The Broadway Theatre Review: 1776 The Musical
I can’t say that I was blown away. But I also can’t really say that I wasn’t. I was engaged, excited, perplexed, and entertained. For the most part. It’s a problematic and complex rendering, this 1969 musical, filled with history and complications, with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards (“Who’s Afraid of Mother Goose?”) and a book by Peter Stone (Titanic, Woman of the Year) that sets out to unpack the tense mess that leads to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, with a focus on John Adams (Crystal Lucas-Perry) and his attempts to persuade his colleagues to vote for American independence and to put their “John Hancock” (Liz Mikel) signature on the document. It’s not exactly the stuff that makes up an exhilarating show, especially with everything going on in this divided country. But there is also hope that lives on strong within this theatre junkie. An idea that we might be able to get it somewhat right, and maybe undo at least a portion of the problematic core. This particular revival of 1776: The Musical, after transferring from Boston’s A.R.T., does find its way somewhat, to pack an emotional punch or two, tell the historic tale within a complex framework, while forcing forth an idea and a visual that speaks volumes to our history and our world today.
The revival pushes forth a dialogue that the original never really managed to elicit, let alone emotionally ignite. The production is wrought with big ideas and formulations, constructed to challenge our souls and intellect and force us to contemplate what it means to see the stage full of all those this document, generally idealized in some circles and in this conventional musical, left outside and didn’t consider. Co-directed with a strong sense of purpose by choreographer Jeffrey L. Page (Broadway’s Violet) and Diane Paulus (Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill), 1776: The Musical surges forth on some strong unprecedented legs, stumbling through some concepts, and churning out some misguided attempts at clarity that unfortunately unintentionally do the opposite of the intended. Some glaring misteps in consent and connection, but the show also showcases some spectacular talent that would not typically be granted this moment inside this old-school, dusty musical.
The cast, made up of a crew of talented people who identify as women and nonbinary people of various races to play the Founding Fathers, is universally strong, particularly Crystal Lucas-Perry (Public’s Ain’t No Mo’) as John Adams, Carolee Carmello (Broadway’s Tuck Everlasting) as John Dickinson, Patrena Murray (Daryl Roth Theatre’s Gloria: A Life) as Benjamin Franklin, and Elizabeth A. Davis (Broadway’s Once) as Thomas Jefferson, delivering the ideals with force and a sense of purpose. These actors, all of them, including Gisela Adisa as “Robert Livingston,” Nancy Anderson as “George Read,” Becca Ayers as “Col. Thomas McKean,” Tiffani Barbour as “Andrew McNair,” Allyson Kaye Daniel as “Abigail Adams/Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon,” Mehry Eslaminia as “Charles Thomson,” Joanna Glushak as “Stephen Hopkins,” Shawna Hamic as “Richard Henry Lee,” Eryn LeCroy as “Martha Jefferson/Dr. Lyman Hall,” Liz Mikel as “John Hancock,” Oneika Phillips as “Joseph Hewes,” Lulu Picart as “Samuel Chase,” Sara Porkalob as “Edward Rutledge,” Sushma Saha as “Judge James Wilson,” Brooke Simpson as “Roger Sherman,” Salome B. Smith as “Courier,” Sav Souza as “Dr. Josiah Bartlett,” Jill Vallery as “Caesar Rodney,” and Shelby Acosta, Ariella Serur, Grace Stockdale, Dawn L. Troupe, and Imani Pearl Williams as Standbys, should be celebrated and embraced, and they generally are, given that this document and this musical must be a tough jagged little pill to swallow at times. These were the ‘others’ that this Declaration left behind or didn’t even consider, and to act out some of these complications must sit heavy on their hearts and souls (just read Sara Porkalob’s fascinating and honest interview in Vulture -Bravo to her for being so candid).
After seeing this musical the other day at Roundabout Theater‘s American Airlines Theatre, then reading the interview in the Vulture and all the comments that came flooding in on Twitter after it was posted online, I couldn’t agree more with what the brave actor stated about this musical. And I fully embrace their mindset and their need to speak up. I mean, their honesty is refreshing and should not be seen as anything but someone speaking up to the ‘powers that be’, asking for change, and hopefully being heard. I imagine some of the comments made by Porkalob might be hard for some to hear, but I’m also imagining that many are feeling ‘seen’ for their stance. Is it a terrible thing for an actor to admit that they are doing it for the paycheck and that they are not feeling totally fulfilled by the experience of being in this old-school musical? Not at all, I say. “To me, the play is a relic,” she says. “The salary is good. My favorite thing in the whole process is my cast. So the social aspect and the salary aspect are fulfilling. The creative aspect, not so much. I feel like I’m going to work.” “I admire Jeffrey and Diane for taking this on as directors. I wouldn’t have.” I think that this stance should be taken on and embraced for its honest depiction of a lot of work on Broadway, a position and idea thought by many actors that take on lesser work strictly for the paycheck, the Broadway credit, and the health care. Let’s not forget that this is a commonality for many in the workforce of America. And that this should be just the beginning of a conversation that needs to be had, without all the shaming going on around their honest answers to an interview about a show that has a lot of complicated problems floating around it.
Staged on a somewhat placid stage, designed with only flashes of visual excitement by Scott Pask (Broadway’s American Buffalo), with lighting by Jen Schriever (Broadway’s A Strange Loop), costuming by Emilio Sosa (Broadway’s Trouble in Mind), and sound design by Jonathan Deans (Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill), the framework pushes the concept up for inspection. There is a lot of talk and unpacking to do of the historic moment at the heart of this musical instruction, without much processing given to the LGBTQ+ cast members, and in a way, the whole idea of their color-blind casting. That is a subject worthy of a whole lot more than a sentence or two in a theatre review. But the piece plows forward energetically, with solid and exciting early flourishes by choreographer Page. The music sings forth energetically, thanks to some fine work done by music supervisor David Chase (Broadway’s Finding Neverland) with orchestrations by John Clancy (Broadway’s Mean Girls).
With this diverse cast made up of women and non-binary actors, most of them being Persons of Color, the imagery transcends the material adding weight and an altered perspective – even though queerness is completely disregarded throughout. Yet, the performances are worthy and wonderful with standout musical moments stepping forward throughout. One of those moments is Martha Jefferson‘s lovely song, “He Plays the Violin” sung by the (much applauded) understudy Ariella Serur (RedHouse’s Rent), who stepped into the talented ‘Martha’ shoes of Eryn LeCroy (Barrow Street’s Sweeney Todd) who was out the day I went.
The musical covers the story with detailed determination, but the central keystone comes flying forth close to the end of the show. That is when the historic bomb dutifully explodes on the stage, when Edward Rutledge, played intensely by the magnificent Sara Porkalob (A.R.T,’s Dragon Cycle), smashes forth the incredibly powerful “Molasses to Rum.” It’s the pivotal performance moment for the show, and Porkalob relishes in it, singing the song with passion and fire. The song is clearly meaningful and important, centered around the demand that the anti-slavery clause written into the Declaration of Independence by Jefferson be removed. Rutledge, smiling up until this point (most meaningfully), holds a sledgehammer over the signing, calling out the hypocrisy of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and the rest of the North, who are all advocating for the anti-slavery clause while drinking rum made from slave labor, profiting off of the slave ships, and the raping of enslaved women whose children end up on the same auction block. And demanding the removal of the clause. Rutledge gets his way, and the document gets signed by all.
As staged, it’s the most powerfully complex moment, with the directors constructing an interlude to the chanting of “molasses to rum,” recreating the emotional visual of a slave auction to the sound of the creaking of the ships. It’s dark and as uncomfortable as it should be, and although the moment is complicated by the visual of seeing the non-black POC actors sitting behind the auction table (carrying their own complex trauma), the taking back of power is the object of this moment, and the weight is there. 1776: The Musical stomps the moment forward, even while sometimes tripping on its own two left feet. It’s worthy of inspection and debate, even when it gets mired down in the complications of consent and the complex visuals presented during “The Egg” song that fill the head with a complicated blend of strong, conflicting emotions.
Porkalob states in the Vulture interview, “the reason we were directed to look at the audience [when we all hold out our coats at the end] was to remind the audience that we weren’t considered when this compromise was made. Does that read? No, it doesn’t. It drives me crazy. I think you’ve already achieved that goal, directors, by casting us in this show. People are going to interpret the text, first and foremost.” Very true. So go, see, and interpret. Think about what this show and this production are trying to say, even if the outcome is flawed from within. This is the point of theatre and this production of 1776. Does it all work? No, but it sure does get the mind racing, and thank God for that.