GIVE US LIBERTY SMITH!
The best musical I’ve seen this season gives us George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and yes, you’re already saying, we know: HAMILTON.
No, that was last season’s show, as the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and New York Drama Critics Circle have already proved.
I’m talking about LIBERTY SMITH, which was recently performed in Newtown, Connecticut by grammar, middle and high school students.
If the name of the town rings a bell, you probably wish that it wouldn’t. This is where one Adam Lanza on Dec. 14, 2012 took the present that his mother had given him and shot and killed her with it. Then he went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School and executed twenty first-graders and six school employees.
The following summer, Broadway producer Van Dean, director Michael Unger, musical director Jeffrey Saver and several others decided they had to soothe and lift the morale of the children who’d survived. So they mounted a production of SEUSSICAL.
I attended, as did its lyricist Lynn Ahrens. We both shed a pint’s worth of tears as we watched the kids and wondered what they had seen and heard. How many were now being delivered from their nightmares by singing and dancing in a musical? Bless Dean, Unger, Saver and SEUSSICAL for being part of the healing.
Last year, NewArts: New Town Musicals mounted two shows that went so well that this year two more were produced. THE LION KING, JR. was the other, which was probably spectacular, but I have no regrets in choosing LIBERTY SMITH.
The title character is the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Libby Smith, a young teen who’s giving an oral report in history class. “If there had been no Liberty Smith, there’d be no United States of America,” she insists. “He was important during the Revolutionary War and knew George Washington and all the other people you see on money.”
Then comes another kind of revolution – courtesy of a turntable – which whisks us from 21st century schoolmates to 18th century pre-Revolution adults. Libby shows us that Liberty was quite a guy. When Benjamin Franklin went out kite-flying, Liberty was right there with him and was actually the first to feel an electric shock. Liberty also had the idea for the Boston Tea Party, which is why his followers named themselves The Sons of Liberty. Because Paul Revere had had a little bit too much to drink before he was to make his fateful midnight ride, Liberty instead had to do the driving and alert the countryside that “The British are coming!” When Jefferson couldn’t find the right word to follow “We hold these truths to be,” Liberty came up with “self-evident.” At show’s end, when Franklin cheered “the white, red and blue,” Liberty suggested that “red, white and blue” would be more euphonious.
In other words, LIBERTY SMITH is FORREST GUMP set to music. But bookwriters Marc Madnick, Eric R. Cohen and Adam Abraham also have a great many points to make about the average woman’s life in the late 18th century.
First there’s Miss Dandridge, whom Liberty believes is the love of his life. Her father, however, doesn’t like Liberty and demands that she marry someone more prosperous. So Liberty, needing money, gets an apprenticeship with Benjamin Franklin, who shares his office with seamstress Betsy Ross.
The future flag-maker has an apprentice, too: Emily Andrews, who’s disappointed in Franklin because she wanted the apprenticeship and he automatically gave it to a man. Betsy urges her to “be content with your lot in life,” but that’s not Emily, in the grand musical theater tradition of galvanizing female heroines.
Emily could be interested in Liberty if he could only forget Miss Dandridge, a woman who can only read “little words that are far apart.” Thus Emily has contempt for Liberty, especially when he enlists in the Revolution to impress Miss Dandridge. What a motivation for joining the cause! As Emily sagaciously remarks, “If she loved you, you wouldn’t have to do anything at all to impress her.”
What’s worse is that Liberty can only remark on Miss Dandridge’s beauty (on which the quite attractive Brianna Bauch delivered). Although Emily has splendid looks too (as Rachel Rival proved), she wants to be loved for much more than that.
Emily does have an admirer, however: General Benedict Arnold. She doesn’t take to him, although she can’t put her finger on why. She deflects his advances by implying that she’s involved with Liberty.
Miss Dandridge winds up marrying a rich man. “What else would you have me do?” she asks Liberty. It’s a good question that supports the show’s theme that women were then terribly unempowered.
Then comes one of composer Michael Weiner and lyricist Adam Abraham’s best songs: “The World Turned Upside Down.” It functions much as “All the Wasted Time” does in PARADE. There we assumed that Leo and Lucille Frank would be singing about his wasted time in prison, but no; the Franks rue that each didn’t appreciate the other enough when he was free. Similarly speaking, we infer that “The World Turned Upside Down,” a first-act closer of a show set in the Revolutionary War, would tell us of political turmoil. And while it does, it centers more on Liberty’s anguish on losing Miss Dandridge.
But her husband eventually dies, leaving the field open for Liberty – until she marries George Washington.
(I daresay that some but not nearly all of you reading this knew that “Dandridge” was Martha Washington’s maiden name. I’ve kept it from you to create suspense, but the authors didn’t, for they gave away their trump card by calling her “Martha” throughout. Guys, reach for that “Replace” key on your computer and change every “Martha” to “Miss Dandridge.”)
The ever-adventurous Emily stows away on the boat that will take Ambassador Ben Franklin – and Liberty, of course -- to Paris. Once she’s caught, she and Liberty are told “Pretend you’re married. Say that you’re Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”
Paris, the quintessential city of romance, provides the push to make Liberty and Emily fall officially in love. We certainly don’t mourn that Benedict Arnold loses the girl. And who is the one who captures him? A hint: his initials are L.S.
LIBERTY SMITH contains more anachronisms than WHOOP-UP had performances. Because two little cups connected by string is the best way people can communicate, Liberty is soon saying “Can you hear me now?” Revere thinks that “silver’s wicked cool,” which shows at least one of the talented bookwriters knows how people talk in Boston. Consider such lines as “I am George Washington and I have approved this message” and “We’ll get a cup of coffee at the 1711” and you’ll get the gist.
One anachronism winds up telling the truth. When Martha’s mother suggests that she try finding a worthy suitor in Philadelphia, Liberty says “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere!” That’s an especially good joke because Philadelphia, not New York, was then America’s most prominent city.
I regard anachronisms, not puns, as the lowest form of humor, but here they don’t offend because they’re being delivered by a teen, a prime age group for anachronism-appreciation. At the very least, a tall-tale teller such as Libby might well throw them into her story to get some laughs from the class.
After all Liberty has done, Washington wants him as his vice-president. But Liberty turns down the offer and recommends John Adams because he wants to spend more time with Emily and his future family. That spurs Washington to call Liberty “as cracked as that bell in Philadelphia.” Washington even suggests that the bell be named after Liberty: “We’ll call it The Smith Bell!”
When George Washington cried “Victory!” it almost seemed to be a victory cry over Adam Lanza. Yes, it’s impossible to not think about the 20 additional kids who could have been on that stage. Did the script to LIBERTY SMITH, which was written some time ago, have an allusion to “the right to bear arms?” Van Dean admitted “A few lines had to be cut.” A mention of “The Boston Massacre” was retained, however, and got a solemn silence from the crowd.
At the curtain call, I was again crying. Part of the reason was that I once again wondered how many kids on stage had been in that now-demolished school on that horrific day. But mostly I was moved at how they were beaming after their triumph. Lexi Tobin was a superb Libby and will someday make a fine Glinda. Both Cameron Bell (Liberty) and William Sandercox (Washington) had the can-do quality needed of patriots.
At intermission, I corralled Unger to say how thrilled I was thus far. “And that kid playing Ben Franklin!” I exuded. “You must have been so thrilled the moment he walked through the door!”
“SHE,” he corrected. And indeed the program revealed that a Melissa Shohet was playing ol’ Ben. The excellent performer could have fooled me – and did.
Some licensing company should pick up LIBERTY SMITH. It’s a great show for directors who’d like to deal with the themes of 1776 but don’t have enough men. It’s also a natural for kids and instructive as well – although its history is a little off.
Truth to tell, in 1751, Martha married her first husband who died in 1757, leaving the field open for a marriage to Washington a mere two years later – long before The American Revolution. So let’s give Libby Smith a C- for historical accuracy but an A+ for entertainment.
— Peter Filichia