BUCKLE UP: '1776'
By God, I have had this Congress.
The line keeps rattling in my head —hollered by a hellion John Adams at the outset of 1776 — crying me home as I read the mostly clueless reviews dismissing the delightfully reimagined, gender-reversed revival of 1776 after it opened at Roundabout Theater Company. I wanted to shout, like Mr. Adams: “What in hell are you waiting for?!”
I confess I revere 1776 — also adore it, flat out, ever since seeing the original in 1969 as a very young kid. It has only grown in my estimation with my ever increasing years. To read a pile of snide dismissives about the quality of 1776 ’s score or the merits of its story-telling — led by the N.Y. Times’ lead critic Jesse Green’s sneering at 1776 ’s “few and often trite songs” — well, as a “cool, cool, considerate man,” I will restrain my outrage and just say I disagree.
In fact, I have long believed that 1776 possesses one of the finest scores in the annals of the Broadway musical. One of the best openers ever (“Sit Down, John”); one of the best eleven o'clock numbers ever ("Molasses to Rum”) — both of them utterly unique and brazenly unconventional. 1776 also has a roll-call of up-tempo choral rousers (including “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men”); a beneficence of genuinely funny character songs (like “The Lees of Old Virginia”); but also breathtaking ballads (“Till Then” and “Momma Look Sharp”) — the latter sung by a man-child, battle-scarred soldier in what amounts to an anti-war revery; the former sung by husband and wife lovers who are grownups and sing of their love, not in old-fashioned platitudes, but out of a profound mutual respect.
Hardly my definition of “trite.”
As for 1776 ’s book, credited to Peter Stone, it is justifiably still admired —even by the grudging Mr. Green, who allowed that it is “a masterpiece of condensation without diminishment.” It is way more than that. The libretto of 1776 is a piercing American history lesson that cuts deeper and rings truer today than when it was written in the 1960s because it lays the credit and the blame for America’s merits and its horrors squarely upon the Founders’ aspiration, and ultimate failure, to end slavery at this country’s birth.
How did such a forward-thinking musical libretto come to be?
Gentlemen and Ladies, I give ye Sherman Edwards.
Way back in 1997, on the occasion of the first Broadway revival of 1776 (also at Roundabout), I interviewed Peter Stone for the New York Times. You can read the resulting article in its entirety HERE, but allow me to summarize what Mr. Stone told me.
Sherman Edwards, he pointed out, was a Tin Pan Alley veteran who had written hits for Johnny Mathis (''Wonderful! Wonderful!'') and even film scores for Elvis Presley (''Kid Galahad,'' ''Flaming Star'' and ''G.I. Blues''), but also had once been a high school history teacher in New York City. The idea for a musical about the second Continental Congress seems to have consumed him for some time before he finally decided, on his 40th birthday, to really commit to it. He approached a number of prospective librettists, including a successful screenwriter turned musical book writer named Peter Stone. All rejected the project out of hand.
Because of its weighty subject and setting, a reliance on the spoken word, and a notable lack of chorines, 1776 has always seemed unconnected to Broadway musical-theater tradition. Yet another misconception, as it turns out. For who proves to have been the show's principal behind-the-scenes champion during Sherman Edwards's long, lonely march? Only the most masterful Broadway musical-theater insider of them all: Frank Loesser, creator of ''Guys and Dolls,'' ''The Most Happy Fella'' and ''How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,'' among many others.
“I studied at the feet of Frank Loesser,'' Peter Stone told me. ''Frank Loesser knew everything there was to know about musicals.”
For over two years in the 1960s, Loesser — who was also one heck of a showbiznessman — held an unfulfilled option to produce what he called, “the most uncommercial musical you've ever seen.” In February of 1968, Peter Stone got a call from Stuart Ostrow, a young producer who had started his life in the theater working for Frank Loesser.
“'Please come down and listen to this score,' Stuart said to me,” Stone recalled. “'I think you'll like it.' This wasn't the first time Stuart had called me about this particular show and, honestly, I was sick of the calls. But I said O.K. And I went down to a little office in the Paramount Building, where I found this most improbable man, quite stocky and very gruff, very few social niceties about him, not rude but very direct. Sherman Edwards. Who then sat down and played the opening song of 1776 — 'Sit down, John, sit down, John, for God's sake, John, sit down!' — with very little art in it, very rough. And the moment I heard it I knew exactly what the show was. A level was established: a kind of disrespectful affection.
''They weren't cardboard, these Founding Fathers, they were going to be real people. And I knew exactly what I had to do.''
It would take just about a year. Sherman Edwards had written 26 songs; by opening night these would be winnowed to 10, plus one composed during previews out of town —an unusually compact score for a musical.
Within each song, Edwards's characterizations were so strong and clear, his dramatic sense so sure, his lyric writing so polished, his research so meticulous that, Peter Stone said, he was able to use them as a guide to the characters' humanity, borrowing plot lines and even material for entire scenes from the songs — a reversal of standard musical-theater practice in which librettos typically get plundered for song matter.
''I had never before worked first from a completed score,'' Stone reflected. ''And I never did again.''
Which brings me (at last) to the current revival, cast by co-directors Jeffrey L. Page and Dianne Paulus solely with female, transgender and non-binary actors of many races playing all of 1776 ’s many men and two women. You can imagine my trepidation going in. I love 1776 as is. But I am also pointedly cognizant of American history’s long-running male dominance and was damned curious to see it addressed via 1776 ’s reimagining.
Well, I had a ball. The new production manages to take 1776 ’s original, beautifully etched, oil painting-like verisimilitude — its lovingly heightened sense of realism — and ornament it with an equally artful, Banksy-esque subversive stenciling of socio-political graffiti. To try and describe this revisionist re-spray literally would not do it justice, it must be experienced. Suffice to say that the overlaying of non-male actors of color onto 1776 ’s pale masculine visage ingeniously undermines its male essence without destroying the inescapable grandeur and pathos of those male Founders. The sexist retouchings are mostly understated and all the more effective for that. My favorite: the insertion of a new letter into John and Abigail Adams’ passionate epistolary exchanges that Mrs. Adams sent her husband on March 31, 1776:
“By the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.”
Not every revision is a complete success but the misses mostly amount to mere moments. The contemporary historical slide montage screened behind the grand American birth song, “The Egg,” is thrilling; the flowering of “Mama, Look Sharp” into a full-on spiritual voiced by the full cast is inspired. The modern musical touches injected into the new orchestrations by John Clancy celebrate the indelible Eddie Sauter originals while infiltrating them with jolts of angular funky meter and electronic instruments; futuristic flashes that resound like cosmic echoes.
The performers are uniformly marvelous and never “drag kings,” if you will; not non-males mimicking men but, rather, who they are, while dressed as men.
I know, it’s hard to capture in words, which is what makes it so lovely. There is a space between Crystal Lucas-Perry’s querulous John Adams and William Daniel’s hot-headed original, or Patrena Murray’s bemused Ben Franklin and Howard DaSilva’s randier original, that is… well, binary. It’s a delicious dual space that allows for figurative commentary on the characters and the action without ever being too literal. It had me nicely off-balance throughout, while still satisfying my deep love of the show and its many set-piece pleasures.
Let’s face it, in 1969, 1776 ’s victory over Hair for the Best Musical Tony Award was perceived as an upset of traditionalism over revolution, when, in fact, both were shows about anti-establishment revolutionaries with very long hair. Today’s revisionist production giddily perpetuates that revolution, grabbing 1776 by the hair and calling a wig a wig.