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Call it the Hamilton effect: a musical, based on actual events, in which none of the white cis male historical figures are played by cis men and fewer than half are played by white performers. Is the latest revival of 1776 ripping off Lin-Manuel Miranda? Yes—spiritually. Are the bodies onstage historically accurate? Who cares! The new show, now onstage at the Forrest through February 26, 2023, is way more interesting than any dry history tome.
First announced in late 2021 and appearing in a limited Broadway run the following year, and with a new, multi-ethnic, all-female, trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming cast, this late-1960s musical’s new national tour is right at home with its Philly kick-off.
Write, ratify, reimagine
If the musical’s title wasn’t obvious enough, 1776 is about what it took to write, and then ratify, the Declaration of Independence. You know who the characters are—their names appear across the bottom of that foundational document. (In truth, only 20 of those 56 signers are actually depicted in the show, but the point remains.) In real life, they were, in fact, all men. All white. Many of them were enslavers. And a straightforward depiction of these dead white men, played by contemporary white men, just isn’t what most theater audiences want to see anymore.
Enter Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, who together conceived and directed this revival. As they write in their directors’ note, they wanted this play about the founding of America to represent what the country has become, not what it was nearly 250 years ago: “The words and symbols of our cultural memory take on very different meanings through the act of reframing this musical in the context of America today. By intentionally shifting our gaze, we simultaneously see not only what was, but also what can be.” And that’s how you wind up with a cast that reflects “multiple representations of race, ethnicity, and gender, and who identify as female, trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming.”
An imperfect play for a more perfect union
In some regards, 1776 is a pretty traditional Broadway musical. But it’s also a weird show. The first act concludes with Thomas Jefferson’s wife singing about how he played the fiddle. There are long scenes without songs. There’s no real 11 o’clock number. And at the end of the play, it just … ends.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some delightful moments in 1776, made even more delightful by its current nontraditional cast. Because for all of the faults of the book (Peter Stone) and lyrics (Sherman Edwards)—mostly the former—the current production of 1776, thanks in large part to its excellent cast, is a delight to watch.
Characterizing the Congress
To Edwards and Stone’s credit, each of the 24 characters in 1776 have distinct personalities—no small feat. The Continental Congress was made up of individuals coming together for the good of their burgeoning nation, so it’s important that you can tell them apart onstage, too. Each member of this company distinguishes their character with body and voice, and each has a memorable few lines or lyrics that help their character stand out.
That each of the characters is so distinct also makes it easier for reviewers to praise certain performers—or it should be easy. It was only after I got home that I realized how many of the 1776 performers were playing different roles from those listed in the Playbill. Whether those were one-time-only understudies or the cast had been shaken up between the playbill printing and the show, I couldn’t tell you. (The only slip included with my program was an announcement of three new standby actors, but there was no indication that anything onstage would deviate from the program.)
So it would be hard for me to single out any particular performer for a job well done because there’s a good chance I’d name the wrong performer. Instead, I will praise the whole cast. It’s not easy to bring something new to a story everyone knows, and it’s especially not easy to swing between parts so fluidly and fluently. 1776 may not be a great show, but this is one of the greatest ensembles I’ve seen in a national tour.
Would this revival work—or even exist—without the immense success of Hamilton a few years ago? Hard to say for sure, but probably not. Am I glad to see these unconventionally cast founding fathers follow in the footsteps of another unconventionally cast musical about other founding fathers? Absolutely.
What, When, Where
1776. Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone; directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus. $58–$148. Through February 26, 2023, at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.
Masks are not required in the theater.
The Forrest is not a wheelchair-accessible venue.
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