A '1776' Reimagined for Our Woke Times

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tuesday June 7, 2022

Sushma Saha, Sara Porkalob, Mehry Eslaminia, Gisela Adisa, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Elizabeth A. Davis, Becca Ayers, Brooke Simpson, and Oneika Phillips in "1776." Photo: Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made
Sushma Saha, Sara Porkalob, Mehry Eslaminia, Gisela Adisa, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Elizabeth A. Davis, Becca Ayers, Brooke Simpson, and Oneika Phillips in "1776." Photo: Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made  

Was the American dream doomed from the start? That is a question being raised in the most unlikely of sources — the popular 1969 musical "1776," which tells of the thorny road to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, and celebrates that historic moment with patriotic uplift: The tolling of bells and, in the original staging, a recreation of John Trumbull's famous painting of the event.

The moment says the compromises made to get to the signing — such as a key one on the abolishment of slavery — were worth celebrating, warts and all. But did that decision undermine the ideals to the point where the foundation of the country is seen to have been built on sand? At the conclusion of the new production of "1776," (a co-production of the American Repertory Theater and the New York's Roundabout Theatre) the moment is replaced with a reprise of John Adams' plaintiff anthem, "Is Anybody There?," sung by the the female, non-binary and trans cast as the signatures of the white men of property flash behind them. It is powerful, to be sure, and ends this production with a burst of rhetorical fireworks.

But the larger problem is that "1776" has always been close to a theme park entertainment that would be right at home in Williamsburg, Virginia. This revival never solves that problem — it still feels like a theme park entertainment, but this time it is Woke World.

Patrena Murray, Eryn LeCroy, and Elizabeth A. Davis in "1776."<br>Photo: Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made
Patrena Murray, Eryn LeCroy, and Elizabeth A. Davis in "1776."
Photo: Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made  

That isn't meant to slam woke politics, but rather to wonder if this is the right vehicle for such a message. "1776" presents a standard 10th-grade history lesson in an amiable, musical-comedy fashion. (The book is by Peter Stone; the score is by Sherman Edwards.) Somehow the sight of these august figures dancing a soft shoe and joking about Thomas Jefferson's sex life was enough to propel it to a Best Musical Tony (against "Hair"). But is an already rhetorical piece improved upon by including a different kind of rhetoric? Not really. For all the in-your-face politics, the final moments turn out to be preachy and unconvincing. No doubt this revival was prompted by the success of the other, more nuanced Revolutionary era musical "Hamilton," but"1776" little more than a kitschy postcard from the musical-comedy past.

Perhaps the smartest thing done in this re-imagining (co-directed by Jeremy R. Page and Diane Paulus) was to get rid of the men. The delegates at this constitutional convention are played by women — a multiracial, multi-ethnic cast of female, trans, and non-binary actors — who change into 18th-century garb early on as they impersonate the various historical figures — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin — in a broad fashion. This is especially the case in the numbers that rely upon old school musical-comedy tropes that would have been right at home in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical.

Still, seeing these actors of color performing routines that could have come out of a minstrel show was a bit disturbing, as was all the regional humor, which is delivered with the subtlety of sledgehammer.

Sara Porkalob, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Elizabeth A. Davis, and members of the company of "1776."<br>Photo: Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made
Sara Porkalob, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Elizabeth A. Davis, and members of the company of "1776."
Photo: Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made  

What is also exceptional is the rescoring of the music. Gone are the faux-Baroque touches that make the original cast album so precious; instead there are pop, country, and rock influences that give the music a surprisingly raw freshness. (The excellent musical direction is by Ryan Cantwell; music supervisor is David Chase; orchestrations by John Clancy; and vocal design by AnnMarie Milazzo.)

Still, neither Page nor Paulus can do much about Sherman lyrics, which are often cringe-worthy in their affected rhyme schemes. Nonetheless, Page and Paulus do pump up the numbers with fervor and imagination. The plaintive anti-war ballad "Momma, Look Sharp" becomes a full-force gospel rant, and "The Egg" becomes a show-stopper replete with a stunning video montage of the American journey.

By far the most effective sequence is the "Molasses to Rum" number that climaxes the second half with a brilliant illustration of the slave trade sung with icy confidence by Sara Porkalob. But while Stone expresses that this compromise was necessary for the formation of the republic, Page and Paulus suggest that it is a fatal error that can never be rectified, which leads to that final image, replacing the original tableaux with one that brings "1776" into the 21st century. If only this moment felt organic; but the musical doesn't really support this Brechtian device, which felt at odds with the material. Perhaps that is the point, but it just feels forced. (For the record, this new ending was approved by both Stone and Sherman's estates.)

The cast is strong as a group, less so as individuals. Crystal Lucas-Perry looks uncomfortable a good deal of the time as the cantankerous Adams, but she is well-paired with Allyson Kaye Daniel as his wife Abigail in the more intimate sections when they correspond in letters (based on the real correspondences). She doesn't get to show her formidable vocal chops until towards the end, but even that doesn't improve her one-note interpretation. Patrena Murray makes a droll Ben Franklin, and Elizabeth A. Davis shines as the aloof, violin-playing Thomas Jefferson. Joanna Glushak is spot-on as Adams' conservative foil John Dickinson; Shawna Hamic is a boisterous Richard Henry Lee, the name-dropping Virginia representative (though her number is staged like something out of "Pippin,"). The aforementioned Porkalob soars as the finger-pointing delegate from South Carolina, and Eryn LeCroy sings a rapturous "He Plays a Violin" that ends the first half.

Scott Pask's low-tech designs, including a red, white and blue show curtain that looks like it could have come out of Betsy Ross's studio, work well; as does a haunting final visual that frames the finale. Pask's designs are nicely accented by Jen Schriever's lighting design and Emilio Sosa's costumes, which move from street clothes to rich-looking, gender-appropriate period garb. And David Bengali supplies the spectacular video sequence during "The Egg" that offers a view of the past 250 years.

No doubt this "1776" will succeed commercially. After its Cambridge run, it heads to New York, where co-producers The Roundabout Theatre Company will present it for a limited run prior to a 12-city national tour. Artistically, at least at this point, the show isn't fully realized — it is brave and audacious in its aims, but less successful in its making its heavy-handed rhetorical points, which pander to the liberal sentiments of its audience. Some of the glitches will likely be worked out in upcoming weeks, but the biggest question raised by this production is, why bother with this second-tier musical that was never all that great in the first place? Those looking for the second coming of "Hamilton" had best look elsewhere.

"1776" continues through July 24 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theater website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].