Can’t get tickets to Hamilton? 1776, now through Sunday at City Center, offers some of the same pleasures. Most obviously, it dramatizes a key part of the American Revolution in a way that makes the individual story-beats deeply emotional. Tempting as it is to compare and contrast the 47-year old show with this century’s blockbuster, I’m more of a mood to temporarily lift my No Politics Rule today. To a far greater extent than Hamilton, 1776 comments on contemporary governance. It responded to the Vietnam War in Nixon’s first year, but manages to speak to us in 2016. And that’s what had me weeping throughout the show.
Take this exchange:
Hancock: Fortunately, there are not enough men of property in America to dictate policy.
Dickinson: Perhaps not, but don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor. And that is why they will follow us.
Gee, what “men of property” come to mind? A certain owner of many properties now vying for the presidency? His proposals do nothing for the poor but hand a hefty tax break to millionaires like him. And yet his supporters tend to be lower-income, less-educated men who dream of the day when capital gains taxes are a big (or not big) deal in their lives.
This is in the middle of a song that was called Cool Cool Conservative Men until producer Stuart Ostrow got cold feet about possibly offending some of his audience; it was changed to Cool Cool Considerate Men. (“Considerate” is never a pejorative.) But I don’t mean to knock a famously bold and innovative producer: The country had just been through a tumultuous president election – one of the closest ever. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, once known as a liberal lion, was seen by some on the Left as insufficiently strong in his opposition to the war. After all, he’d been part of the Johnson administration. Conservative Richard Nixon promised to pull our troops out of Vietnam, but failed to keep that promise.
As we’ve learned too many times, the decision to send soldiers into harm’s way is a momentous one. John Dickinson, in 1776, reminds the Continental Congress that boys will die. He doesn’t consider severing ties with Britain a worthy enough cause to spill blood over. So, like candidate Nixon, he’s a right-winger and a dove. But, as Americans watching the show, we naturally believe independency was worth fighting for. Keeping Southeast Asia out of the hands of the communists seemed a less worthy cause. And the poignancy of a dirge-like waltz, Momma Look Sharp, brings us away from ideals to the unshakeable reality of the young who die in war.
Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?
As was brought up in a recent conversation between Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda and original 1776 star William Daniels, the cast felt they were going into the belly of the beast when they were invited to perform at the White House. It’s possible, though, to overlook the parallel. Nixon and his coterie likely thought themselves descendants of Adams, Jefferson and Franklin. The production this week plays up the connection to our times by putting the players in modern dress and casting African-Americans as the white proto-Americans we know from the famous engraving. Anyone fearing that this staging (directed by Garry Hynes) would imitate Hamilton can rest easy. Colorblind casting merely ensures theatre is a meritocracy, the best person of any color in any role. Suspend disbelief! Stephen Hopkins was white and didn’t sing. Here he’s Andre DeShields (and if ever a wonderful Wiz there was, that Andre DeShields’ the one because because because because because because…).
But that’s just like Encores, getting musical masters to take roles in their mountings of rarely-done lesser-known musicals. Wait a minute! Doing 1776 is not just like Encores at all. This is an oft-performed classic, far more renowned for its book (by Peter Stone) than its score (by Sherman Edwards). And an unusually high percentage of the show is dialogue. Clearly, they desired a “conversation” with the megahit nine blocks south. And I’m not going to chide them for temporarily abandoning their original mission statement when they assembled such glorious performers. Santino Fontana gets every note right as John Adams – especially acting-wise. But his singing opposite Christiane Noll is a time for conductor Ben Whiteley to indulge in a drawn-out tempo: it’s cake, so let’s eat it slowly. Bryce Pinkham is a worthy foe, even if the two men look alike. John Behlmann is a towering Jefferson (the original, Ken Howard, died last week), but you know I want to talk about the writing of this marvelous show, rather than how well it’s being done.
1776 is a very unusual – dare I say “revolutionary?” – in that it’s unlike other musicals but can more easily be compared to historical dramas like Sidney Kingsley’s The Patriots or Danton’s Death by Georg Büchner. In these (and also Hamilton), the authors have to deal with the audience’s foreknowledge. We know how the story turns out: America declares independence on July 4. And yet Stone keeps so many dramatic balls in the air, there’s quite a bit of suspense. Success seems ever improbable. It’s not a whodunit, it’s a howtheydunit.
Stone adds considerable humor to all the Bartlett quotations. He treats the characters not as gods on a pedestal but as funny and ordinary human beings. From time to time, they have to pee, or have to use the same appendage for something far more fun. Some have foul breath; one is dying of cancer. We come to know our Founders as lovable characters, distinct from each other (nearly two dozen). Famously, the show contains one of the longest stretches of time between musical moments in a musical, and yet it’s all fascinating and fun.
Sherman Edwards chose to mimic operetta and other classical-sounding forms. In this, he’s the polar opposite of Miranda, giving us a sense of period. Some lines are taken directly from the John and Abigail Adams correspondence, and I’ve always been fond of a comic quintet, But Mr. Adams, which uses a bunch of triple-rhymed triple syllables to good effect. However, it strikes me as a tad uncreative that he so frequently quotes Americana, like Old MacDonald Had a Farm.
But, after the stretch of dialogue I quoted above, the conservative minuet (a variation on Angels We Have Heard On High) gets played against stunning dissonance in the accompaniment, as if to say Something Is Terribly Wrong Here. And it is. Is America going to let the rich dictate policy? The final notes of the song proclaim the awful answer by trumpeting the first six notes of The Star-Spangled Banner.
I say “vote!”