Anyone who knows my blog probably also knows that I am a Canadian New Yorker, and because of that Canadian upbringing and schooling, I walked into New York City Center Encores! production of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776 last Thursday with excitement coupled with a curiosity of the subject matter. Obviously, I know the historical relevance of the date and general knowledge of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but I had no idea about the process that transpired in those weeks before July 4th, 1776 that gave birth to this nation that I now live in. So beyond seeing a musical I had never seen nor heard before (which is always exciting for me), I was also looking forward to learning a few things about history, one of my favorite subjects.
This show, speaking of history, has not been produced on Broadway since a successful Roundabout Theatre Company revival in 1997 directed by Scott Ellis. If first was produced in 1969 performing in what is now known as the Richard Rogers Theatre (formally called the 46th Street Theatre, where another certain historical musical is currently playing). 1776 ran for a very successful 1,217 performances, relocating to two other theaters before going on a 2 year tour and winning three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Now, reading this I must admit I’m a bit surprised by the success of this show. In this reincarnation, I felt it to be a bit long, very dialogue-heavy, and drawn out, but I bet, in its time, it was quite revolutionary; a period piece about a historical moment, as a musical. Even with that in mind, I must admit that I found the songs a bit on the simplistic side in terms of their lyrics. This isn’t Sondheim I can tell you, but it is lovely in some moments, and musically, very beautiful. The songs don’t necessarily move the story along every time, but luckily, 1776 has a great story to be told.
Speaking of a historical musical, one can’t help but compare 1776 to that current resident of the Richard Rogers Theatre, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. I’m sure it had a great influence on this production although I wish the team had taken some of the ideas a bit further. I wanted even more creative diversity within the casting, and even less concern with the senators’ look. It felt to me like a cast of older white guys with a few other elements thrown in as a token to diversity and to Hamilton. But did they need to look so senator-like? And if they were going to costume these men in modern day suit and tie, could they have been a lot more unique in their styles of hair and dress?
That being said, Santino Fontana as John Adams is glorious. His voice just beautifully captures all the power, frustration and excitement one could hope for in the part. He plays “obnoxious and unliked” so darn well, but makes us happy to be in his company. Christiane Noll playing his wife, Abigale Adams, creates the most beautiful moments of pure magic when she and Fontana sing the glorious and touching ‘Yours, Yours, Yours’. John Larroquette is another standout playing a funny and playful Benjamin Franklin up against the bad guy of the Senate, Bryce Pinkham’s fantastic portrayal of the obstructionist John Dickinson. John Behlmann also was wonderful as the sex-starved but brilliant writer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.
Beautiful moments and lovely voices abound in this production, (directed by Garry Hynes) but I can’t say I was completely pulled in. I was consistently interested in the drama unfolding, but sometimes found myself less engaged during some of the musical moments, like the silly and slightly racy, ‘He Plays the Violin’. The show started strong with the sit-up and take notice opener. ‘For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down’ but lessoned in its rendition of mildly funny but tedious ‘The Lees of Old Virginia’. As the show moved forward, I was wishing there was a bit more of that treacherous feeling they were talking about in 1776. Don’t get me wrong, talent was on full display at N.Y. City Center this past weekend, but in the end, the musical felt like we were attending a super stellar high school musical aimed at teaching through the guise of musical theatre. Beautifully sung, but not as rebellious as the characters within.