Courtesy of its mostly faithful film adaptation from fifty years ago the Tony-winning musical 1776 (1969) is perhaps best remembered by a generation of school kids (raises hand) bused to local theaters to see it as part of our history classes. All that stuff about the Declaration of Independence went down easier with clever songs, incisive though affectionate renderings of the Founding Fathers, and horny Thomas and Martha Jefferson. (We were teens.) It is to Independence Day what It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas, a perennial.
The show ran for just under three years and was revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company in 1997, in a sturdy, workmanlike production featuring Brent Spiner as the difficult John Adams (a memorable turn by William Daniels in the original and film) and Pat Hingle as that sassy Ben Franklin. Twenty-five years later the Roundabout has brought it back to the American Airlines Theatre, and, well, things have changed. The press notes reminded me to be aware of pronouns, which was wasn’t difficult in 1969, 1972, or 1997 (the sweetly conniving Abigail Adams is the only other female role), and the show begins with an invocation to the Native American people on whose land Times Square now stands, offered by an Indigenous cast member. That alone would be enough to send, say, snowflake conservatives like Florida governor Ron DeSantis heading toward the exits. For the uninitiated it’s then revealed that the cast consists entirely of multiracial performers who identify as female, trans, or non-binary, who then doff their street clothes and don their 18th century ensembles. All men are created equal? Not this 1776–these sisters are doing it themselves.
With enjoyable if rarely top-tier music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a well-crafted and (by the standards of most musicals) dominant book by Oscar winner Peter Stone 1776 appeared at a time of war and inequality. Looking at it with fresh eyes in our era of war and inequality Asian-American director Diane Paulus (who codirected with the show’s Black choreographer Jeffrey L. Page) was struck by the timeliness and relevance of its second act number “Molasses to Rum,” in which the pro-slavery Edward Rutledge tears into abolitionist hypocrisy over the peculiar institution and sets up the fateful compromise that removes any mention of slavery from the document. In another staging this is the egregious example of how the American sausage was made; in this one it’s original sin, with the dispossessed performers, abandoned by the thirteen colonies, bringing hellfire to the staging. A thrilling few minutes…
…if only there were more. It’s a jolt to see the Founding Fathers as a sisterhood, squabbling, embracing, holding hands, and, in the case of Martha, pregnant. But a jolt is all it is in this scrawny production, which has only a few barrels of the aforementioned molasses and rum to break the visual monotony at Declaration Hall. More troublesome is the aural monotony, as everyone, including three-time Tony nominee Carolee Carmello as the meddlesome John Dickinson, has been directed to belt songs that weren’t meant to be socked through. No wonder the biggest round of applause the night I attended went to understudy Ariella Serur, who as Martha was firm, but gentle, with the Act I finale, the tender and stirring “He Plays the Violin.”
The real problem is that 1776 isn’t Hamilton, the obvious model. Both address timeless historical material and both speak to their times, which move however at Twitter speed–Lin-Manuel Miranda’s juggernaut, which opened in 2015, has come under fire for not addressing slavery in 2020 terms. Even with substantial revision there was little chance of 1776 making more of a case for itself in 2022, and indeed one of its actors is publicly unhappy. (And she’s playing Rutledge, which, even in her grumpy, caricatured performance, is about the closest the show comes to a brassy star turn.) The 1776 of today is the unsatisfactory spawn of good intentions on the part of Paulus (who more engagingly dusted off Hair and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess), weak execution, and bad faith elsewhere. Plus, it’s been done–Heidi Schreck’s gripping one-person play What the Constitution Means to Me brought a number of these deeply embedded issues about America’s foundations to the fore, and the Off Broadway suffrage musical Suffs, while uneven, gave women on and offstage an opportunity to explore a pertinent historical topic in an up-to-the-minute fashion. This 1776 is about as fun and illuminating as watching an innocent person being brought up on decades-old charges and interrogated pointlessly.