Men are shouting. Representatives from the same state are divided. Everyone is named John. It must be a Congressional debate. The Tony-winning “1776” first premiered on Broadway nearly 200 years after its moniker, in 1969. Today, the decades-old musical about a centuries-old declaration adopts a practice that goes back even further: casting roles across genders. In this take on the musical — which is receiving its second revival from Roundabout Theatre Company (the first was in 1997) — an ethnically diverse chorale of women, trans and nonbinary performers are our revolutionaries. Unfortunately, this choice, which genuinely makes the sedative of a show more interesting to look at and listen to, further locks its subjects into binary stereotypes.
What is a political musical without a scrappy patriot? Broadway has gotten Alexander Hamilton, a bloody (bloody!) Andrew Jackson, and now, John Adams played by female-identifying actor Crystal Lucas-Perry. Those familiar with Lucas-Perry’s work in plays like “Ain’t No Mo’” or “A Bright Room Called Day” will be unsurprised by her perfection. John Adams’ friends, especially the ingenious but indolent Benjamin Franklin (Patrena Murray), find his loquacious arguments in favor of seceding from British rule annoying (all through the opening number, they beg him to shut up). The rest of the musical stretches from May to June of its titular year, during the Second Continental Congress which culminated in the scripting and signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Peter Stone’s book (based on a concept by Sherman Edwards) is so rabidly dedicated to revolution for the sake of revolution that it never takes a pause to delve into the interiority of any of its characters. Why go to such lengths to personify states like Massachusetts (Perry), North Carolina (Oneika Phillips), New York (Gisela Adisa) and Rhode Island (Joanna Glushak), only to give the actors representing them one note to play: vexing, submissive, indifferent, drunk? In an unrelenting Act One debate scene, the congressmen cross-examine one another on their stances for or against independence ad nauseam. The only emotion coursing through this Congressional debate? Frustration. The only decibel? Loud!
What the script lacks in nuance, directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus blanket in spectacle. Damn if these Patriots and Loyalists don’t look good! Emilio Sosa’s costumes artfully meld the past and present like a Kehinde Wiley painting. Where I expected to find ashen waistcoats and breeches, I found leather pants and gold hoops — not unlike the ones I wore to the theater. Tonal and compositional liberties have also been taken from Edwards’ original score: soul, jazz, rock and even gospel notes have been added. That said, all of the artists here are confident masters of their voices.
Page and Paulus seem aware of the twenty-first-century crowd watching their eighteenth-century-set show, but unfortunately the storyline of “1776” leaves little room beyond casting and costuming to make an interesting point about any of that. While women, trans and nonbinary performers as cis men get to be revolutionaries, women, trans and nonbinary performers as cis women are their support blankets. Take, for instance, Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis), the brooding penman of the Declaration. Even as King George dispatches tens of thousands of gun-wielding European mercenaries to descend upon the colonies and squelch revolution by any means necessary, it’s a little hard for Tom to write because he’s horny. Enter his wife, Martha Jefferson (Eryn LeCroy), who performs a rendition of “He Plays the Violin,” a song dedicated to how good TJ is in bed. She’s so utterly satisfied with the stony scribe’s “bow” that she sings:
“I hear his violin
And I get that feeling within
When Heaven calls to me
Sing me no sad elegy
Say I died
That’s right. In a musical with stakes as high as overturning tyranny, time is still spared for a woman to idolize both penis and marriage. It gives way to another mind-boggling moment: the song “Molasses to Rum,” a Triangle Trade musical number, aka a descriptor I hope to never write again. Edward Rutledge (Sara Porkalob) of South Carolina doles out this tune which rightfully criticizes all of the colonies’ involvement in America’s original sin, not just the Deep South’s. Porkalob is intoxicatingly ferocious in her delivery, as if her character was swallowing rum and not just singing about it, and around her, the Black performers on stage (save for Murray as Benjamin Franklin) begin to shuffle. They’re dancing, you soon realize, in a way that’s meant to elicit images of chains, capture and an auction block. What was once colorblind, now comes fully into view. In a program note from Roundabout Artistic Director Todd Haimes, Page is quoted as saying that this production “can blur the lines between the occluded and the included.” I guess he meant up until Act Two.
“1776” opened at the American Airlines Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.
Review photo: Joan Marcus.
Creative: Music by Sherman Edwards; Lyrics by Sherman Edwards; Book by Peter Stone; Based on a concept by Sherman Edwards; Music orchestrated by John Clancy; Vocal design by AnnMarie Milazzo; Music direction by Ryan Cantwell; Directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus; Choreographed by Jeffrey L. Page; Associate Director: Brisa Areli; Scenic Design by Scott Pask; Costume Design by Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design by Jennifer Schriever; Sound Design by Jonathan Deans; Projection Design by David Bengali; Hair and Wig Design by Mia M. Neal.
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company (Todd Haimes: Artistic Director/CEO; Julia C. Levy: Executive Director; Sydney Beers: Executive Producer; Steve Dow: Chief Administrative Officer) and American Repertory Theatre (Diane Paulus, Artistic Director; Kelvin J. Dinkins, Executive Director).
Cast: Gisela Adisa, Nancy Anderson, Becca Ayers, Tiffani Barbour, Carolee Carmello, Allyson Kaye Daniel, Elizabeth A. Davis, Mehry Eslaminia, Joanna Glushak, Shawna Hamic, Eryn LeCroy, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Liz Mikel, Patrena Murray, Oneika Phillips, Lulu Picart, Sara Porkalob, Sushma Saha, Brooke Simpson, Salome B. Smith, Sav Souza and Jill Marie Vallery.