Roundabout Theatre Company's 1776
cast. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Broadway musical 1776, which chronicles the founding of the United
States, opens with 10 pairs of shoes on an empty stage. And as the cast enters -
female, nonbinary and trans - they step into history.
it first debuted in 1969, all the Founding Fathers were played by white men.
the cast includes various races and ethnicities. Many of the cast members,
including John Adams (Crystal Lucas-Perry) and Ben Franklin (Patrena Murray),
are black. Elizabeth A. Davis, who plays Thomas Jefferson, is visibly pregnant,
while Sara Porkalob, a Filipino American, plays the pro-slavery South Carolina
rep and delivers a stunning song, "Molasses to Rum," an indictment of Northern
hypocrisy. It mocks those who condemn slavery, yet profit from the rum made
from slaves and the slave ships that carry them.
while some elements, such as musical arrangements and choreography, have been
neatly revamped, the script remains the same. The result is a solid, engaging,
lively examination of history, rendered by a strong ensemble with some standout
performances. The Roundabout Theatre's 1776 packs political punch.
fact, the unique casting allows us to focus on the powerful words and themes of
the production. Because it's all of a piece, the founders come to life, at
least visually, in novel ways. But such is the allure of history well told,
that audiences focus on the drama of the moment. And it's intense.
colonies were already at war with the British crown when the Continental
Congress met. And far from embracing independence, the delegates were evenly
divided. Calling for independence was treasonous - and those in the room where
it happened put their lives on the line for an ideal.
A. Davis, Patrena Murray and Crystal Lucas-Perry (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Americans had a ragtag army, little money and less direction. It was an act of
consummate political bravery to vote, ultimately, to sign the Declaration of
Independence. But getting there was contentious, difficult, frustrating and
founders are often, mistakenly, seen as demi-gods in American history. In fact,
they were, as now, a cross-section of people with competing interests and
goals. Some, like Adams, were uniformly disliked. John Dickinson of
Pennsylvania (Carolee Carmello) is solidly in the King's corner and sees danger
in opposing the empire. Some delegates were passive; others were principled.
New York's Robert Livingston (Gisela Adisa) explains the states legislature is
constantly battling each other and cannot arrive at a decision. Therefore, he
must abstain, "graciously," from all votes to the endless consternation of the
Franklin, Jefferson and Adams, such intransigence imperils the future. A future
that's projected by a video of 246 years of American history on a curtain
behind the actors. We are the inheritors of that long-ago quest for liberty.
And in 2022, a time of reactionary politics, it's worth remembering what
Jefferson envisioned in the Declaration of Independence in this revitalized
Porkalob plays Edward Rutledge, the South Carolina rep. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
co-directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, 1776 is both energetic
and educational. Jefferson, a slave owner, wrote a clause abolishing slavery in
an early draft of the Declaration of Independence. That battle, the climax of
the musical, sets the stage for the U.S.' future. The Southern delegates want
it cut; the Northern delegates are adamant it stays. How the final decision was
rendered is a history lesson few of us know.
that's the beauty of this production.
view history through fresh eyes, performed by a cast that would have been
excluded from both the discussions and the promise of a new nation. Yet those
very differences are striking in a theatrical forum. Porkalob brings down the
house with "Molasses," while Murray proves charming and insightful as Franklin,
a counterweight to Lucas-Perry's well-intentioned, but bombastic Adams. As
Franklin notes, it's not enough to believe in your cause, you have to sell it.
Carmello is equally impressive as the imperious Dickinson, opposite Davis'
quiet but self-possessed Jefferson.
will either dislike the production for being too woke or not woke enough. Both
miss the point. 1776 isn't a splashy musical; it's a thoughtful,
reimagined look at a crucial historical moment, beautifully lit by Jen Schriever
and costumed by Emilio Sosa. The script relays a story that's worth
remembering, rendered in a smart, sassy way by an excellent ensemble. The
debates are passionate and compelling - and it's a perfect time to hear them
1776 - American Airlines
Theater, 227 W. 42 St.
time: 2 hours, 45 minutes. Through Jan. 8