It may be called 1776, but this Broadway revival has a predominant tang of its 1969 origin. Sprawling, bawdy, and ranging in the spirit of that era, and with a book (by Peter Stone) that is far more attention-commanding than its music and lyrics (Sherman Edwards), this Tony Award-winning musical has been revived on Broadway with a cast, the Roundabout Theatre Company/American Repertory Theater emphasize, that “includes multiple representations of race, ethnicity, and gender; they identify as female, transgender, and nonbinary.”
White men may have hammered the Declaration of Independence into being, but this revival (American Airlines Theatre, to Jan. 8, 2023) wants to foreground the layers of diversity in the country that exist now—and to reveal the making of history through those voices. Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The cast of this revival is a resounding response to those who he left out of his vision.
This othering doesn’t change the words or actions of the male roles being played, but it opens up a refreshing interpretive space by which to hear and view the words and actions of the men who debated, schemed, horse-traded, and agonized over the document famously dated to July 4, 1776.
When Crystal Lucas-Perry as John Adams opens the show observing a representation of the men, noting, “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace—that two are called a law firm—and that three or more become a Congress. And by God, I have had this Congress!” the denunciation rings resoundingly across history, gender, and race.
The entertaining, Three Musketeer-ish trio of Adams, Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis), and Benjamin Franklin (Patrena Murray) are trying to muster support to get the Declaration over the line—but dissent comes from the formidable John Dickinson from Pennsylvania (the excellent Carolee Carmello) and Southerners like Edward Rutledge (Sara Porkalob). Sushma Saha, as the dithering, bullied, harried Judge James Wilson from Pennsylvania, possesses a key vote, and absolutely no idea how to wield it.
Tiffani Barbour is commanding as Congressional Custodian Andrew McNair, trying to keep the unruly, battling lawmakers in check, or at least work to a structure. Individual performers—like Gisela Adisa as New York’s Robert Livingston, abstaining from every vote, “courteously” and Joanna Glushak’s constantly drunk Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island—provide punctuated moments of humor. As the debate rumbles on, solemn updates from the war with the English are conveyed by messenger. On the back of the stage, the looping script of the Declaration itself is recycled as a day-by-day date count down to July 4 itself.
There are moments of sharpness under Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus’ direction, and also swathes of the show that feel listless and lost. One minute you’re fascinated, the next puzzled at a nothing-burger musical diversion the show has taken. The staging is dull and mostly stuck in a meeting room until a finale which makes you wonder why no-one thought to make more vivid use of the space until that moment. The pacing is uneven, as is the acting style which seems mostly audience-aimed, rather than intra-character. 1776 is an odd mix of revue, sober history lesson, and traditional musical theater.
1776 is at its best as a fascinating history lesson, and at its most dragging when the mostly-not-all unmemorable songs take us away from that.
Adams sets out the reasons for wanting independence at the outset. “For 10 years King George and his Parliament have gulled, cullied, and diddled these Colonies with their illegal taxes—Stamp Acts, Townshend Acts, Sugar Acts, Tea Acts—and when we dared stand up like men they stopped our trade, seized our ships, blockaded our ports, burned our towns, and spilled our blood.” (Full disclosure: this critic is English-born, and now a dual citizen.)
The show is not itself preachy; its opening song is called “Sit Down, John” as a way of signaling how exasperating Adams was to work with. He was didactic, and never willing to back down. We may see him as inspiring today, but we also see why his colleagues, sweltering in the stuffy heat of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, saw him differently.
As the show opens on May 8, 1776, his colleagues call Adams a bore. “Consider yourselves fortunate that you have John Adams to abuse for no sane man would tolerate it!” he sings back at them. How will they reach an agreement in “foul, fetid, fuming, foggy, filthy, Philadelphia”?
Ironically, given the casting brilliance of this production, the female characters of 1776 are underwritten and underutilized. Adams’ wife Abigail (Allyson Kaye Daniel) is a spiritually present, ameliorating salve, sadly with only notes of sweetness to play. In contrast, Eryn McCroy closes out act one with the belted “He Plays the Violin,” a loopy song in seeming praise of Jefferson’s “fiddle”/sexual prowess.
The show guides the audiences through the scheming and plotting of those hours and days, as when Dickinson stymies what seems like victory by managing to pass a motion that any vote for independence be unanimous. We observe the debate about what America’s symbol should be: a dove, turkey, or eagle.
Carmello-as-Dickinson’s “Cool, Cool Conservative Men” is a standout number, the southern statesmen singing in tight formation: “To the right, Ever to the right, Never to the left, forever to the right.” “Momma, Look Sharp,” a lament to those lost to war led by Salome E. Smith’s Courier is especially haunting with a Black woman leading its recitation.
The most agonizing part of 1776 towards its end sees the incremental dilution and challenge to Jefferson’s venerable words in the draft Declaration, even over calling King George a tyrant (that stayed in). “Good God, Jefferson! Don't you ever intend to speak up for your own work?!” Adams asks, speaking for the audience too. “I had hoped that the work would speak for itself,” Jefferson replies, which sounds as idealistically inadequate today as then, when faced with the rapacious intent of those bent on undermining humane ideals.
Most damningly, Rutledge successfully faces down Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin over the issue of slavery; Rutledge making it clear not only that the South is opposed to its abolition, but also, in the wild song “Molasses to Run,” the northern legislators’ hypocrisy over the issue—as well as Jefferson’s ownership of slaves himself. When Adams says slaves are Americans, Rutledge seethes in response: “They are here, yes, but they are not people, sir—they are property.”
Franklin tells Adams the clause to abolish slavery must be stricken from the declaration: “It’s a luxury we can’t afford.” Adams is disbelieving and disconsolate at having to make the compromise, whining to Abigail he is seen as “obnoxious and disliked… unwilling to face reality… and pig-headed.” No, Abigail says, all not true—except for the pig-headed bit. Just to prove it, his final debate is a linguistic one over “inalienable” (Jefferson) versus “unalienable” (Adams).
While the show ranges in its woolly late-1960s way, its ending is elegantly simple, as we see the real-life signatures of the men in a cascade of projected graphics. John Hancock’s (Liz Mikel) is (now-famously) large, he says, “so Fat George in London can read it without his glasses!”
The final questions, sung by the company—“Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see?”—are sung directly to us. It is a challenge to not simply see and respect the diversity the show proudly parades, but also the act of democracy in the forming of the Declaration itself—how it came to be, what it means, what it enshrines, and what it should mean now. Just as in 1776, 1969, indeed any time, the show seems to say, its words and principles should not be lost to history and instead made to live.