“1776” Plus 231

On the eve of Independence Day, audiences packed the newly opened Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis for the staging of the Sherman Edwards/Peter Stone musical “1776.”

What better way to mark the holiday? After all, “1776,” depicting the Founding Fathers as they debate independence in the sweltering Philadelphia heat, was most popular in the lead up to the Bicentennial.

But I forgot that even though much of its content is either light and bright or unabashedly patriotic, this is no “Music Man.” And a few lines resonated in the current political climate, as when  Benjamin Franklin (played by Peter Michael Goetz) chides John Dickenson (Lee Mark Nelson), an opponent of independence, to consider his reasoning: “Those who give up some of their liberty in order to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” To which the audience burst into applause, an obvious nod to their opposition to the Bush administration. Many in the crowd were seniors, and it certainly can’t be much of a surprise given that the city has a long liberal and progressive tradition.

Today the Star Tribune noted in an editorial that audiences have been clapping at the line ever since the show opened. “It’s a famous line, so maybe the audience was applauding simply because
it recognized the words. More likely, though, it recognized that those
are words with special meaning today. A performance of “1776” is food
for a particular kind of thought: How well does our country realize the
hopes (or fears) of those who established it?”

The musical, first staged in 1969,  actually  resonated in the Vietnam War era, as it questions the moral authority of the United States by making much of the great compromise that the framers made in removing references to slavery in the Declaration. At the performance last night, Bradley Greenwald, as South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge, drew some of the strongest applause for “Molasses to Rum,” about the hypocrisy of the Northern opposition to slavery.

It’s also interesting to note that Richard Nixon was rumored to have convinced his friend Jack Warner to remove the song “Cool, Considerate Men” from the 1972 film version , which Warner produced, because he thought that its refrain of “ever to the right…never to the left,” was a swipe at the Republican party. It was restored for the DVD release, and at the Guthrie the crowd was clearly delighted at the number.

Nevertheless, the finale of “1776” is a message of unity, as the signers, despite all their disagreements, come to ratify the document and forge their signatures to it. They face incredible odds, the threat of being hung for treason and a stream of dire reports from Gen. George Washington. As they sign, the liberty bell rings. No matter what your political stripes, your cynicism or your beliefs, on this night it was hard not to be moved.

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