Some musicals survive the test of time because of a few catchy, radio-friendly songs and a farcical book that still feels tight and buoyant decades later Anything Goes is a good example that comes to mind. Others, like Hair and Rent, survive as artifacts of the eras in which they were born, eventually becoming period pieces with music that's familiar and beloved. 1776 falls into neither of these categories, yet it's a richly compelling and artful telling of our country's founding that's peppered with great songs, easy humor, and a ton of personality.
Still, it's no surprise that this isn't a show that's seen many revivals since it's original, smash hit Broadway run in 1969 the same year as Hair and Promises, Promises, but it was 1776 that took home the Tony for Best Musical. It's an ambitious, wordy undertaking that requires a cast of two dozen men, many of them on the older side, who can all sing well and also pull off long monologues on political and philosophical themes. Director Frank Galati assembled a terrific ensemble here, some of whom transferred with the show to A.C.T. from his 2012 production at the Asolo Repertory Theater in Sarasota, Florida, and these guys can sing. From the opening number "Sit Down, John," to the Act 2 opener, sung by the character of John Dickinson (Jeff Parker) and the conservative bloc, the audience is treated to a lot of booming, harmonic talent.
The drama all takes place within the chamber of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia between May and July of 1776, and those who watched HBO's John Adams miniseries a couple years back will have some of this story fresh in their minds. The more liberal North, with the exception of two Pennsylvanians, supported independence, while the conservative South initially opposed it. But what the musical succeeds at more deftly than the miniseries did in a pair of two-hour episodes is to distill the drama of assembling the necessary, unanimous votes for independence against all odds. And while this is a history lesson, it is, first and foremost, a play, and writers Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone were careful to keep things light wherever possible, and consistently suspenseful. At the center of the room is the tote board with the names of the thirteen colonies, illustrating the challenge faced by independence-backers John Adams (John Hickok) and Benjamin Franklin (the stellar Andrew Boyer, reprising the role from Asolo Rep) in getting all the votes into the Yea column. And from the opening moments we learn that one of the biggest obstacles to winning over his opponents is Adams own personality, as he was famously "obnoxious and disliked."
Abigail Adams (Abby Mueller) makes a few appearances via sung "letters" between her and her husband, as does Martha Jefferson (Andrea Prestinario) who arrives in person for a visit, and both women's voices are rich and lovely, providing good balance and a reprieve from the chorus of men. And in the role of a youthful Thomas Jefferson, who was notably quiet during much of the Congress, Brandon Dahlquist does an excellent job of portraying the man's passion, as well as his reticence, with a strong and well trained voice to boot.
As Galati writes in the program notes, 1776 is "a musical play that is born of its authors' devotion to history and their ambition to give flesh and blood, muscle and melody to the story of our nation's birth." And while it could so easily have devolved into silliness at any turn, it somehow maintains both its seriousness and its sense of humor from start to finish. Galati's staging does some cool things to punctuate certain moments as well, creating frozen tableaux of the Congress during several scenes in Act I and making most of the delegates, including the elderly and gouty Franklin, do a few soft-shoes. Galati has some chops when it comes to such ensembles he won a Tony for his work on Broadway with The Grapes of Wrath, and he's also responsible for the original production of Ragtime, which has some enormous full-cast numbers as well.
The music is complex and memorable, and more serious, musically, than the more pop-influenced scores of the shows it competed with at the 1969 Tonys. And while the subject matter, too, is gravely serious, and never treated otherwise, it's impressive how many laughs are worked into the script throughout. Also impressive is how humanizing the show is for these historical figures we've all learned about from various dry angles and secondary sources since we were children. We see Franklin as simultaneously pompous, endearing, grouchy, and hedonistically inclined; we see Adams as sharply intelligent and witty, but socially inept, bombastic, and verbose; we see the president of the Congress, John Hancock (Ian Simpson), as both a fair-minded leader and exhausted herder of cats; we see the resident drinker of the group, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island (played by Bay Area theater vet Dan Hiatt) getting sloshed on rum at 10 in the morning; and we see Adams' greatest adversary, Edward Rutledge (the terrific Jarrod Zimmerman) of South Carolina, as stubborn, foppish, and pissy but also highly intelligent, politically astute, and persuasive. Zimmerman also takes on one of the more bizarre but musically interesting numbers of the show, the analysis of the slave economy titled "Molasses to Rum," and hits it out of the park.
In the end, we walked away edified and without much to hum. There were details of the drama that took place in Philadelphia that we were glad to learn, and we also liked that it was framed in such a way as to feel as thrilling and engaging as fiction. But be prepared for a show that's not like most any musical you've seen: an entertainment which blends the seriousness of opera with the jokiness of Broadway, and manages to be a mostly accurate history lesson too.
1776 plays through October 6, unless it's extended. Get tickets here.