The original Tony award-winning musical ‘1776’ with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and book by Peter Stone is for all time an exceptional distillation of events memorializing with artistic license the most salient moments of how the Declaration of Independence was eventually drafted and signed. With the force of a new and treasonous law established by a country that was first formed in the minds of an elite group of white, male land owners, the physical document was a presumptuous act of rebellion. Many disagreed with it. Those without property in the 13 colonies, i.e. women, Native Americans, slaves, white laborers and others, whose lives wouldn’t change much either with rule by propertied colonists or rule by King George III, most probably didn’t care.
In Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus’ revival of the musical 1776 at the American Airlines Theatre, the directors revolutionize the play’s casting with inclusion of those not represented in the forging of the Declaration of Independence. As a remembrance of the excluded and an indication of “how far we’ve come culturally,” the directors cast multi-racial actors who are female, nonbinary and transgender in the roles of the white, male founders normally cast in Edwards and Stone’s 1776.
Led by the “obnoxious” John Adams portrayed by the exceptional Crystal Lucas-Perry (“Sit Down John”), 1776 begins as the Second Continental Congress, after months of delay (“Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve”), finally gets down to confronting whether or not to declare independence from England’s King George III and establish America as a sovereign nation. Massachusetts delegate Adams encouraged by Dr. Benjamin Franklin (the wonderful, wry Patrena Murray) are continually rebuffed by British leaning colonists led by Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson (Carolee Carmello gives a powerful and nuanced performance as the opposition).
When it appears they are moving forward, it is suggested that approval must be unanimous, which John Handcock, President of the Congress (a commanding Liz Mikel) agrees with in order to prevent any of the colonies siding with England, incurring a civil war. Adams and Franklin join together with Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis) the recalcitrant author of a formal Declaration of Independence. The opposition continues with delays, though Franklin, Adams and Jefferson manage to pull in others as the typical manipulations of congress continue.
Washington’s difficulty with raising an army and keeping it equipped and fed is the bad news brought by the Courier (Salome B. Smith), as the Courier sings about soldiers dying on the battlefield while delegates listen with guilt and horror (Smith’s powerfully rendered “Momma, Look Sharp”). South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge (Sara Porkalob) indicts the hypocritical and self-righteous Northern colonies, reinforcing that they, too benefit from the Triangular Slave Trade (the show-stopping “Molasses to Rum”).
Infuriated, Rutledge walks out of the session and won’t return until an anti-slavery clause in the preliminary Declaration of Independence is removed. Unanimity seems far away. Yet, Adams, encouraged by wife Abigail (Allyson Kaye Daniel) throughout (“Yours, Yours, Yours”) and with the help of Franklin and Jefferson and changing results by Washington, make concessions and revisions. Finally, all agree to sign and we see their iconic signatures projected on the curtain at the conclusion.
Page and Paulus’ casting inversion ends when they cast females in the roles of Martha Jefferson (Eryn LeCroy) and Abigail Adams (Allyson Kaye Daniel) with Daniel dressed in a colorful turban and African shift. From a positive perspective, the casting adds new interpretations and vitality, if one isn’t so well acquainted with or enamored of the original musical as to be offended with its “tampering.” Assuredly, 1776, regardless of iteration, stands on its own as a dynamic, ingenious musical.
Importantly, each unique rendering, illuminates additional perspectives. Each version should yield a new appreciation for the Founding Fathers’ humanity and blindness, which still exists today in American attitudes that have carried over for generations from a racist past that cannot be ignored by culture wars of political convenience. However, this latest 1776 outing pegged to our present generation must give pause for its daring. If one viewpoint is modified, the version has done its job. For Page and Paulus’ revival affirms that the essential concepts in the elite, propertied white men’s minds were the immutable verities of spirit that ultimately, if allowed to, transcended demographic differences to help us arrive at the expanding social and cultural contracts we have today in most of the country.
The revolutionary casting provokes humor and thoughtfulness. Interestingly, it often evokes a celebration of the success of the “American experiment.” Specifically, with a pregnant female Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis is expecting and plays the violin exquisitely) the birthing of a nation takes on an ironic and humorous meaning, especially during the song sung by Adams, Franklin and the company entitled “The Egg.” In Act II after Jefferson writes the preliminary document and Adams decides that the eagle will best symbolize the new nation, they suggest that they are like midwives to an egg hatching. During the rousing, cleverly re-imagined song, a video of the new nation’s history to come is projected on a curtain behind the actors. As the multi-cultural nation spools historical events in the future, the pregnant Elizabeth A. Davis’ Jefferson fiercely accompanies with riffs on the electric violin.
Indeed, we see what has been birthed from past to present. Our nation’s potential is amazing thanks to spiritual concepts which move beyond definition in this revelatory 1776.
The actors reveal their beautiful voices and superb acting talents during other numbers staged imaginatively. Many are standouts, however a few deserve special mention. “Momma, Look Sharp” sung by Salome B. Smith, with Tiffani Barbour and the company is a show stopper as is “Molasses to Rum” sung by Sara Porkalob. The latter song humbles the Northern colonists who participate in the Triangular Slave Trade. In pointing out the blindness of hypocrisy, the should humble everyone today who has a mobile phone, uses a laptop, wears a diamond, eats certain foods, for they have a slave footprint and participate in some for of wage slavery.
Does this new iteration work? What are the directors and actors intending to express with this revolutionary casting approach to a beloved musical? And it is beloved. One only has to read YouTube comments connected with the film version and various songs that users have uploaded, to discover that Americans trot out the filmed version of 1776 (released in 1972) occasionally. Some even claim to watch the film on July 4th to reaffirm their patriotism and appreciation of this nation with its viewing. Thus, fans of the original will perhaps bristle at this version.
However, for younger audiences, the zaniness of the production, its show-stopping numbers and the audacity of this bold cast will appeal. When at times, some of the numbers take on an irreverent, spoofy quality (“He Plays the Violin”) they will find the overall effect amusing. After all, the overarching meaning of Edwards and Stone’s musical cannot be lost, because the script and song lyrics adhere to the original. Also, there is a salient addition with Abigail’s March 1776 letter to her husband, widely quoted as a statement for women’s rights. Abigail reminds him to include women in their endeavors in her adjuration to “remember the ladies.” In spirit and irony, Page and Paulus answer Abigail’s call, devoting the entire production to female, nonbinary and transgender actors.
Thanks to choreography by Jeffrey L. Page and free flowing staging by Page and Paulus, the musical is heavily stylized and stripped of spectacle and intricate set design. One is able to concentrate and align the events and their significance to our history then and now. Costumes by Emilio Sosa intimate the setting and the respective colonists. After the principals enter wearing modern clothing, with Sosa’s magic, they cleverly turn white socks into stockings, black leggings into colonial breeches, then slip into square-toed buckle shoes of the period. Their intricate and lovely frock coats differentiate the colony each represents and reveal the varied styles of our country’s Northern, Mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies.
What Edwards and Stone’s musical did in 1969 was remind Americans of their beginnings, during a time of social upheaval and divisiveness. Then, the musical may have recalled our Founding Fathers’ desire for self-governance as the populace questioned policies that escalated an unpopular war in Viet Nam, which to many seemed hypocritical because it interfered with another nation’s right to choose its own government.
Likewise, this revival seems appropriate at a time of divisiveness and polarization. When our rights are under siege (the right to privacy under Roe vs. Wade, along with the gutting of voting rights), once again we need to be inspired toward true patriotism, taken from our Founding Fathers’ rebellion against despotic and autocratic-acting King George III. Importantly, we need to hearken back to the time when our Founders established the path toward a constitutional democracy, which forces ranging in this nation today appear to want to jettison.
Thus, the musical’s cast solidifies that the “American experiment” of a nation of liberty, accepting of all races, creeds, genders, colors is burgeoning, even though in some places this version might not fall coherently and seamlessly in every moment of the production. The revolutionary cast concept cannot be easily dismissed. Nor can this version be glibly criticized for confusing history or the ideas.
If one reads extensively of the time during the Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers, it is clear that great artistic liberty was taken by Edwards and Stone to dramatize the Declaration’s signing in 1776. For example there are inaccuracies in the character of Adams who describes himself as obnoxious as the others concur in the expertly staged and performed opening number that establishes conflict. The description of “obnoxious” is contrary to what David McCullough suggests in his biography of Adams, who was well respected by his compatriots.
The historical inaccuracies are in the service of dramatization. Likewise, the casting of this version is historically inaccurate. However, as a musical for our time and nation, whose democracy appears to be hanging in the balance, it is extremely relevant and in keeping with the immutable spirit of freedom. Whether fans of the original will like it, hopefully, will not deter from their understanding of how the original and this present version are in concert with the nature and substance of a “declaration of independence.”
Kudos to Scott Pask’s fine set design, Jen Shriever’s lighting design, David Bengali’s projection design, John Clancy’s orchestrations Ryan Cantwell’s music direction, AnnMarie’s vocal design, Dean Sharenow-music coordinator and the other creatives who helped to bring this version to life. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2022-2023-season/1776/