of Home: Part 1”). Suddenly he is in the heat and smoke of battle. He is taking part in Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. The Young Soldier is badly wounded by cannon fire.
The years pass, half a century indeed, and suddenly it is 1913. The young soldier has become an aged, embittered one-legged veteran, the Old Soldier, who is preparing to march in his wheelchair, pushed by an elderly Lila, in the annual Confederate Memorial Day parade in Atlanta. He and the assembled parade-goers sing of their pride for those who fought and lost their lives for Georgia. (“The Old Red Hills of Home: Part 2”).
As the Parade begins (“The Dream of Atlanta”), we meet Leo Frank, a Yankee (Northern) Jew from Brooklyn, NYC. He is fastidious, nervous and uptight and his general air of discomfort is present even in his relationship with his wife, Lucille, a young Jewess who has being brought up Southern through and through. It was an arranged marriage and despite all her efforts, they remain distant from each other and her current plans for a pleasant outdoor meal is spoiled by Leo’s decision to go into work on the holiday. He is the superintendent of the National Pencil Factory.
Leo is deeply uncomfortable in the town in which he works and lives, feeling out of place due to his Northern roots, his Judaism and his college education. He makes his way through the crowds singing of how isolated he feels within this city (“How Can I Call This Home?”).
Meanwhile, young Frankie Epps flirts with Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old worker at the pencil factory. Frankie wants Mary to go to the picture show with him, but Mary playfully resists, insisting her mother will not let her (“The Picture Show”). Mary leaves to collect her pay from the factory.
While Frank is at work, Lucille bemoans the state of their marriage, believing herself unappreciated by a man so wrapped up in himself. She reflects on her unfulfilled life and wonders whether or not Leo was the right match for her (“Leo at Work” / “What Am I Waiting For?”). As the song comes to an end, Mary Phagan arrives in Leo’s office to collect her pay. She leans towards Leo.
That night, two policeman, Detective Starnes and Officer Ivey, rouse Frank from his sleep, and without telling him why, demand he accompany them to the factory, where the body of Mary Phagan has been found raped and murdered in the basement. The police immediately suspect Newt Lee, the African-American night watchman who describes how he discovered the body (“Interrogation”).
Throughout his interrogation, he maintains his innocence, but inadvertently directs the suspicion of the police upon Frank, who did not answer his telephone when Lee called him to report the incident. In addition, Frank’s nervousness and awkwardness arouse the officers’ suspicions and he is arrested, but not charged, and Mrs. Phagan, Mary’s mother, and her younger daughter, Lizzie, become aware of Mary’s death.
Across town, a young ‘tabloid’ reporter named Britt Craig is informed about Mary’s murder and sees the possibility of a career-making story.
In the meantime, Governor Slaton pressures the solicitor-general of the Fulton County Superior Court, Hugh Dorsey, to get to the bottom of the whole affair. Dorsey, an ambitious politician with a “lousy conviction record”, resolves to find the murderer quickly and announces to the press that there are two suspects for the murder: Newt Lee, a “nigra” and Leo Frank, a “Jew”.
Lucille goes to visit Leo in his cell at Atlanta’s Fulton Tower prison. He is distant and abrupt with her and insists he will be coming home in the morning.
At Mary’s funeral, the townspeople of Marietta are angry, mournful, and baffled by the tragedy that has so unexpectedly shattered the community. (“There is a Fountain” / “It Don’t Make Sense”).
Local reporter Britt Craig talks to Frankie Epps, who swears revenge on Mary’s killer.
Tom Watson, an extremist right-wing journalist, politician and rabble rouser sings of his determination to avenge Mary’s death and restore her honour (“Tom Watson’s Lullaby”).
Later on, Dorsey, along with Starnes and Ivey, interrogates Newt Lee, but despite putting pressure on him to confess to the crime, they get no information out of him. Dorsey releases Lee, reasoning that “hanging another Nigra ain’t enough this time. We gotta do better.” He then attaches the blame to Leo Frank, and, after a horrible outburst of antisemitism, sends Starnes and Ivey out to find eyewitnesses (“Something Ain’t Right”).
The Leo Frank case is the biggest story in town and Britt Craig exalts in his opportunity to cover a “real” story and begins an effective campaign vilifying Leo Frank. The city is overflowing with rumours and the people are easger to supply all kinds of gossip which Craig is all too happy to print. (“Real Big News”).
Meanwhile, Leo’s defence lawyer, Luther Z. Rosser, informs him that he is indited for the murder of Mary Phagan and faces a trial but vows to “win this case, and send you home”.
Meanwhile, Dorsey makes a deal with factory janitor and ex-convict Jim Conley to testify against Frank in exchange for immunity for a previous escape from prison.
Lucille, hounded by reporters and townspeople, nearly collapses from the strain but defiantly stands up for her husband (“You Don’t Know This Man”) but as soon as she arrives at the prison, confesses her doubts and tells her husband that she cannot bear to see his trial, but he begs her to stay in the courtroom, as her not appearing would make him look guilty.
The Trial of Leo Frank begins, presided over by Judge Roan. Inside the courtroom, Tom Watson and his supporters hand out copies of his reactionary newspaper, The Jeffersonian, and spew invective to stir up the onlookers (“Hammer of Justice”).
Prosecutor Hugh Dorsey opens the case for the prosecution, reminding the court how much the South has suffered at the hands of Northerners like Leo Frank (“Twenty Miles from Marietta”).
The prosecution then produces a series of witnesses, most of whom appear to give trumped up evidence which was clearly fed to them by Dorsey. Frankie Epps testifies, falsely, that Mary mentioned that Frank “looks at her funny” when they last spoke, a sentiment echoed verbatim by three of Mary’s teenage co-workers, Iola Stover, Essie, and Monteen (“The Factory Girls”). In a fantasy sequence, Frank becomes the lecherous seducer of their testimony (“Come Up to My Office”). Testimony is also heard from Mary’s mother after being shown her daughter’s dirty and bloody clothes (“My Child Will Forgive Me”) and Minola “Minnie” McKnight, the Franks’ domestic servant, who nervously testifies about Leo’s strange behaviour on the night of the murder.
Finally, the prosecution’s star witness, Jim Conley, takes the stand and, in a show-stopping performance, tells the court an elaborate tale of how Leo murdered Mary and then asked for Jim’s help to dispose of the body (“That’s What He Said”). His shocking testimony whips the courtroom into a frenzy, and, by the end of the number, the whole courtroom, led by Watson, is yelling out “Hang the Jew!”
It is now 1914 and once again Confederate Memorial Day.
Governor Slaton and his wife, Sally, discuss how the Leo Frank case is still troubling him. Meanwhile, a number of African Americans including Jim Conley, Minola “Minnie” McKnight, Angela and Riley, describe their surprise at all the attention the case is receiving and wonder if the reaction would have been as strong if the victim had been black (“A Rumblin’ and a Rollin'”). To their disgust, Jim is arrested by Officer Ivey and carried off. Racial prejudice working its magic as usual.
Leo’s appeals have all been rejected and he is due to hang in six weeks unless the Governor steps in. Lucille tries to help Leo with his appeals, but reveals crucial information to Britt Craig, provoking a fierce argument between Leo and Lucille (“Do it Alone”).
Governor Slaton is holding a tea dance at his plush mansion (“Pretty Music”) and while the Governor charms and dances with his female constituents, Dorsey encounters Tom Watson who congratulates him for winning the case and hints that a higher office may be in both their futures. Indeed, he says that he will support Dorsey’s bid for governor should he choose to make it.
Unexpectedly, Lucille arrives and confronts the Governor, demanding that he re-open the case. When he turns her down, she accuses him of either being a fool or a coward if he accepts the outcome of the trial as is. When the party is over, Dorsey and the Old Soldier discuss the political climate and the upcoming election (“The Glory”) over a roaring fire and fine brandies.
Governor Slaton agrees to re-open the case, and Leo is overwhelmed with gratitude for what Lucille has managed to do (“This is Not Over Yet”). Slaton and Lucille question the factory girls, who reveal that they were coached by Dorsey (“Factory Girls Reprise”), and Minola “Minnie” McKnight who claims she was pressured into giving her statement by Dorsey (“Minnie McKnight Reprise”).
Governor Slaton then questions Jim Conley, who is serving time on a chain gang for his part in assisting Leo with the murder. Conley has no patience or respect for the Governor and sticks fiercely to his story, even when Slaton points out a glaring and irreconcilable inconsistency in his evidence (“Blues: Feel the Rain Fall”). Frustrated with Conley’s impertinence, the Governor sends him back to the chain gang, having come to some uncomfortable conclusions about the nature of Leo’s trial.
After much consideration, and with great trepidation, Governor Slaton announces that he is commuting Leo’s sentence to life imprisonment, a move that effectively ends his political career.
Tom Watson, now a boiling cauldron of hate, realises he and the people of Georgia have been betrayed and, joined by Dorsey, encourages a furious rampage through the streets which sees the Governor run out of town, never to set foot in Georgia again. The enraged mob howl for revenge and the atmosphere sours as hints of future intolerance and bigotry appear (“Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?”).
Leo has been moved to a minimum security prison farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.
There he and Lucille finally can share some time alone together. When she shares her hope that Leo will be pardoned completely, Leo realizes his deep love for his wife and how much he has underestimated her. He at last tells her how much he loves her and how lucky he feels to have her. She is deeply moved and responds in kind. They dream of a life together again. The future looks rosy (“All the Wasted Time”).
Later that night, a party of armed, masked men (Starnes, Ivey, Frankie Epps, and the Old Confederate Soldier), calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan, arrives, overpowers the guards and abducts Leo from the prison and takes him to a lonely wood in Marietta (“Abduction”). They tell him they are there to carry out the sentence of the court, but offer to take him back to prison if he admits to killing Mary. Leo can’t do that. He has been through too much to lie to them now, and so prepares himself to face his fate (“Sh’ma”).
It is the 1915 Confederate Memorial Day parade.
Britt Craig turns up at Lucille’s home with a package, which when opened contains Leo’s wedding ring. Lucille is crushed by her loss but she takes comfort in believing that Leo is with God and free from his ordeal. She places his ring on top of hers and looks into the future.
In a flashback we see Mary Phagan lean towards Leo Frank again … and give him a flag as the Confederate Memorial Day Parade begins again (“Finale”).
Led by a triumphant Tom Watson and a radicalised Frankie Epps, the Townspeople sing of their love and satisfaction of the status quo (“Finale/Red, Red Hills of Home – Reprise”).
As a footnote, we are told that, just two months later and urged on by none other than Tom Watson, the Knights of Mary Phagan become … the Ku Klux Klan!