The original challenge to the creators of “1776” was how to make a commercial musical comedy out of something as somber and dry as the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Half a century later, Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, directors of the Broadway revival that is opening tonight at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, apparently saw an almost opposite challenge: How to update this sturdy but sometimes corny Broadway entertainment so that it reflects the changed aesthetics of Broadway — where the go-to musicals about American history have become edgier fare like “Assassins,” “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and especially “Hamilton” — and so that it also embodies the changed, and charged, politics of the moment.
I count the effort of both creative teams largely if not entirely a success.
The “1776” revival has a minimalist design on a muted theme of Americana; the curtain suggests faded fragments of the red, white and blue — as if shying away from overt patriotism. Yet the show retains all 13 of Sherman Edwards’ original, often bright and tuneful songs from the 1969 production, and also most of the sometimes goofy humor. At the same time, it makes some half dozen changes that sometimes provide a fresh perspective; most often offer a new emphasis on what’s always been the strongest aspects of the musical; and only occasionally go too far.
When the cast enters together in 21st century street clothes, rolls up their white socks so that they look like 18th century stockings, and don their frocks, we see from the get-go the most obvious and consequential change in the revival: The cast is racially diverse, and all of them identify as either female (18 of the 22 principals) or transgender or nonbinary. None, in other words, identify as cisgender white men – which is how we can identify all the signers of the Declaration of Independence that they are portraying, and indeed also all the performers who have portrayed those characters in previous productions.
The change accomplishes two things:
- It drives home how many Americans were excluded from the “we” who held the truths to be self-evident “that all men are created equal…” (emphasis added.)
- It also allows some performers to shine as characters they would not otherwise get the chance to play. On the top of that list is Crystal Lucas-Perry, who is making a spectacular Broadway debut as John Adams, the impatient prime agitator for independence in the slow-moving Continental Congress meeting in the stultifying summer heat of Philadelphia. If she comes off as too appealing to be the character universally viewed as “obnoxious and unlikeable,” her voice, both when speaking and in particular when singing, is so crystal clear as to feel like the personification of the clarion call to justice.
It is a considerable loss to the show that Lucas-Perry will be exiting after Oct. 23, to be in the cast of the forthcoming Broadway production of “Ain’t No Mo.”
Luckily, there are other standouts, among them Patrena Murray, also making her Broadway debut as a spot-on avuncular, aphoristic and crafty (if unusually diminutive) Benjamin Franklin, and Carolee Carmello, as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who is the main opponent of independence and John Adams’ main verbal sparring partner. A 15-time Broadway veteran and three-time Tony nominee, Carmello makes for a credible (not cartoon) antagonist, and not incidentally a fine leader in the well-choreographed ensemble number “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.”
Carmello happened to perform in “1776” in 1997 (the only Broadway revival before the current production) as Abigail Adams, John Adams’ wife, one of the two female characters in the musical, along with Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha.
The actresses who portray the two women characters in the current production both have lovely voices. They are also the only cast members who each get a second role: Allyson Kaye Daniel portrays both Abigail Adams and Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon of New Jersey; Eryn LeCroy is both Martha Jefferson and Dr. Lyman Hall of Georgia.
This feels like it might be a reflection of how small the roles are; maybe it’s also a way of making amends. The two female characters seem to have been inserted into the original show primarily to enhance its commercial (sex) appeal. True, the dramatization of the famous letters between John and Abigail is of historical interest, does serve to humanize John, and gives the excuse for a couple of lovely duets. The scenes with Martha Jefferson, however, have always made me cringe. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin have been urging Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis) to get on with writing the Declaration, but he’s pining for his wife who is back in Virginia. So Adams arranges for her to arrive – and then they have to wait impatiently while the two of them have sex, with the sort of G-rated lascivious winking cracks that had its hey-day in the 1960s.
These scenes are kept largely intact in the new revival; their inclusion somewhat muddles the underlying feminist message of the casting, but doesn’t completely undermine it. (Some of the casual misogyny of the original is eliminated: For example, Franklin no longer says to Adams “Stop acting like a Boston fishwife.”)
The creative team’s effort at reorienting the politics of the musical is most explicit in the staging of three songs that occur in a row in Act II.
“Momma, Look Sharp” in the original was a quiet ballad sung solo by the courier, who recounts the death of his best friend Billy during the fighting on the village green, and as if the dead Billy is guiding his mother’s search for his body.
As the courier, Salome B. Smith starts out quiet but is soon belting it out full-throttle, accompanied by the entire company as her gospel chorus.
Here’s a sample of the version from a summer concert in Bryant Park
The next song “The Egg,” which uses the hatching of a bird as a metaphor for the birth of a new nation (“We’re waiting for the chirp, chirp, chirp of an eaglet being born….The eagle’s going to crack the shell of the egg that England laid”) is accompanied by a rapid-fire video montage mostlly of moments of American protest — women’s suffrage rallies, civil rights marches, Act Up demonstrations and the like – although I did notice a brief clip of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
The most extensive restaging is in the number “Molasses to Rum,” an always powerful song that points to the complicity of the North in the slave trade. Here, while Edward Rutledge from South Carolina (Sara Parkalob) sings
Molasses, to rum, to slaves!
‘tisn’t morals, ’tis money that saves! Shall we dance to the sound
of the profitable pound in
the performers behind him re-enact a slave auction.
The staging of these three songs are prime examples of the production’s effort to provide a new emphasis on what was already present in the musical. The question of whether such greater emphasis was necessary or even advisable is a matter, I think, of personal taste and politics. The only staging that gave me pause was the slave number. Rutledge is singing in support of the “peculiar institution” in his and other Southern states. He’s making the point that the Northern delegates are hypocrites, in order to demand that Jefferson take out a paragraph from the draft of the Declaration that decries slavery, or else he says the Southern states will not vote for independence.
The staging makes a very different point than Rutledge is trying to make in the song. On the other hand, the compromise the Founders made over slavery is arguably the central issue of concern when Americans in the 21st century look back at this moment in history. It’s a small sacrifice to override the context of the song to drive that home. Yet (back to the first hand), do we really need this musical to instruct us in a brief tableau that slavery was evil? (More subtly, there is a new, silent, character added to the show — Jefferson’s manservant, i.e. slave.)
There is a bitter historical irony in the choice the Founders made between abolition and independence from Great Britain. As it turns out, Great Britain abolished slavery 32 years before the U.S. did, and without a Civil War.
That’s beyond the scope of a musical that’s set in 1776. But a strength of “1776,” both fifty-three years ago and now, is that it can be both a crowd-pleasing (yes, sometimes silly) musical and a thought-provoking glimpse at not just the founding of the United States, but its original sin, and the nation’s complicated relationship with freedom.
“Mark me, Franklin,” John Adams says, “if we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us.”
“That’s probably true,” Franklin replies. “But we won’t hear a thing, John, we’ll be long gone. And besides, what will posterity think we were — demigods? We’re men — no more, no less — trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed….”
Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater Through January 08, 2023
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission
Music and Lyrics By Sherman Edwards
Book By Peter Stone
Based On A Concept By Sherman Edwards
Music Supervision By David Chase
Choreography By Jeffrey L. Page
Directed By Jeffrey L. Page And Diane Paulus
Scott Pask (Sets), Emilio Sosa (Costumes), Jen Schriever (Lights), Jonathan Deans (Sound), David Bengali (Projections), Mia Neal (Hair & Wigs), Stephen
Cast: Crystal Lucas-Perry as “John Adams,” Gisela Adisa
as “Robert Livingston,” Nancy Anderson as “George Read,” Becca Ayers as “Col. Thomas McKean,” Tiffani Barbour as “Andrew McNair,” Carolee Carmello as “John Dickinson,” Allyson Kaye Daniel as “Abigail Adams/Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon,” Elizabeth A. Davis as “Thomas Jefferson,” Mehry Eslaminia as “Charles Thomson,” Joanna Glushak as “Stephen Hopkins,” Shawna Hamic as “Richard Henry Lee,” Eryn LeCroy as “Martha Jefferson/Dr. Lyman Hall,” Liz Mikel as “John Hancock,” Patrena Murray as “Benjamin Franklin,” Oneika Phillips as “Joseph Hewes,” Lulu Picart as “Samuel Chase,” Sara Porkalob as “Edward Rutledge,” Sushma Saha as “Judge James Wilson,” Brooke Simpson as “Roger Sherman,” Salome B. Smith as “Courier,” Sav Souza as “Dr. Josiah Bartlett,” Jill Vallery as “Caesar Rodney,” and Shelby Acosta, Ariella Serur, Grace Stockdale, Dawn L. Troupe and Imani Pearl Williams as Standbys.
Photographs by Joan Marcus