1776 theater review: Congress gets gender-swapped in a lively revival

If we are doomed to repeat history, we might as well recast it. And in a post-Hamilton world, really, would a revival of a show like 1776 make sense any other way? The winner of three Tonys including Best Musical when it bowed on Broadway in 1969, Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone's raucous American origin story ran for over 1200 performances before being transferred to the screen in a modestly successful film version, then returned to Broadway for another well-received run in 1997.

Now ensconced at the American Airlines Theater, it looks markedly different than it did more than 50 years ago — if a lot more like the actual composition of the country it's about. That's because this 1776, co-directed by Diane Paulus (Waitress, Jagged Little Pill) and choreographer Jeffrey L. Page, has replaced its founding fathers with an entirely female, trans, and nonbinary cast across a panoply of ages, abilities, and skin tones (Thomas Jefferson, for one, is visibly pregnant). Their collective presence gives the show a warmth and sweet immediacy that its bare-bones staging often lacks, and their voices lift Edwards' jaunty, tuneful score to a less bombastic, more contemplative place.


Evan Zimmerman

It should probably be noted that 1776 is also often very funny; a workplace comedy, essentially, in breeches. Once the players have emerged onstage, where they efficiently transform their street clothes into something that at least approximates the late 18th century — frock coats, sturdy pilgrim shoes — the main dynamics are swiftly established: It's hot as hell in Philadelphia, and John Adams (Crystal Lucas-Perry) has had his fill of King George and Parliament; at least a few of his fellow Congressmen agree. Ben Franklin (a breezy, avuncular Patrena Murray) may need some convincing, but Virginia's Richard Henry Lee (Shawna Hamic) signs on, enthusiastically, to convey Adams' proposed solution to the Southern states. It's not a bad idea, and he is, after all a Lee — socially, politically, eternal-Lee. How could God deny the wishes of a favored son?

Delaware's sniffy George Read (Nancy Anderson), among others, makes his strenuous objections known, as does South Carolina's Edward Rutledge (Sara Porkalob), with a more honeyed if also more viper-ish tongue; why antagonize Mother England unnecessarily? North Carolina (Oneika Phillips) follows wherever South Carolina goes, and Rhode Island (Joanna Glushak) is drunk. Peter Stone's brisk book captures what now feels like a far more innocent, if hardly egalitarian, time in politics; an era when the corruption and constipation of everyday governing still also carried some sheen of cooperation and good faith. (Though it's telling that then-President Richard Nixon, no less, reportedly demanded the song "Cool, Cool Considerate Man" be cut from the 1972 film because of its present-day implications, and got his wish.)

The script also finds time for small doses of romance in between the rowdy showboating and general ruckus of Congressional debate: a tender, subversive duet between John Adams and his Abigail (Allyson Kaye Daniel), and a transportive solo from a love-struck Martha Jefferson (Eryn LeCroy), whose fluttering soprano grazes the rafters. The choreography is spare but effective, though the set has all the atmosphere and élan of a DMV, generally; until one grand last-moment reveal, it seems designed for the barest function and nothing more (even odder, considering that's it's done by three-time Tony winner Scott Pask, whose credits include The Book of Mormon and American Buffalo).

At nearly three hours with intermission, the machinations of the last days leading up to July 4 begins to drag, unhurriedly circling the inevitability of that final, deathless Declaration. What colors and fills up the room is the vibrant, gifted cast, many of them making their Broadway or even theatrical debut: a mild loss for historical accuracy, maybe, but a bigger win for life and liberty, created equally. Grade: B+

Related content: