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Rob Weinert-KendtOctober 07, 2022
The company of Roundabout Theatre Company's “1776” (photo by Joan Marcus)The company of Roundabout Theatre Company's “1776” (photo by Joan Marcus)

How much can counterintuitive casting change the meaning of a well-known work? Over the summer I watched Danai Gurira creditably play the title role of “Richard III” in Central Park, but it seemed to me that having a non-disabled Black woman in that iconic lead role neither damaged nor especially illuminated the play’s inner workings. On the other hand, by casting a Black family as the downwardly mobile Lomans, Broadway’s new “Death of a Salesman” is mining bruising insights about the American Dream that seemingly lay buried in Arthur Miller’s classic play all along.

In the case of the new Broadway staging of “1776,” however, it is not primarily the work itself—an above-average, occasionally brilliant 1969 musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone—that is challenged or reframed by its cast of women and nonbinary folks, most of them people of color. It is the work’s subject, the country’s founding by a few dozen privileged white men, that is meant to be held up to a new light by this casting choice.

While Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular Founding Fathers remix was built for performers of color, “1776” has been retrofitted onto this troupe of talented women. 

In the age of “Hamilton,” though, it is hardly radical to be reminded that these are some of the Americans who were excluded from the rooms where it happened. And whereas Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular Founding Fathers remix was explicitly built for performers of color, “1776” has been retrofitted onto this troupe of talented women. Co-directors Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page emphasize the seeming incongruity by having the 22-member cast come out in contemporary clothes, then step into the familiar 18th-century tailcoats and buckle shoes (though, as in “Hamilton,” they keep their 21st-century hairstyles and, in this case, jewelry).

What follows works remarkably well, up to a point, primarily because the cast is jam-packed with a wide range of first-rate performers. No, we never quite “forget” they are women playing men, but to the extent the show succeeds, it does so more on old-fashioned musical theater terms than as a meta-commentary on the nation’s birth.

The plot follows the stubborn efforts of John Adams (Crystal Lucas-Perry), by his own account “obnoxious and disliked,” to bring the matter of the colonies’ independence from Britain to a vote of the Continental Congress during a sweltering summer in Philadelphia, even as George Washington’s troops are mostly unsuccessfully engaging the British in New York and New Jersey. Adams is opposed not only by Northern loyalists to the crown but by representatives of many of the Southern colonies, who are wary of a new American government that might limit their own sovereignty, particularly in the matter of slavery.

To the extent the show succeeds, it does so more on old-fashioned musical theater terms than as a meta-commentary on the nation’s birth.

But Adams gains the invaluable alliance of the doddering-like-a-fox Ben Franklin (Patrena Murray) and the sly, gentlemanly rhetorician Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis). It is this unlikely trio that makes the case for independence via the document many Americans now think of as holy writ, second only to, or even ranking above, the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, one of the points of “1776” is to lightly demythologize these figures and demonstrate that they were neither more nor less than human, and that the outcome of their irritable wranglings and factional disputes was contingent, not predetermined. “What will posterity think we were, demigods?” Franklin says with painfully sharp irony at one point. This comes in a crucial scene in which Jefferson is strong-armed into removing anti-slavery language from the Declaration by a rival Southern delegation—another wince-worthy irony, given Jefferson’s often enthusiastic embrace of that “peculiar institution.”

Paulus and Page’s production pushes this self-critical strain a few steps further than the original. They have Jefferson’s enslaved Black butler appear at his side in a few key scenes, and they turn “Molasses to Rum,” a scathing jeremiad about the complicity of all the early colonies, not just the Southern ones, in the slave economy, into a writhing phantasmagoria of the Middle Passage and the auction block. These are delicate, equivocal moments, as they consciously break the show’s casting illusion to have most of the cast’s Black actors represent Black slaves rather than white statesmen.

Occupying an even more pointedly ambiguous space is the show’s rendering of the wrenching anti-war anthem “Momma, Look Sharp,” in which the race of two Black actors—Salome B. Smith as a plaintive young recruit, and Liz Mikel in the role of a lamenting mother—not so implicitly reminds us of the disproportionate toll of violence on African Americans throughout U.S. history, right up to the present.

We may be too spoiled by the cabinet rap battles of “Hamilton” not to squirm a bit in these discursive passages.

As these many examples may suggest, the race of the actors in this new production figures much more heavily than their gender in the ostensible recontextualizing of “1776.” This is because, while Edwards and Stone’s original script is unflinching about the founders’ exclusion of Black people from full citizenship, it has nothing to say about the similar erasure of women. On the contrary, the two female characters who briefly appear are defined entirely by their warm, even ardent relationships with their husbands. Though Abigail Adams (played sweetly by Allyson Kaye Daniel) appears as John’s equal in merit and intelligence, and at one point quotes her famous “remember the ladies” letter (“Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could”), she is otherwise the picture of domestic competence and contentment.

Meanwhile, in one of the show’s oddest, giddiest musical numbers, Martha Jefferson (Eryn LeCroy) extols her husband’s facility with the violin in a lovely, lilting waltz, performing it so ecstatically that it becomes clear she is not really referring to his musical instrument.

Elsewhere Edwards’s score is affecting and often witty, if seldom rousing, and may be most notable for its relative scarcity. Long scenes of deliberation and debate go by with nary a sung note, and though these are as crisply staged and performed as they are smartly written, we may be too spoiled by the cabinet rap battles of “Hamilton” not to squirm a bit in these discursive passages.

What, finally, does the project of recasting these roles with mostly women of color say about our nation’s founding or the principles it set forth? It certainly doesn’t absolve these historical characters of the sins of exclusion and omission they perpetuated. Does it inject a retroactive dose of alternate-universe inclusion into their ideals of equality and liberty, as incompletely realized as they were in their time? That might describe a bit of the tricky, disarming alchemy of “Hamilton” as well.

Ultimately, though, the message of this new “1776” is both subtler and simpler: that women can literally fill any role, and are long past due the chance to do so, whether play-acting our nation’s founding or leading it for real.

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