1776: It’s In The Book
The most trenchant scene in the Broadway revival of “1776” is the dramatic conclusion wherein Thomas Jefferson - after relentless dissension from the Southern colonies - eliminates the paragraph in the Declaration of Independence that addresses the inhumanity of slavery so as to secure unanimous acceptance of the break from England. Intentionally, this was the case in the original Broadway production of 1969, and remains the case in 2022 even with a cast entirely composed of multi-racial actors who identify as female, transgender and non-binary.
Why the new casting? Different, yes. Woke, certainly. But does it add anything to the book? Not really. Slavery is America’s original sin. In kicking the slavery can down the road, the members of the Constitutional Convention of 1776 inadvertently set the stage for the Civil War 90 years later. Today, 160 years after that, racism, the residue of slavery’s history still poisons American politics and culture.
The victims of racism broadly include non-male, non-White, non-Christian Americans, including the likes of those who make up the cast of this “1776”, sturdily co-directed by choreographer Jeffrey L. Page and the inventive Diana Paulus (Tony-winning director of “Pippin” and the more recent “Jagged Little Pill”). The recasting is ennobling, reminding that racism endures, but the presciently composed book by Peter Stone, prolific playwright and screenwriter of 1960-70s, still rules.
Stone and composer and lyricist Sherman Edwards created a rather progressive, 1960s-rooted, interpretation of the debate over the Declaration. Whole sections of the book of ”1776”, while making history comprehensible, play like old-fashioned civics classes. “1776” is elementary compared to “Hamilton”. Still, Lin-Manual Miranda’s multi-layered treatment of the founding of the American republic owes “1776” considerable theatrical antecedence.
As for its music, this re-cast “1776” has some splendid vocal performances, mostly from the featured cast, who get the best of Sherman’s songs. The story pivots around John Adams (played by Crystal Lucas-Perry) and his efforts to convince delegates to the Congress in Philadelphia to formally break from England, and his devoted love for his wife, Abigail, back home in Massachusetts. The musical really comes alive in the fourth musical number, “The Lees of Old Virginia” performed by a sassy Shawna Hamic as delegate Richard Henry Lee. The duet between John and Abigail Adams (Allyson Kay Daniel), “Yours, Yours, Yours” captures the melancholy of missing the one you love. The first act concludes with “He Plays the Violin” in which Martha Jefferson (understudy Ariella Serur) celebrates the romantic attributes of husband Thomas (played by a pregnant Elizabeth A. Davis). The number has been played with sexual double-entendre, but male anatomy humor doesn’t seem appropriate to the revisionist casting here.
The knockout number in Act II is “Molasses to Rum”, performed by Edward Rutledge, a Southern delegate to the Congress (played by Sara Porkalob). It’s a savage indictment of the slavery trade, which, as the South argued, the North was complicit in by virtue of its financial control of sea trade, and the inhumanity of it all .
Directors Page and Paulus extract from the large cast, the personalities and character foibles of the Founding Fathers from the famous like Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock to the lesser known. Stone’s original book acknowledges that women’s rights were never considered by the Founding Fathers; in a brief scene, Abigail Adams admonishes her husband for that failure. The directors have inserted into “Molasses and Rum” a video montage of every civil rights struggle America has seen since 1776 to the present, just in case one didn’t know that America hasn’t always treated everyone - and still doesn’t - as if “all persons are created equal.”