When the Tony-winning musical “1776” debuted on Broadway in 1969, it celebrated America’s ideals on the eve of its Bicentennial. Half a century later, a radical makeover brings critique front and center, while treating those ideals as a chimera rather than a promise fulfilled. The production’s pre-Broadway tryout at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., holds this truth to be self-evident: that the Declaration of Independence’s promises of freedom and justice were mere words, compromised and betrayed from the very moment of ratification.
Director Diane Paulus is no stranger to re-envisioning musical classics, having given new life to “Hair” and brought out the lessons in a circus-themed “Pippin.” Now she and choreographer/co-director Jeffrey L. Page go all-in on a political perspective, infusing librettist Peter Stone’s story of the Continental Congress with 20/20 hindsight. Never are we allowed to forget that the founders were self-interested fathers, heedless of women as thinking citizens and ready to consign people of color to history’s ashbin.
A point of view is established right away, in Brechtian strokes. Against a front cloth projection of John Trumbull’s famous July 4 painting – which ended Peter Hunt’s original production – in saunters Crystal Lucas-Perry in white top and black slacks, impressive black braids down her back. She looks up skeptically at the historical fellows, then at us, and embarks on John Adams’ opening speech about Congress defined as “three or more useless men,” to knowing laughter. Before you can say “Sit Down, John,” an entire company of multiracial, multiethnic performers identifying as female, trans and non-binary is revealed. In slow motion and eerily front-lit, they don 18th century outerwear, pull up their stockings and shed sneakers for buckled shoes. Let the play begin!
This wide-open casting policy, to which “Hamilton” cracked open the door, is no stunt. Beyond offering prodigious talents some juicy roles traditionally closed to them (and inviting contemplation of other opportunities a boys’-club theater has jealously kept to itself), it instantly alienates us from any illusion that these characters are The Real Thing. Critics of “1776” have always argued that its efforts at realism are silly anyhow, with all the warbling and prancing going on. By setting aside verisimilitude, the production is freed up to contextualize the Continental Congress’s machinations through their consequences over the ensuing 200 years.
Thus, as Adams (Lucas-Perry), Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis) and Franklin (Patrena Murray) sing about “The Egg” of a new nation ripe for hatching, projected behind them is a collage of images of American activism from abolition to women’s suffrage to ACT-UP. Against that optimism, Southern delegate Edward Rutledge (Sara Porkalob) leads the coruscating indictment of the Triangle Trade, “Molasses to Rum,” in a full-stage evocation of a slave auction through group chorale and dance. Similarly, the Courier’s (Salome Smith) battlefield ballad “Momma, Look Sharp” is acted out by the ensemble in black shrouds, bringing out the universality of war’s scourges.
With the characters played as types, mere simulacra of historical figures who direct arguments out to – and often deliberately rev up – the audience, you have to figure something about the original material is going to get short shrift, and so it does: the simple, suspenseful pleasure of discovering how independence was won against all obstacles. Emphasizing the stakes for 21st century Americans lowers them precipitously for those living in the 18th; you just don’t feel the urgency or the frustration of patriots attempting to find common ground before Washington is defeated and all involved dangle at the end of British ropes.
That loss of narrative drive aside, there’s much pleasure to be had alongside the food for thought. Notable is the treatment of Sherman Edwards’s music and lyrics, which get unusual instrumentation (harpsichord coexisting with guitar, for instance, in John Clancy’s orchestrations), rhythm changes from 4/4 to waltz time, and spine-tingling choral work credited to AnnMarie Milazzo (who must have had a field day with the wide vocal ranges available to her, as opposed to the usual ho-hum tenors and baritones).
This is also the dancing-est “1776” ever, with even old Ben Franklin forgoing gouty leg for a soft-shoe. Some oddness is admitted, like an opening number reminiscent of “La Vie Boheme” from “Rent,” complete with seated choreography and John and Abigail Adams (Allison Kaye Daniel) dancing on the table. Delivering “He Plays the Violin,” a surly Martha Jefferson (Eryn LeCroy) shoves an elbow in our ribs so we get it’s not Tom’s bow she’s bragging about; writhing orgasmically, she’s more Molly Bloom than Molly Pitcher. As for the gesture the conservatives employ on “We never, ever go off half cocked,” the less said the better.
Still, the talent is there, and the audacious production concept – approved, we are pointedly told, by the Stone and Edwards estates – is never complacent. We need more theater that challenges, defiantly. This “1776” will move later this year to the American Airlines Theatre, the Broadway venue operated by the show’s New York co-producer Roundabout Theater Company, and subsequently go on tour. It will ruffle more than a few eagle feathers wherever it lands.