The Revived and Reinvented 1776 Is a Delight, If You Can Stand to Watch It

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Elizabeth A. Davis, Patrena Murray, and Crystal Lucas-Perry in 1776.
Photo: Joan Marcus

In 2022, a revival of 1776 is an almost perversely hard sell. For one thing, read the room: Patriotic pride is at an all-time low around these parts. For another, Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s musical dramatization of the creation of the Declaration of Independence, acclaimed when it premiered in 1969, is now doomed to languish in the shadow of its cooler kid sister Hamilton. Whether you’re a Hamilton fan, a Hamilton skeptic, or a Hamilton agnostic burned out on the whole American experiment, you’d be forgiven for side-eyeing a less revolutionary Revolution musical. In this economy?

You’ll probably side-eye harder the more you learn about the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new revival, co-directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus. Just as “sexy Oklahoma!” became shorthand for Daniel Fish’s 2019 Rodgers and Hammerstein reimagining, this production (now running at the American Airlines Theatre) is likely to be glossed as “woke 1776.” The preshow announcement to turn off your phone is preceded by a land acknowledgment. There are no men in the cast, which, as the press release puts it, “includes multiple representations of race, ethnicity, and gender; they identify as female, transgender and nonbinary.” (Though there are no trans women among them.) This Lex post of a cast opens the show by stepping silently into the Founding Fathers’ buckled shoes while staring defiantly into the audience. It’s important to keep an open mind, but a lot of minds will have to be pried open like a stubborn pistachio.

And yet, if you can pry … well, I’ll be damned. It’s an absolute blast.

It wins you over in minutes. Though I spent the opening number puzzling over what the nontraditional casting was doing for the show — what statement it was making, how literally we were meant to interpret it, whether it was working too hard against the text — I soon ceased to notice it at all. The talent level is so high that the casting feels less conceptual and more incidental. Led by the charismatic Crystal Lucas-Perry as John Adams, the ensemble cast is a thrilling mix of Broadway veterans (including Carolee Carmello, resplendent in villain mode as John Dickinson) and newcomers. My favorites — it’s the kind of show that encourages you to pick favorites — were Shawna Hamic, bombastic as Richard Henry Lee, Brooke Simpson, sparkly and adorable as Roger Sherman, and Patrena Murray, whose wry, understated performance as Benjamin Franklin feels definitive. But the shared energy and chemistry transcend any individual performance, and under the direction of Page and Paulus, everyone onstage seems to be having the time of their life. (Playbill readers will notice that two cast members are dating each other.)

Casting aside, Page and Paulus have given us a surprisingly straightforward interpretation of 1776, unexpectedly proving that it’s still a viable property in a post-Hamilton world. Edwards’s score, top-tier to begin with, sounds fresh when transposed into new keys and belted in a female register. (John Clancy did the orchestrations; Annmarie Milazzo is the vocal designer.) Even the corniest jokes in the book bring the house down; I couldn’t stop laughing when John Adams introduced Ben Franklin as “inventor of the stove.” (It was all in Perry’s delivery. You had to be there.) Apparently 1776 holds the record for the longest song-free stretch in any musical, and I was dreading it, but the scene flies by here. If you’re going to do 1776, you couldn’t do it better.

That being said, should it be done at all?

The problem with 1776 is also the problem with the founding of America: It’s actually a tale about slavery, and when told truthfully, it’s a terrible story. To its credit, 1776 grapples with this reality much more head-on than Hamilton ever did; the whole second act turns on the issue. But 1776 also depicts Thomas Jefferson — enslaver of hundreds of people, a man who recorded children as financial assets, one who believed in whipping 10-year-olds to increase their productivity as blacksmiths — as a likable hero. The show’s book is oddly fixated on his sex life, presenting him as a generous lover and committed wife guy with nary a hint of Sally Hemings. Page and Paulus complicate this as best they can: This production’s Jefferson is visibly pregnant for some reason, and Elizabeth A. Davis plays him (and the violin) with creepy remoteness. As Martha Jefferson, Eryn LeCroy sings his praises in a bone-chillingly beautiful soprano, wearing a floaty lemon meringue of a gown (the sumptuous costumes by Emilio Sosa are one of the production’s greatest pleasures) and looking like the physical embodiment of white femininity. The effect is ghastly.

Intentionally so, I think. But intention takes you only so far. Afterward, when the lights went up for intermission, I overheard a tween girl exclaim, “That was an amazing number!” Her father replied, “She has a great voice.” Both of those things were true. It’s equally true that the real-life Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with an enslaved woman and enslaved those children, too, and that this is simply not in the text of 1776. No experimental approach can fix this.

Does this make 1776 rotten to the core? Some people will undoubtedly think so, and if they elect to skip the revival for this reason, I don’t blame them. But I find myself deeply moved by the collective work to bring out the beauty and joy in such a fundamentally corrupted musical, and I’m glad to have witnessed it. I want other people to witness it. If only for selfish reasons, I want it to continue as long as possible. In this sense — ugh, okay, I see what they did there; well played, guys — it’s not unlike the American experiment itself.

1776 is at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre through January 8.

The Revived, Reinvented 1776 Is Great, If You Can Stand It

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