NEW YORK—It might not be politically correct, but Broadway can’t stop making musicals about the Founding Fathers.
As calls to topple statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington swelled in the Trump years, theatergoers flocked to Hamilton, a contemporary reimagining of the arch-Federalist and his ilk. And now, as a growing number of academics locate America’s founding in 1619, we get a revival of 1776.
Of course, this isn’t your father’s 1776. The Roundabout Theater Company’s cast consists entirely of women, nonbinary, and trans actors, most of them black, Hispanic, or Asian. This casting is clearly an attempt to ape Hamilton’s success in a more critical way. While Hamilton used race-blind casting to make the Founders appealing to a contemporary audience, 1776 does so in an attempt to highlight the alleged privilege and hypocrisy of America’s founding.
By that standard, the show is a failure. Rather than lampoon the show’s bicentennial pride, the remarkably talented cast reinvigorates the classic score and unleashes the humor at the heart of Peter Stone’s book. And far from exposing some kind of nefarious hypocrisy, the race- and gender-blind casting only serves to emphasize the enduring relevance—and universal importance—of the American Founding and the freedoms it secured.
1776 follows John Adams (Crystal Lucas-Perry) as he lobbies his colleagues in the Second Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain. Personal foibles and political squabbles emerge as Adams clashes with Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson (three-time Tony Award nominee Carolee Carmello) alongside Benjamin Franklin (Patrena Murray) and Thomas Jefferson, played in this production by a very pregnant Elizabeth A. Davis.
Davis’s pregnancy, like the rest of the cast’s gender, doesn’t really matter to the show. Because musicals always require a suspension of disbelief, the unorthodox casting is far less shocking than it would be in a film. Adams may not have been a black woman, but he also didn’t tap dance at Independence Hall. Obvious political posturing aside, the all-female cast really only matters because the show was written for male voices.
Some of the show’s strongest songs, like "Sit Down, John" and "But Mr. Adams," fall flat without crotchety, baritone harmonies. Conversely, many weaker numbers are improved by the chorus of female voices.
Carmello breathes life into "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men," the song of the congress’s stodgy conservatives. The counterpoint of belting and falsetto make a dying soldier’s last words especially poignant in "Momma Look Sharp." And Sara Porkalob brings down the house as the devilish Edward Rutledge with "Molasses to Rum," the southerner’s indictment of northern delegates’ involvement in the Triangle Trade.
Lucas-Perry is far and away the show’s weak point. She manages to capture Adams’s irascibility in her dialogue but not her vocals, which wither alongside those of her more entertaining and talented costars. Worse still, Lucas-Perry is the one cast-member who seems to hate what she’s doing. Whenever racism or prejudice comes up in any way, she glares at the audience as if to say, "See? These were bad people." Her performance is one of several unnecessarily political statements clumsily jammed into a show that was hardly uncritical of its subjects.
The show began with a Native American cast member (The Voice finalist Brooke Simpson) acknowledging the Native American people who used to inhabit Manhattan. When the cast comes on stage, Lucas-Perry puts a beaded necklace around Simpson’s neck and bows—an utterly irrelevant piece of symbolism, considering the fact that Simpson plays not a Native chief but Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman.
Like the necklace and the land acknowledgment, most of the show’s obtuse political stunts either fall flat or undercut themselves. In "The Egg," a video montage of historically marginalized groups plays behind Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson as the trio triumphantly proclaims America "belongs to us." The point is clear: The "us" to whom America belongs includes not just "old white men," but also women, African Americans, and Jews.
Which is, of course, correct. Only America’s harshest critics believe our political heritage excludes those who look or worship differently than the Declaration’s signers. The show may present this as a subversive point, but most of the country accepts it as self-evidently true. And despite their posturing, the cast and crew of 1776 seem like they want to accept it, too.
Toward the end of the show, after the southern states have successfully stricken all mention of slavery from the Declaration, Adams worries how posterity will view what happened in Philadelphia. Franklin assuages his worries, noting that future generations will hardly venerate the delegates: "We're men, no more, no less." It’s not a line that needs its ironic content hammered home. But Franklin delivers it in a furiously serious voice, with the full cast glaring at the audience. It’s the only misstep in Murray’s otherwise hilarious performance, and the point of the delivery is clear: The Founders are not worth venerating.
This is hardly a new argument, and it wouldn’t be the slightest bit interesting were it not for the context. Why revive a 53-year-old musical celebrating the Founding Fathers if your goal is for people to forget the Founding Fathers? Why put on a show about the American Revolution while Hamilton is still playing just around the corner? Even in the 1950s, there weren’t this many Broadway musicals about the American Revolution on Broadway.
People might say the Founding Fathers were bad, but they’ve spent over a billion dollars going to see a show about Alexander Hamilton. They claim the mantle of 1619 but applaud 1776. Yes, both shows view the Founding through a critical, contemporary lens. But ultimately, both shows have the same message: America is good, freedom is worth fighting for, and our history is something to celebrate.
1776 understands this, even if it attempts to distance itself from patriotism with self-flagellation and progressive window dressing. Fortunately for audiences, not even performative activism can ruin a mostly great show. With a talented cast and a catchy score, 1776 is worth the handful of eyerolls you may have to endure.
1776 is playing at the American Airlines Theater through January 8, 2023.
Published under: Theater Reviews