Musical Review: 1776 The Musical
By Perry Tannenbaum
Firebrand and future president John Adams couldn’t declare independence by himself. Not only did he need to recruit Thomas Jefferson to write our foundational document, he needed to get all 13 colonies represented at the Continental Congress – including his own Massachusetts – to come over to his side. As 1776 The Musical, currently running at Central Piedmont Community College, reminds us, Adams was too headstrong, combative, irritating, and off-putting to sow the seeds that would blossom into our republic.
With George Washington and his army further north, already engaging the British Crown on the battlefield, Adams couldn’t even count on his staunchest sympathizers, Jefferson from Virginia and Ben Franklin from Pennsylvania, to deliver their states’ votes. In fact, it would be an uphill battle for Adams to even get the matter of independence considered at the Congress in Philadelphia – over a year after the first shots had been fired at Lexington and Concord.
So in a climate and an election year where cooperation, compromise, and consensus are so widely despised, 1776 comes along propitiously to remind us how fundamental these things were in forming our national DNA and how essential they remain if we are to make big changes in our democracy. With inevitable sacrifices to detail and accuracy, Peter Stone‘s book presents the story with surprising nuance, depth, and even tragedy.
For a musical clocking in at 2:35 plus intermission, 1776 also has a surprisingly spare songlist, perhaps because composer Sherman Edwards had the original concept. There is also a gratifying self-awareness we can detect in the storytelling at Pease Auditorium in this CPCC Theatre production. We’re not seeing all white men all the time.
Edwards gracefully works in Adams’ wife Abigail through an ongoing exchange of letters that twice become duets. At a clandestine location away from the Congressional Hall, we peep in on an episode that Franklin has contrived to help Jefferson in his struggles to craft the Declaration, sending for Jefferson’s wife Martha. It’s already a conjugal visit by the time Franklin and Adams come calling.
CP director Tom Hollis stirs the pot a little more with a modest infusion of colorblind casting, while costume designers Robert Croghan and Jamey Varnadore offer us what diversity they can, making the chasm between a New Jersey reverend and a South Carolina plantation owner as wide as possible.
Adams is rather lonely and hopeless before Franklin helps him form a cogent strategy to get things rolling. They send Richard Henry Lee of Virginia back home to convince his state legislature to back an initiative for independence. The jubilation of concocting this stratagem is celebrated by Adams, Franklin, and Lee in “The Lees of Virginia,” a song whose toxicity extends beyond its jaw-dropping silliness. I can only hope that its parade of dopey adverbs doesn’t lodge in your memory as an earworm.
Once we’ve crossed that jingling Delaware, we sail smoothly and convincingly through the labors that culminated in our nation’s birth. Virginia’s support leads to a majority vote approving consideration of an independence initiative, the formation of a committee to articulate the reasons and objectives for this action, with the proviso that the vote for adoption of this initiative must be unanimous. Every colony had veto power over the move for independence, adding tension to a drama whose outcome we already know, and leading to the compromise that stands as the Original Sin of our nation.
At the conclusion of his grievances against Britain, Jefferson penned two blistering paragraphs excoriating the Crown’s cultivation of the slave trade and – conveniently omitted from Stone’s book – their incitement of those slaves to rise up against their masters. After a devastating attack on Yankee hypocrisy in “Molasses to Rum,” future South Carolina governor Edward Rutledge demands that the section on slavery, effectively abolishing the institution, be stricken from the Declaration and walks out on the Continental Congress until he gets his way.
There is certainly no trivialization of that haunting but necessary compromise, and the hauteur of Josh Logsdon as Rutledge, along with his resounding singing voice, are among the chief reasons why 1776 will linger in your thoughts. Eric Johnston really is nettlesome and curmudgeonly as Adams, biting in his patriotic vocals yet petulantly tender when he’s interacting with his dear Abigail. Exorcising the clownish look that bedeviled Franklin in Theatre Charlotte’s 1995 production, James K. Flynn plausibly takes on America’s fount of aphorisms and brilliantly balances his avuncular practicality with his comical tendency to doze off.
Depicted as quiet, contemplative, and artistic, Jefferson is a romantic lead in Stone’s narrative who has almost been demoted to a supporting role. While George DeMott isn’t nearly the dreamboat Patrick Ratchford was when he sang the role in 1995, there comes a time when we’re supposed to be wondering what his sex appeal actually is. In giving weight to that question, DeMott is very appropriate. Nor could you hope for a more charming answer than “He Plays the Violin” from Emily Witte as Martha.
Witte is so graceful and charming that I could hardly imagine omitting her “Violin” when this musical was last revived on Broadway in 1997, more than 28 years after its original premiere. By coincidence, it is omitted from the songlists of 1776 on both the IBDB.com listing for the 1997 revival and in CP’s playbill. But Amazon assures me that it’s still on the 1997 cast album.
In real life there was an age difference of 29 years between John and AbiGail Adams, but Hollis dispenses with that gulf in casting Megan Postle as AbiGail Adams. As you’ll find, it’s a very unique role since Hollis insists on preserving the Adamses’ separation when they converse by mail, yet Postle warms wonderfully to the task. At the comical end of the spectrum, Alan Morgan can be commended for delivering the deadly Lee with all his giddy gleefulness, while choreographer Ron Chisholm doesn’t stint on the energy and dopiness of our Founding Fathers’ dances, fearlessly risking the charge of sacrilege.
Conspicuously missing from the Philadelphia deliberations is General Washington, but we periodically get gloomy dispatches from him in the field, delivered by Trey Thomason as the Courier. After a few of these, lights dim unexpectedly on Thomason, who sings grimly to us in “Mama, Look Sharp” about the realities of fighting and dying for your country.
Sobering moments like that are why 1776 remains relevant nearly 50 years after its original Broadway opening. Recounting how we reached our landmark July Fourth, this lively evening occasionally packs the power to explode our drum-and-fife expectations.