The spirit of “1776” survives the ’90s, and if the Sherman Edwards-Peter Stone musical no longer seems as revolutionary as it did in 1969, it remains, in this Roundabout Theater Company revival, a fresh, vibrant piece of theater. An impressive (in both quality and size) cast sings and debates its way through the congressional conflicts (still suspenseful after all these years) that produced both the Declaration of Independence and one of the best musicals of the late 1960s.
Though the production sometimes feels constrained by the Roundabout’s small (by Broadway standards) stage, Scott Ellis directs with the same breezy clarity he brought to his revival of “She Loves Me” on this same stage several seasons back.
But perhaps most striking of all is the reminder of just how good Stone’s book was, and is. The rare musical in which the spoken story actually bests the score — and a very good score at that — “1776” is as sharp in its intelligence as it is in its humor, and carries an emotional charge that few, if any, recent musicals (Stone’s “Titanic” included) can match.
The story, of course, is that of the Second Continental Congress as delegates from the 13 colonies debate, scheme and maneuver to declare or sink independence. Leading the call for freedom is John Adams (Brent Spiner), the Bostonian whose “obnoxious and disliked” personality works against his idealistic fervor. Fortunately, he has on his side the witty and wise Benjamin Franklin (Pat Hingle) and the youthful, eloquent Thomas Jefferson (Paul Michael Valley).
The fierce opponents of independence are led by Pennsylvania’s British loyalist John Dickinson (Michael Cumpsty) and the pro-slavery representatives from the Deep South (Gregg Edelman, Robert Westenberg).
With Stone’s crystal-clear blueprint, Ellis and his cast give each of the 20 representatives and seven other characters (including Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson) a personality as easily identifiable as it is captivating. Similarly, the process by which the declaration is debated and ratified is as taut and beguiling as any mystery, a feat made all the more remarkable by the obvious nature of the outcome.
Edwards, who died in 1981, contributed 13 terrific songs (not to mention the original idea for the show) that range from the rousing (“Sit Down, John”) to the comic (“The Lees of Old Virginia”). Spiner and Linda Emond, as John and Abigail Adams, do well with two lovely ballads (“Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours”), Cumpsty leads the conservative faction in a nicely harmonized “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” and the strong-voiced Edelman turns in a chilling “Molasses to Rum,” an angry rant in defense of slavery.
In his Broadway debut, young Dashiell Eaves scores with his sole musical number as the sweet-voiced courier singing the antiwar dirge “Momma Look Sharp” (the song comes just before a newly inserted intermission), and Lauren Ward (Off Broadway’s “Violet”) is a playful Martha Jefferson in her spotlight song, “He Plays the Violin” (a song originated in 1969 by then-unknown Betty Buckley).
As Benjamin Franklin, Hingle strikes the perfect blend of wisdom, compassion and humor (if John Adams is the intellectual force of the musical, Franklin is its soul). And as young Jefferson, Valley conveys the keen mind behind the leading-man looks. If Spiner, in the central role of Adams, lacks the breakout star quality that made a name of William Daniels in the original production, he nonetheless brings the prickly character to life.
Tony Walton’s revolving set (the congressional chamber, an anteroom, Jefferson’s home) is efficient and serviceable, but shows the constraints of both space and budget. William Ivey Long’s attractive period costumes personalize each of the cast members, and Brian Nason’s lighting effectively differentiates scenes as well as the various moods that make “1776” such a rich slice of theater history.