By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Back when I was still in high school, writer Peter Stone and composer and lyricist Sherman Edwards got together to reimagine a patriotic musical that covered the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Starring William Daniels in the pivotal role of revolutionary John Adams, 1776 won three Tony Awards including Best Musical and was optioned by producer Jack Warner for more than $1 million. Almost immediately, plans were made to turn the show into a major motion picture to be shot on the Columbia Pictures backlot with most of the original cast members reprising their roles in 1971. Despite his never having worked on a major film before, Peter H. Hunt, who had won the Tony Award as the show’s director, was pegged to serve as the adapted film’s director. (Such a gamble would probably not be undertaken by any major studio today.)
However, one notable casting change was made. Betty Buckley, who had made her Broadway debut as the original Martha Jefferson, was replaced by studio executives with Blythe Danner, who they felt she would be more attractive to moviegoers. Virginia Vestoff, who received a Tony nomination for her role of Abigail Adams, was the only other female cast in the film, thankfully preserved on film as she succumbed to cancer a decade later.
While I did not see the original Broadway cast, I did become familiar with the original cast album and the movie years later, when it was originally released on VHS videotape with several scenes cut. Later, some scenes were partially restored when the film was released on LaserDisc and I added that to my movie collection. When a director’s cut of a fully restored edition was made available on DVD, it, too, became a treasured part of my library. A 50th anniversary edition of the film on 4K, BluRay and DVD discs was also released in May of this year and it is now a part of my seemingly ever-expanding collection.
Suffice it to say that 1776 is a part of my most coveted musical theatre collection.
There were a number of historical inaccuracies in the musical’s book and within the lyrics, but I didn’t care. This was the story of the spark that led to the founding of our nation and created one of freedom’s most treasured documents. It may not have been accurate in its portrayal of the Founding Fathers through the years, but one of the biggest complaints leveled at 1776 was its lack of female players.
The Continental Congress was composed only of men, a fact borne out by the historic record. Women were not Founding Mothers. They didn’t have a public voice. In most cases they couldn’t own property without a husband. When it came to marriage and sexual matters, men decided when they were in the mood and when they would reproduce.
Broadway audiences have been treated to a revival once previously. In 1997, the Roundabout Theatre Company mounted the musical at its Criterion Theatre home before transferring to the 46 Street Theatre (now renamed the Richard Rodgers Theatre and the present home of another musical about the American Revolution, Hamilton).
Hamilton famously broke the color barrier, recasting players of color in all the principal roles of all the Founding Fathers, leaving only King George III to be played by a White actor.
But based upon Ron Chernow’s same-titled book, even Hamilton in 2015 did not bend the genders of the Founding Fathers and had them play as anything other than men. Similarly, an extremely limited run of 1776 ran for only five dates at New York City Center in 2016 for Encores!, known for bringing back treasured, “lost” shows of the past. While a few cast members from the 1997 revival joined the Encores! show to reprise their roles, there were again only two roles for women, those of Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams.
Given this indisputable set of facts, it is therefore surprising that a cast comprised of all women, non-binary or trans actors would be considered in the latest revival of 1776 by Roundabout Theatre Company as much more than as unconventional or, perhaps, a curiosity.
With choreography by Jeffrey L. Page and co-direction by Page and Diane Paulus, Roundabout and the American Repertory Theater unveiled the latest version of 1776, officially opening at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City on October 6.
Given the political correctness of the post-COVID era, I was naturally intrigued. Paulus had done incredible earlier work as the director of the revival of Pippin, remembered for having cast Patina Miller in the role of Leading Player originated by Ben Vereen. That switch not only got the attention of Broadway audiences but opened endless possibilities for recasting roles for revivals in the future. It also won Miller a Tony Award and a similar win by the Outer Critics Circle in 2013 for Best Leading Actress in a Musical.
The question in my own mind was whether this recasting was going to advance the content of 1776 in a way that would thoughtfully, considerately and meaningfully include women in the narrative. Or would it be a device that would fall upon its own petard and essentially be a novelty of the moment?
In a sense I got both. The advancement of the cause of women’s rights and the unabashed equality of women and trans women were given positive focus without having to rewrite the original book or lyrics significantly. In fact, there is only one scene where there is a notable deviation and that has more to do with the current pushback on the overturn of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court than anything else.
As someone who has held an unabashed love of 1776, it was refreshing to see the all-too-familiar characters of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Dickinson, John Hancock and Edward Rutledge played by women and – in most cases – also by people of color.
Page and Paulus begin the production with the lively overture accentuated by sounds emblematic of fife and drums. It is against the bare background that we see buckled shoes carefully arranged and reflecting the literal footlights. In a choreographed flourish the actors on stage don outer jackets and assume the characters they will portray as they pull up their white stockings and step into their revolutionary shoes.
Crystal Lucas-Perry leads the cast as John Adams. Stone and Edwards would have us believe the real life Adams was a repugnant little man whose impassioned voice for freedom from tyranny marked him as disagreeable and bellicose. In fact, Adams was admired by most of the Continental Congress and the constant reference to his being “obnoxious and disliked” came from letters written by him following his ill-fated single term as president. Adams was a great revolutionary, but a terrible chief executive.
Lucas-Perry plays the role with anger towards the British crown, but with an innate and prescient vision of what America could become. She is the nexus of agitation, fomenting revolutionary rebellion in Congress and demanding justice. It is important that Adams also be seen as a reluctantly absent husband and father, especially in the scenes with Abigail Adams. She captures the essence of what Daniels and Spiner imbued in their performances, taking the cardboard cutout of an historic figure and breathing life and humanity into it.
Carolee Carmello, who played spouse Abigail opposite Spiner in the previous revival, has an unusual turn in this production playing Adams’ nemesis John Dickinson instead. Carmello carries herself with an assured sense of purpose and is at the forefront in “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” the anthem of conservatism that sparks Act II.
The other redhead in Congress is Elizabeth A. Davis as Thomas Jefferson. A longtime virtuoso violinist, Davis previously received a Tony nomination for Once in which she also played the violin, so it was natural she would be featured opposite Eryn LeCroy in “He Plays the Violin.” Previous versions of the song featured Adams, Franklin and Martha Jefferson engaged in an anachronistic waltz, polka or gavotte. Despite Page’s credentials as a choreographer and Paulus’ expertise in staging, they deliberately dress down the dancing aspect of the number to my dismay. While I understand the upbeat direction and double entendres included take focus off the gravitas of breaking the yoke of British colonialism, I bemoan the loss of the enchanting nature of the song. LeCroy does double duty in her role as Georgia representative Dr. Lyman Hall and does an admirable job in connecting with Lucas-Perry at the conclusion of “Is Anybody There?”
The music is supervised by David Chase and conducted by Ryan Cantwell and a small ensemble of only ten players. There are times, though, when the richness of full strings and backing orchestration are missing from earlier renditions such as in “The Egg,” the song that features Jefferson, Adams and Franklin awaiting the reading of the declaration.
The poignant debate in Act II about the place that the “peculiar institution” of slavery should occupy in this new nation comes to a powerful denouement in “Molasses To Rum” as we comprehend that all parties in the triangle trade are equally guilty in perpetuating and profiting from it. As Rutledge, Sara Porkalob (who uses she/they pronouns) lead what becomes a choreographed ballet depicting the horrors of slavery. Many of these women actors are also descendants of former slaves and they and the directors use the bully pulpit of the stage to indict the Congressional Congress for perpetuating the struggle of the slave class with its inborn cruelty and infamous practice. Projections remind us throughout the night of what it has taken to unshackle the descendants of those people treated as property. At the conclusion of the number, as the solid South exits from the stage hellbent to retain the system, I felt emotionally drained.
It would be easy to say that given this is the first opportunity to set the narrative, this decidedly feminist opus is not just woke, but preachy. But it would be unfair to not understand why the creators of this production felt that way in a post-COVID, post-Black Lives Matter world. This production was helmed with major input from Roundabout’s The Forward Fund and its commitment “to center equity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism (EDI/AR)” in their work.
This 1776 is not my 1776, just as America of revolutionary times is not the America of my youth or present day. What it does retain is the promise of what this nation could be and that has always been what has kept me coming back to sample of its often historically inaccurate and anachronistic songs and dialogue. As Patrena Murray in her portrayal of Franklin says “We’re men–no more, no less–trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed. John, first things first! Independence! America! For if we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?”
There is still much to admire in this current production of 1776 and it is my fervent hope that its message of hope and its depiction of people setting the course of their destiny will continue to inspire others in the future. With this groundbreaking bent on a classic work, perhaps we will see more places for women in future productions of 1776. If so, this production will then be truly considered as revolutionary.
1776 (2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission) continues its run at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street, in New York through January 8, 2023. Co-directed by Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page, the musical is choreographed by Page. Tickets are available here or by calling 212-719-1300.