Diverse Cast Presents a 1776 Far Afield From the Straight White Men of History

The touring cast of 1776.
The touring cast of 1776. Photo by Joan Marcus

In Laurents, Styne, and Sondheim's Gypsy, the three ecdysiasts teach Louise the finer points of stripping as they bump and grind, “You gotta get a gimmick.” Lin-Manuel Miranda quickly learned how to do it in mega-watt Hamilton with its racially diverse cast. For the 2022 revival of Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards' Tony Award-winning Best Musical history lesson, 1776 (1969), directors Jeffrey I. Paige and Diane Paulus take the gimmick and move the needle to 11. (This touring production, via Theatre Under the Stars, is extremely limited so don't hesitate.)

Not only is this cast racially diverse, it's a gender tsunami. No longer are our founding fathers straight cis white men, but they are now a panoply of 21st century sexual tropes: bi, lesbian, trans, indigenous, maybe even straight (although I don't know that for sure.) This transformation gives this musical pageant a distinct frisson it wouldn't have if the cast were, as it was at its creation, all white men.

There's a beautiful closeness and empathy when John Adams (Gisela Adisa), Benjamin Franklin (a showstopping Liz Mikel), Thomas Jefferson (Nancy Anderson), and the others, are played a panoply of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Yes, it's a gimmick, but what a grand one. After five minutes, you utterly forget the genders represented on stage and are drawn right into the story. That's the ultimate power of theater – make believe of the highest order. We don't care if the Continental Congress are guys or gals or trans or whatever. This inspired troupe takes us out of the mundane and makes us believe we're watching the very messy formation of our country.

Is 1776 the only musical whose ending is known to every schoolchild, yet still manages to evoke suspense in its outcome? As the dates tick down to July 4th in the background projection, you fear these disparate, desperate men will never get it right. The political alignments shift, terrible compromises must be made if unity is to survive (the slavery clause is omitted to Adams' horror and through Franklin's expert diplomacy), and the insufferable heat and fly infestation are grating.

Everyone is cranky; a few miss their wives. Adams' wife Abigail (a stately, regal Tieisha Thomas in turban crown) appears in his imagination as they read their letters together. Their fragrant duet “Yours, Yours, Yours” is a highlight of Sherman's score, subtly rendered in Thomas's rich alto. Jefferson''s Martha (Connor Lyon) is brought to Philadelphia by Adams and Franklin to spur him from writer's block, and Act I concludes with her paean to her husband's ability in bed, “He Plays the Violin.” (Jefferson's ability in Sally Hemings' bed is never mentioned.)

Stone's book is a masterclass in historical condensation – full of insight, wit, and compassion for these men (?) who had no true guiding principles on which to form this brand new nation. English philosopher John Locke had an enormous influence on the fathers, but this dangerous experiment in independence was a one-off, fueled by Adams, “obnoxious and disliked” by the others, and spurred on by foxy Franklin and a wary Jefferson. They must forge one nation out of 13 separate and most different colonies that all had their own prejudices, economic pursuits, and societies.

This new journey is excitingly told in Paige's semi-Spring Awakening robotic choreography and the fluid mise en scene created by him and Paulus. Set designer Scott Pask's front curtain is a crazy quilt of American and British flags, and the rest is minimal in its use of constantly realigned desks and chairs to represent the claustrophobic Hall, a slave auction, or Jefferson's quarters.

The cast is buoyant, first appearing in everyday garb, then quickly donning period coats, rolling up their trousers or rolling down their stockings to make colonial breeches, then stepping into buckled shoes, tossing their Birkenstocks or sneakers upstage to be swept away by stagehands. It's the first of many magical transformations in this lively, thought-provoking musical.

The most powerful number is “Molasses to Rum,” hissed by South Carolina's Edward Rutledge (Kassandra Haddock), that portrays the north's hypocrisy in the slave trade. It's a vicious triangle, she argues. How can you criticize our way of life when you depend and wittingly participate in the trade? You in Massachusetts and Rhode Island make the rum from the sugar we harvest from slaves in the south. “Mr. Adams, I give you a toast: Hail Boston! Hail Charleston! Who stinketh the most?”

Although the song was garbled from John Clancy's pounding orchestration, it's intention was perfectly clear. To preserve unanimity among the colonies in order to declare independence, Jefferson's anti-slavery clause was stricken from the Declaration. As Franklin apologizes to the future, “We are not gods. We're men.” Compromise is ugly and at times a necessary evil, meant for another generation to make right.

In this hot new adaptation, 1776 is thrilling in its theatricality and bold in its casting. As history, it's fairly accurate, which should make us forever grateful that these distrustful, argumentative delegates in Philadelphia created the best government in the world. That's something to sing and dance about, whatever gender you are.

1776 continues through July 22 at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-558-8887 or visit $40-$135.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover