1776: IT’S A MASTERPIECE, I SAY
I know, I know – you’ve already heard that the production of 1776 at Encores! is revolutionary for two distinct reasons.
But I say there’s a third one on hand, too.
Revolution Number One in this musical about the Making of America via The Declaration of Independence is that the Encores! cast includes eight performers of color. Needless to say, this is historically inaccurate and at odds with a story that involves slavery. But we are in an age of non-traditional casting, after all.
Can there be any doubt that the multi-racial casting of The Biggest Hit of the New Century -- HAMILTON – which takes place in the same era has influenced this non-traditional approach at 1776? Was director Garry Hynes inspired to cast this way, or did she feel she compelled to mix-and-match, given HAMILTON’s titanic success?
Truth to tell, after a while you may well not even notice that black people are playing these WASPS. However, the one piece of African-American casting that may raise your eyebrows is Nikki Rene Daniels as Martha Jefferson – Thomas’ wife. Daniels certainly does the job when acting and singing, but her very presence reminds us that Jefferson has often been romantically linked with his black slave Sally Hemmings. Hynes either liked the idea that we’d be reminded of that history, or – and this is the easier scenario to believe – Daniels was the best candidate for the job.
Revolution Number Two involves Terese Wadden’s costumes. Everyone’s in modern dress: the congressmen wear jackets and ties; the Courier has urban duds topped by a hoodie; Abigail Adams, who’s stuck on the farm, is in workclothes and Martha Jefferson, coming to visit her husband, gets to wear two contemporary frocks. (Her second one just happens to be red, white and blue.)
Just as anachronistic rap music is used in HAMILTON to make the point that the colonies were then angry (for rap is inherently angry), here the use of contemporary clothes reminds us that stubborn strife in Congress has lasted long beyond 1776 and continues today. In fact, much of the time the vote on Independence comes it at six for and six against (with one abstention); today, the Supreme Court may well find itself in a four-for and four-against situation.
But we can only be satisfied with that the-more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same analogy for so long; after all, our Founding Fathers turned out to be heroes but our current batch of representatives haven’t yet reached that lofty status. (How many of you think they ever will?)
Even the props are in modern dress. One of Sherman Edwards’ lyrics refers to a “quill pen,” but they’re using what looks like a current Mark Cross to me.
Anyway, I say we have a Revolution Number Three on hand – for in the 22-year history of Encores! none of the five-dozen-plus musicals it’s produced has ever retained as much book as what’s on stage now. So the evening comes in at nearly three hours, as 1776 always has.
Usually at Encores! David Ives or someone else comes in and trims away a book’s fat; doing it here would amputate some very choice meat. Almost all of Peter Stone’s book is on view, which is entirely fitting, given that it’s the best book a musical has ever had.
Yes, I’ve seen GYPSY – just as many times, in fact, as 1776: sixteen each. But take a look at Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoir, and you’ll find much of the characters and plot in place for a bookwriter to adapt it. Stone had to sift through ancient papers: detailed congressional records, letters and scraps of paper, which was hard enough – but making a story suspenseful when we already know the Declaration will indeed be signed? What a miracle that after a half-hour of watching Stone’s plot, we come to believe that there COULDN’T ever be a United State of America – not when the vote must be unanimous and not with Dickinson such a strong holdout.
Hynes has made some tiny cuts; all but one can be defended: Dickinson, the loyalist-royalist who will thwart independence at every chance, belittles Adams’ criticisms of England and George III in a (now much-missed) stirring speech: “Is that all England means to you? … the noblest, most civilized nation … Would you have us forsake Hastings and Magna Carta, Strongbow and Lionhearted, Drake and Marlborough, Tudors, Stuarts and Plantagenets for you?”
It’s a very good question, which is one reason why Stone’s book is so magnificent: Dickinson, the ostensible “bad guy” (in that he wants to keep America from being America), here seems right while Adams seems wrong. That’s also true in another excellent Dickinson rebuttal – one that Hynes was smart enough to retain: he says that the colonies couldn’t possibly win because they have “no army, no navy, no arms, no ammunition, no treasury, no friends.” History will prove Dickinson wrong, of course, but on that June 7, 1776, he seems incontrovertibly correct.
A lesser bookwriter would have made Dickinson fat, prissy, lisping and full of silly observations. Stone instead intensified the drama by creating a Dickinson who’s a worthy opponent to the single-minded, never-say-die dynamo Adams. A fair fight is always more intriguing than a wipeout.
The 1972 film that retained a startling proportion of the original Broadway cast is probably one that Santino Fontana and John Larroquette have never seen; they don’t for a second mimic William Daniels or Howard Da Silva, who respectively created an unforgettable John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Nevertheless, as good as those originals were, both Fontana and Larroquette are offering powerful interpretations.
For that matter, Bryce Pinkham, now Dickinson, told me Sunday in an interview that he purposely stayed away from the film, and considering what I saw him do (quite well, in fact) I completely believe him. Alas, John Behlmann makes such a little impression as Thomas Jefferson that one wonders if he didn’t see the script, let alone the film, until recently.
However, you may have seen the film – and if you have, you may agree that it’s hampered by the reality of having too many Congressmen on hand. True, 56 bodies actually signed the Declaration, but the musical whittled that number down to 20 and had only 13 signing the document. That’s more than enough for us to keep track of.
But at least one joke profits from having fewer people on stage. It happens after Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island leaves the hall to visit the men’s room; given that he’s absent when a vote is taken, the Congressional secretary notes that “Rhode Island passes.”
Stone’s stage directions ask for “laughter,” but in the film, the overly raucous amount heard is way out of proportion to the modest jest. Here at Encores! Hynes does this moment better by just having Samuel Chase of Maryland think it hilarious. That’s more realistic and much funnier.
Ric Stoneback is the best Chase I’ve seen dating back to the original 1969 production. Because Chase is established as the heaviest man in Congress, few directors take him seriously and make him come across as namby-pamby. Stoneback instead acts with confidence, conviction and genuine strength; he takes no guff from anyone. Good for him and Hynes for finding this refreshing interpretation.
Hynes’ one crucial casting mistake involves George Read of Delaware. Stone described him as “small” and “little” but Hynes chose the full-bodied Kevin Ligon. Late in the show there’s a joke that depends on Read’s being skinny; Ligon’s ample frame doesn’t fit the joke, which resulted in silence on opening night.
As Abigail Adams, Christiane Noll is too bubble-headed and contemporary. History shows that John and Abigail had as close to a 50%-50% relationship in an era of 95%-5%, so Noll shouldn’t ave made Abigail this much of a flibbertigibbet.
Let’s have a shout-out, too, to Michael McCormick as John Hancock. He makes as big an impact on stage as his the real Hancock did with his enormous signature on the Declaration. Hancock is the President of the Congress and must have gravitas; McCormick – a fine John Adams in the 1997 revival, by the way – has it.
If we go by applause after each of Sherman Edwards’s songs, the conservatives won on Wednesday night. The eight actors who sang “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” made the greatest impression on first-nighters. How nice that they could put aside their jingoism and give credit where it was very much due.
As for solos, yes, Fontana scored mightily with his eleven o’clocker “Is Anybody There?” But Alexander Gemignani, playing Edward Rutledge – next to Dickinson, the biggest threat to Independence – was sensational in his one-man oratorio “Molasses to Rum.” Too many actors singing this difficult piece have sung so loftily that the lyrics have not been clear. While Gemignani has a strong enough singing voice, he speak-sings the song to make the words clear -- and they are fightin’ words that need to be heard.
When 1776 was first announced for Broadway in the late ‘60s, long-time show biz observers thought that a historical musical with no substantial romance or dancing – and a case-closed plot – would be a quick flop. But Peter Stone, Sherman Edwards and the staff won the Best Musical Tony and proved that nothing is impossible, no matter how crazy the odds.
The best facet of that, in fact, was that the 1776 creators mirrored the “impossible” task that John Adams had achieved almost two centuries earlier.
— Peter Filichia