Just in time for the rise of semi-fascism here in America comes a revival of 1776, the 1969 musical by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards about the ratification of the Declaration of Independence in the face of some counterproductive politicians. (No, Mitch McConnell and Joe Manchin were not the first ones in history.) The show delivers some pertinent lessons for today’s Congress, as those previous bickering politicos bury the hatchet in favor of America’s emancipation, though not nearly quickly enough to avoid plentiful human casualties.
Thankfully, you realize right away that—as directed by Diane Paulus (Pippin, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) and Jeffrey L. Page (who also choreographed)—this isn’t any dusty, reverential revival. As the press materials explain, “The cast includes multiple representations of race, ethnicity, and gender; they identify as female, transgender and nonbinary.” In other words, it includes everyone who was left out of the Declaration of independence. That historical document states, “All men are created equal,” but this production makes clear that the signers didn’t really mean it. And so, much like Hamilton, the revival is doing a switcheroo, shedding a light on oppressed groups by giving them center stage and letting them “wear the pants.”
The evening starts with the cast in modern dress, as Crystal Lucas-Perry (playing John Adams) looks at a projection of the founding fathers and declares, “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm; and that three or more become a Congress!” Just then, the actors tweak their garb into approximations of period men’s looks, right before our eyes, then segue into a thrillingly sung “Sit Down, John,” urging the “obnoxious and disliked” Adams to hush up and stop trumpeting Independence for a second (“It’s ninety degrees! Have mercy, John, please. It’s hot as hell in Philadelphia!”). Some of them seem more upset by the fact that there’s no cool air in the room than by the ongoing horror of King George III’s tyrannical rule.
Lucas-Perry bristles terrifically—also tops are a Whoopi Goldberg–ish Patrena Murray as the egotistical jokester and pragmatist Ben Franklin; Carolee Carmello as the Tory (i.e., today’s right-winger) John Dickinson, who refuses to accept that King George III is a baddie and has “no objections at all to being part of the greatest empire on Earth”; and Liz Mikel as John Hancock, the president of the Congress, who ultimately puts his own John Hancock on the Declaration, making it really big “so Fat George in London can read it without his glasses!” The entire cast is tremendous, actually, and very game, though not all the gimmickry they’re made to do comes off.
For example, the Courier’s plaintive wartime report, “Momma, Look Sharp,” is given a haunting arrangement that factors in the whole cast, and Salome B. Smith is fine delivering the song, though she’s weirdly made to shriek-sing the concluding notes. (Lucas-Perry also gets to play with the melodies here and there.) Conversely, Martha Jefferson’s ode to her husband’s attributes, “He Plays the Violin,” starts with some overly obvious underlining of the innuendo, although Eryn LeCroy goes on to make the song a showstopper with her rapturous trills.
Abigail Adams (played by a disarming Allyson Kaye Daniel) is directed to look into the audience to emphasize her lines about the need for women’s rights, which gets the crowd to yelp with knowing glee. But far more effective is “Yours, Yours, Yours,” the subtly affecting long-distance duet (expressed in mailed letters) between Abigail and John that’s all the sweeter for being between two women.
Despite the occasional A for effort moments, the production still clocks in as a potent revival—something not easy to pull off, considering that the show has a lengthy Act One section where independence is discussed in the Congressional chamber and the politicos have the nerve not to bother to sing or dance at all! The sets are relatively uninspired (especially what looks like a big shower curtain with flag images on it, plus the humdrum-looking desks at Independence Hall), and the sudden use of contemporary activism videos at one point in Act II is jarring, but again, what propels this production is a bold willingness to take chances—and believe me, it resonates. When a blistering condemnation of slavery has to be taken out of the Declaration in order to appease the conservatives, we’re jolted forward to today’s concessions and obstructions and reminded that the supposed demigods of that Congress were actually deeply flawed humans. “We’re men,” Ben Franklin announces toward the end. “No more, no less.” Well, in this production, they’re more. And I loved noticing that the actress playing Thomas Jefferson is visibly pregnant; she’s clearly a founding mother. ❖
Michael Musto has written for the Voice since 1984, best known for his outspoken column “La Dolce Musto.” He has penned four books, and is streaming in docs on Netflix, Hulu, Vice, and Showtime.
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