In dealing with the Second Continental Congress and its efforts to pass the Declaration of Independence, “1776” has long stretches of dialogue that make the show feel like a straight play rather than a musical. It takes a while to adjust. Eventually, though, the escalating suspense and a gallery of colorful characters erase initial surprise at the play’s offbeat structure and this 1969 Tony winner once again distinguishes itself for its truthfulness.
Composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards was a history teacher, so the details feel authentic (although the actual signing of the Declaration took place over many months and concluded Aug. 2). His score avoids preachy patriotism and often sounds like an extension of speech. It’s not singable in the Berlin tradition, but each number has vitality and drive, aided by Kay Cole’s clever, witty choreography.
Roger Rees is a commanding John Adams, the man who would become the nation’s second president and desperately wants independence. His hammering single-mindedness alienates the representatives of other states amid cries of “nothing ever gets done”; clashing personal agendas, so prevalent in modern politics, clearly have great historical precedent. Labeled obnoxious by his political ally Ben Franklin, Rees shows the dedication, the rage and the insecurity of a man battling overwhelming odds.
Franklin (Orson Bean) is the voice of reality, urging compromise to get the bill passed. Franklin has the best lines and Bean delivers them with dry, understated skill. Thomas Ian Griffith is a solid Thomas Jefferson, expounding on freedom and fairness until his ownership of slaves is revealed. His portrayal doesn’t quite suggest the lusty appetites of a man who would run off for afternoon trysts with his wife, but he projects Jefferson’s idealism and honesty.
Exploding the finely woven, quietly compelling fabric of Peter Stone’s play is Kevin Earley as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, who refuses to sign unless an anti-slavery passage is removed. Earley is given a powerful song, “Molasses to Rum,” in which he ridicules northerners on their hypocritical attitude about slavery. The song is a roaring showstopper, the only one of its kind in the score, and Earley, a potential star, goes all the way with it. The rest of the show momentarily feels subdued by comparison. Fortunately, this rousing performance appears in the second act, which has a jet-propelled pace lacking in the first.
Other notable numbers include Chad Brannon’s “Momma Look Sharp” which eloquently expresses the pain of battle, “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down” and “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.” Marcia Mitzman Gaven has a skeletal part as Abigail Adams, but she sings beautifully and invests the role with great warmth in her duets with Rees, “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours.” Other standouts are Bets Malone as Martha Jefferson and the ebullient John Scherer as Virginia representative Richard Henry Lee.
Director Gordon Hunt draws convincing portrayals from his entire cast and Peter Matz’s orchestra provides expert accompaniment. Costumes by Scott A. Lane and set design by Tom Ruzika are outstanding.