ART reframes framers with fresh take on ‘1776’ musical
John Adams needs Thomas Jefferson to strap in and write the Declaration of Independence. To concentrate, Jefferson has to sleep with his wife. After getting over his shock, Adams realizes he can barely cope without his.
In the middle of “1776”, when John Adams dreams of reuniting with his wife, Abigail urges him to “remember the ladies”. Directors Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page took the plea from a letter Abigail wrote to John and added it to the American Repertory Theater’s revival of the Tony-winning 1969 musical. addition is at the heart of the production – a co-presentation with the Roundabout Theater Company runs at the Loeb Drama Center through July 24 before its fall Broadway debut.
“1776” features a cast of female, non-binary, and trans actors. About half are people of color, including Crystal Lucas-Perry as John Adams and Patrena Murray as Benjamin Franklin. This story of the Declaration of Independence is told by people who would have been excluded from the rights that Jefferson guaranteed to his peers centuries ago.
So many people see the Founding Fathers as infallible, or as Ben Franklin put it, “What would posterity think we were?” Half god ? Infallibility leads to perfection and perfection is a state of stasis. The original production of “1776” shook the myth of demigods. Paulus and Page’s revival goes further in the reframing of authors.
Franklin ends his reflection on posterity with: “We are men, no more, no less. “1776” explores the fallibility of these men grappling with the sins of vanity, gluttony, infidelity, cowardice and greed at the cost of “half a million souls in chains”, as John Adams puts it.
Sara Porkalob as Edward Rutledge from South Carolina brings chilling menace and revulsion to the song “Molasses to Rum” with her mean raven of “Molasses to rum to slaves/Oh what a beautiful waltz/You’re dancing with us , we dance with you / In molasses and rum and slaves The number is set in low lights, among dark shadows, but Rutledge’s message is clear: rich white men of the North profited from being complicit of slavery.
“1776” highlights the realities of the Continental Congress. To get the votes for independence, the representatives continued the horror of slavery. To win independence, the Continental Army needed middle-aged men and boys to be killed by professional soldiers – sung like a gospel song by a brilliant Salome Smith as the unnamed courier, “Momma Look Sharp “takes us away from the room filled with powder wigs on a battlefield where a dying child soldier cries out to his mother.
While “1776” doesn’t shy away from the horror of the era, it is laced with humor and melody. Not a lecture or a lesson, it’s a dynamic and gripping Broadway musical about to win 2023 Tonys (Lucas-Perry has to win one!). It comes from a smartly chosen group of performers with acting chops, vocal power, charisma and chemistry.
Conversations between Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis) range from bawdy to silly to witty—Adams’ best line, “I’ve come to the conclusion that a useless man is a disgrace, that two become a law firm, and let three or more become a congress. From high operatic notes to impassioned oratory, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and Joanna Glushak as the infuriatingly smug John Dickenson deliver four of the best performances that the ART has ever seen.
Many want an image of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, Broadway musicals, or the genre or culture or “American way of life” that remains forever unchanged. But John Adams is remembered precisely because he fought for change. “1776” became a blockbuster because it changed the shape of theater. Art, culture and democracy require change. For all three, there is no perfect ending, only a bold, stumbling start after the start.
For more details and tickets for “1776”, go to americanrepertorytheatre.org.