curtain call

A muddled attempt to reorient history with the Broadway revival of ‘1776’

Roundabout Theatre Company 1776
(l to r) Elizabeth A. Davis, Patrena Murray, Crystal Lucas-Perry in Roundabout Theatre Company’s ‘1776.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Welcome to Curtain Call, our mostly queer take on the latest openings on Broadway and beyond. 

The Rundown:

It’s spring 1776, and the Second Continental Congress is gathered in Philadelphia while the American colonies fight through the Revolutionary War’s bloody first year. It may seem an unlikely story for a Broadway musical, yet the subject matter feels more timely than ever in politically contentious 2022 America.

The Roundabout Theatre Company revival of 1776 dares to recast the original 1969 production with women, transgender and nonbinary performers who represent a range of ages, races, and ethnicities. They are the individuals who were not included or considered in our nation’s founding, each of them powerful enough to shake the stage of the American Airlines Theatre. From co-directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, 1776 is a lens on America’s origins, and it is determined to broaden the audience’s focus.

No Tea, No Shade:

The concept of Paulus and Page’s 1776 is thrilling: to behold a diverse company portraying a story that’s literally about the ideals and principles of white-cis-male politicians. From the opening curtain, anticipation runs high for a mind-blowing or at least inspiring show — probably, in part, due to the success of Hamilton and the sparse, dramatic, and surprisingly bloody 2019 revival of Oklahoma!.

But in reality, the onstage talent runs much hotter than the book, music and lyrics, and choreography can sustain. Led by Crystal Lucas-Perry in the lead role of earnest John Adams, along with Patrena Murray as feisty Benjamin Franklin, and two dozen other players representing the signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1776 rarely moves beyond the practical matters printed in our dusty history books to reach — or reveal — new territory.

Related: In ‘american (tele)visions, the American Dream becomes a nightmare

Roundabout Theatre Company 1776
The company of Roundabout Theatre Company’s ‘1776.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

This production’s most revelatory moments come buried in a few key songs. In Act I, the duet “Yours, Yours, Yours” between John Adams and his wife Abigail (a scene-stealing Allyson Kaye Daniel) suggests her influence on John’s political strategies. Similarly, in Act II, South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge (a commanding Sara Porkalob) sings “Molasses to Rum” to expose the Northern colonies’ shady dependence on slavery through the triangular trade with Europe, Africa, and Southern sugar plantations. 

It’s hard not to think how formidable the original production (which won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical) must have felt and how audiences may have embraced 1776 as a reminder of the precarious nature of democracy. They could see how, from the very beginning, Congressional votes were often evenly split.

It would seem like this production, with a cast revolutionary in its own way, should pack a punch. Instead, it feels more like a limp salute.

In 2022, we’re at a very similarly divided, violent moment in U.S. history. So it would seem like this production, with a cast revolutionary in its own way, should pack a punch. Instead, it feels more like a limp salute. Even John Clancy’s new orchestrations can’t lift much of the score’s lifeless patter while Page’s presentational, posturing choreography lands like a sledgehammer. Scott Pask’s drab scenic design is what we might imagine the first congressional chamber to look like minus the sunlight, and except for a startling final tableau, fails to frame or enhance its occupants.

Despite the effort to reposition its relevancy, this 1776 feels dated. The tremendous social and cultural shifts for people of color, women, LGBTQ folx, immigrants, and other Americans uncovered during the past half-century are difficult to imprint, despite the creators’ estates granting permissions to recontextualize the script. 

One buried moment is the silent portrayal of Robert Hemings as Jefferson’s bodyservant. The boy was sister to Sally Hemings, documented to be Jefferson’s slave, “concubine,” and mother to at least six of his children. Even a book-smart AP history student would have difficulty plucking out the reference. During this reviewer’s attendance, one nearby audience member audibly muttered, “What about Sally Hemings?” 

Roundabout Theatre Company 1776
The company of Roundabout Theatre Company’s ‘1776.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Let’s Have a Moment:

One of 1776’s most poignant moments occurs prior to the performance when the familiar house voiceover reminds audiences to silence their phones. But this time, Indigenous American cast member Brooke Simpson (who plays Roger Sherman of Connecticut) adds an additional note, acknowledging the First Nation tribes who dwelled on American soil long before colonists arrived. Simpson adds that the theatre stands on land that was originally inhabited by the Lenape people, on the island they called Manahatta.

Once the curtain rises, the company transitions from contemporary clothes into designer Emilio Sosa’s period costumes — with Simpson adding a beautiful Native American beaded necklace over her colonial coat. The moment earns rousing applause yet never quite resolves. Paulus told the New York Times the show “is to hold history as a predicament, rather than an affirming myth,” which holds true when considering this fight for independence fails to acknowledge the stolen land on which the country was built.

The Last Word:

It’s easy to want to like 1776, not only because of its embrace of diverse identities but because many Americans, this writer included, straddle a sense of patriotism and national ownership with very real worries about the erosion of civil rights and equality. America’s history is messy at best. If that’s what the creators were going for, this is a revolution worth seeing. 

1776 plays on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre through January 8, 2023.

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