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The Roundabout Theatre Company's 1776 cast. (Photo: Joan Marcus)




By Fern Siegel


The 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.


When it first debuted in 1969, all the Founding Fathers were played by white men.

Now, 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.


And 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.


In 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.


The 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.


Elizabeth A. Davis, Patrena Murray and Crystal Lucas-Perry (Photo: Joan Marcus)


The 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 gut-wrenching.


The 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 group. 


For 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 production.


Sara Porkalob plays Edward Rutledge, the South Carolina rep. (Photo: Joan Marcus)


Seamlessly 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.


And that's the beauty of this production.


We 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.


Some 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 anew.  


1776 - American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42 St.

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes. Through Jan. 8