1776: Founding Fathers Declare Independence, Deconstructed – New York Stage Review

Reviews from Broadway and Beyond
★★★☆☆ The 1969 Revolutionary War musical is enhanced by the players but bloated by ineffective tinkering
1776, winner of the 1969 Best Musical Tony Award, has returned to Broadway in what might be termed a revival with a difference. It has become common for new productions of old musicals—especially infrequently-revived old musicals with long-deceased authors—to be offered with alterations in tone, material, and sometimes intent. This is often done under the assumption that most viewers won’t know the difference. Not so in the case of this 1776, which has been directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, and imported by the Roundabout from Paulus’s American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. We are told and specifically requested to keep in mind that—and I quote—“the cast includes multiple representations of race, ethnicity, and gender; they identify as female, transgender and nonbinary.”
With such an explicit disclaimer, we are faced with not only the usual question (is it any good?) but also: Is the show enhanced—or diminished—by the presumably necessary conceptual alterations? Has this team of creators, in the absence of songwriter Sherman Edwards and bookwriter Peter Stone, successfully implemented such changes? And at base, is this revised 1776 as effective as the original 1969 production, the 1972 motion picture, the 1997 Broadway revival (produced by the Roundabout), or the production you remember in your high school auditorium?
The answer, at least from my seat at the American Airlines Theatre, is a distinctly qualified “kind of.”
The cast of characters consists of 20 signers of the Declaration of Independence; two lower-class support staff; and one mud-besplattered courier trudging in with battlefield dispatches from the unseen General Washington. The only female characters are two future first ladies, Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson. (Off-topic footnote: A third female role, Prudence the prostitute—who cavorted with Ben Franklin in a New Brunswick whorehouse song-and-dance—was cut during the tryout before the original production reached Broadway. While the actress lost the prospect of her Broadway debut, 1776 producer Stuart Ostrow soon thereafter produced a new musical written by her young songwriter/husband: Pippin.)
Under then-prevailing Broadway conditions, these historically based white male roles were written for and in the original production cast with white males. The theatrical world, which is not always at the forefront of enlightenment, has long since discarded such traditional and repressive thinking, at least to some extent. This all-female, transgender, and nonbinary 1776 goes full-throttle, certainly, and more power to the performers who here receive opportunities (and jobs) for which they prove themselves thoroughly capable. One wonders whether under such a concept, the traditionally female roles of Abigail and Martha might logically have been cast with performers who identify as male; but that’s a question for another day.
The attractions of this new 1776 are multiple, mostly in the area of the talent onstage. Any production must rise or fall on the shoulders of the portrayals of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin, those three Founding Fathers. (A term that, perhaps, should at this point be cashiered?) Crystal Lucas-Perry grabs hold of the stage with Stone’s artful opening monologue: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace”—(considerable laughter)—“that two are called a law-firm”—(more laughter)—“and that three or more become a Congress.” Lucas-Perry, who is scheduled to leave this production on October 23, presents the “obnoxious and disliked” Adams with high-octane flair, never letting down.
Elizabeth A. Davis makes a fine Jefferson, one who, in the exuberant song “He Plays the Violin” does indeed play the violin. (You might remember Davis from the musical Once, in which she fiddled with such ferocity—while playing the small role of the heroine’s friend—that she earned herself a Tony nomination.) This Jefferson, mind you, is in an advanced state of pregnancy. A pointed directorial choice? They have, after all, added to the proceedings a cowering/snarling slave (Sally Hemmings?) lurking around Jefferson’s bedroom; but the pregnancy seems to be more biological than conceptual.
If Lucas-Perry and Davis ably support this production of 1776, you might say that Patrena Murray is Ben Franklin. A pure delight in the role, she would likely fit right into any 1776 production regardless of the casting conceit. As would Carolee Carmello, as the laceratingly obstructive John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. Carmello appeared in Roundabout’s superior 1997 revival, where she was cast more traditionally as Abigail Adams. While she did characteristically well on that occasion, she seems to be having a helluva lot more fun here. Also standing out are Joanna Glushak, as the rum-quaffing Hopkins of Rhode Island; Sara Porkalob, as the pro-slavery Routledge of South Carolina; Eryn LeCroy, doubling as Martha Jefferson and Dr. Hall of Georgia; and Shawna Hamic, as the rambunctious Richard Henry Lee of Virginia.
Countering these assets is the staging. Nuance and subtlety have been discarded in favor of a brash, bold, hit-’em-on-the-head presentation. 1776 was written as a protest musical mixing a strong anti-Vietnam message with a bitter view of then-President Nixon and his administration, the successful implementation of which contributed to the musical’s resounding success. “Momma Look Sharp,” an outspoken folk-tinged pacifist dirge which stands out as a quiet change-of-pace moment in this relatively explosive musical, is here handed over to a stage full of black-cloaked, keening mothers. Effective? Kind of— but more effective than the authors’ image of a lonely corpse lying forgotten in the tall grass in the meadow by the red maple tree?
The use of a vast montage of up-to-the-minute news footage suggests that the directors feel their audience won’t understand ideas if you don’t show them video. They even incorporate a flag-waving olde-South tableaux featuring “Dixie,” a song that was not written until 80 years after the Revolution. Yes, I suppose, we get the point. And while we certainly agree with sentiments—borrowed from the writings of Abigail Adams—presented in the newly inserted dialogue about the tyranny of men fomenting a rebellion of woman, this comes across as a provocative broadside tacked onto the proceedings but instantly abandoned.
At the same time, two key elements in the original script are altogether ignored. The authors specifically call for the use of “a large day-by-day wall calendar,” which serves as a constant visible pressure-cooker deadline as the days flash by through June; how will these incessantly bickering men ever agree by Independence Day? Even more crucial is the original ending, calling for the tolling of church bells as the Declaration is signed. The bells, though, turn discordant and deafening as if to suggest that even after achieving independence, all was—and still is—not well in the Land of the Free. In place of which, we get a stage full of singers standing before what look like rum barrels singing “Is Anybody There?” And do we really need that slave auction ballet they have tacked onto the already sufficiently explicit “Molasses to Rum”?
None of these alterations enhance 1776; what’s more, Page and Paulus push the running time, which in 1969 was a shade over two intermissionless hours, closer to three. This is no favor to the material, or the audience either.
1776 opened October 6, 2022, at the American Airlines Theatre and runs through January 8, 2023. Tickets and information: roundabouttheatre.org
Steven Suskin has been reviewing theater and music since 1999 for Variety, Playbill, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. He has written 17 books, including Offstage Observations, Second Act Trouble and The Sound of Broadway Music. Email: steven@nystagereview.com.
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