‘1776 The Musical’ vocalizes the urgency of the Declaration of Independence
The cast of 1776 / Jason Niedle

LA MIRADA, Calif.—Many Americans recall the famous painting depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence, brought to life on stage in the musical 1776 as a living tableau. But most Americans probably don’t remember much about the issues both puny and momentous around which a fractious group of delegates to the Continental Congress deliberated in the months leading up to the actual signing.

Now is your chance to “be in the room where it actually happened,” Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, in the stiflingly hot months from May 8 to July 4, 1776. Meet some of your favorite American Revolutionary figures, men such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and several others from the 13 colonies whose names may not drop trippingly off your tongue—and two women interpolated into the mise en scène for some vocal variety, Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams.

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment present a loving revival of this entertaining and educational 1969 American classic that runs through Sun., Feb. 3, with an extended run in Northridge Feb. 8-10. La Mirada, a few miles southeast of downtown L.A., and Northridge, a few miles northwest of downtown, are easily accessible by freeway (though it’s L.A., so calculate drive time carefully!).

1776 opened at Broadway’s 46th Street Theatre on March 16, 1969, in the run-up to the nation’s bicentennial seven years later. It moved to the St. James Theatre in December 1970, and later to the Majestic Theatre, where it closed on February 13, 1972 after an impressive run of 1217 performances. With music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, and based on a concept by Edwards, it won three Tony Awards, for Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical (Peter Hunt), and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Ron Holgate, playing Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee). It also won two Drama Desk Awards, for Outstanding Book of a Musical (Peter Stone) and Outstanding Design (Patricia Zipprodt), as well as a Theatre World Award for actor Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson.

A not very well remembered film version of the musical appeared in 1972, featuring William Daniels, Howard Da Silva and Ken Howard, with Blythe Danner as Martha Jefferson and Virginia Vestoff as Abigail Adams. For more complete information on it see here.

Howard Da Silva, as PW readers may remember, was one of the many blacklisted performers of the late 1940s to the early 1960s. In 1776, by now in recovery from the blacklist, he played Benjamin Franklin. Da Silva created the role of Larry Foreman in Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 The Cradle Will Rock. In the current revival of 1776, Franklin is played by Peter Van Norden, who dedicates his performance “to his late friend…, the great Howard Da Silva.” Van Norden was a memorable Mr. Mister in L.A.’s Blank Theatre Company’s 1995 production of Cradle.

A few other standout members of the current cast include Andy Umberger as John Adams from Massachusetts, the leading advocate for independence, Caleb Shaw as the blueblood Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, James Barbour as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, and Teri Bibb as Abigail Adams and Ellie Wyman as Martha Jefferson. Unlike Hamilton, which was intentionally cast with non-Caucasian performers, this traditional 1776 has only one person or color in any named role.

The Declaration was signed by 56 men. For purposes of a stage musical, the number of delegates was reduced to twenty. Peter Stone’s book conflates numerous characters—for example, John Adams and his more radical cousin Sam Adams—in order to represent the main ideological tendencies that were in the end only painfully reconciled with major concessions (more on that later), but all 13 colonies have at least one delegate.

1776 will inevitable summon up the later Hamilton mania. But in 1969, other than some precursors that music historians identify, the rap idiom did not exist. 1776 traces its musical evolution to a number of disparate sources. First, of course, to the classic all-American (well, mostly American) Broadway musical. Vaudeville crops up in this piece, broad, sometimes bawdy humor, tuneful songs, irreverence toward the icons of American history, and clever lyrics and wordplay: As a native of New Haven, I was charmed to hear Connecticut rhymed with “predicate.” Some might also see a soupçon of Gilbert & Sullivan in the topical satire, and even echoes of (in 1969) still well-known cantatas based on American history such as Randall Thompson’s Testament of Freedom, and Earl Robinson’s Ballad for Americans and The Lonesome Train.

I would put in another inspiration for 1776, and that is the extremely funny musical satires by the multi-talented American humorist Stan Freberg, whose 1951 Dragnet parody St. George and the Dragonet was a send-up of the American noir genre. More to the point, his recording Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years (1961) offered a zany dialogue-and-song musical theatre parody of U.S. history from 1492 until the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1783. Benjamin Franklin was ripe for humor in 1961, and it’s impossible for the creators of 1776 not to have been familiar with this seminal work. In this minor masterpiece of American humor, Freberg takes down McCarthyism, which was not yet entirely gone. Franklin muses, “You…sign a harmless petition, and forget all about it. Ten years later, you get hauled up before a committee.”

Aside from reducing the original 56 delegates down to a still substantial cast of 26, including delegates, two wives, and several adjunct characters, the authors also adapted and altered their sources with “artistic license,” but retaining substantive truth. There were no minutes kept of the actual debates and deliberations, but between letters, diaries, biographies and private papers, the authors constructed a viable reading of history, if not accurate as to every granular detail.

The main issue in Act I is to decide whether or not unanimity in declaring independence would be required. Adams was willing to let each state decide for itself, but some delegates insisted on unanimity so that “no colony [may] be torn from its mother country without its own consent.” Franklin is credited for having punned, ”We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Act 1 scene 3 is 30 minutes of speech without music (around ten minutes into that scene I honestly began wondering if this was truly a musical, but my fears were short-lived—only another 20 minutes!). The act includes the conservatives’ song-and-dance number “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” extolling the virtues of property, moderation and tradition, and ends with the Courier, who has periodically been delivering General Washington’s reports from the front and appeals for supplies, answering the question if he has seen any fighting. In “Momma, Look Sharp,” the single most intimately touching musical number in the show, making for a powerful ending of the act, the Courier (Nick McKenna) replies that his two closest friends were killed on the same day at Lexington. He describes the final thoughts of one of those dying young men as his mother searches for his body, the high, dear price of freedom.

Yet as the act ended, I had to ask myself if the authors were whitewashing history to a large extent, for the whole issue of slavery had not been addressed. Clearly they had not read Herbert Aptheker’s Marxist essays on colonial American history, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was not published until 1980.

But I was not disappointed. Slavery becomes the pivotal issue of Act 2, when the text of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration is being nitpicked almost to death. (Adams insists that “inalienable” be amended to the dictionary-correct “unalienable,” but Jefferson digs his heels in on that point.) Adams tells Franklin, as he opposes South Carolina’s demand that Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause be stricken from the Declaration, “Mark me, Franklin, if we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us.”

Edward Rutledge has a big, almost operatic aria (“Molasses to Rum”) that brings the house down. In it he doesn’t so much defend his colony of South Carolina and the other Southern colonies for wanting to preserve slavery, as he accuses the North of rank hypocrisy, because its New York and Boston merchants also prosper mightily from slavery, through the Triangle Trade transporting slaves from Africa and Caribbean rum to the North.

The authors of 1776 have written an appendix to the script describing their process of winnowing down the historical record to a workable stage show:

“By far the most frustrating reason for deleting a historical fact was that the audiences would never have believed it. The best example of this is John Adams’ ‘Mark me, Franklin…’ reply. But the complete line, spoken in July 1776—it was actually Sam who said it—was ‘If we give in on this issue, there will be trouble a hundred years hence; posterity will never forgive us.’ And audiences would never forgive us. For who could blame them for believing the phrase was the authors’ invention, stemming from the eternal wisdom of hindsight? After all, the astonishing prediction missed by only a few years.”

Still, even with the issue of slavery fatefully postponed to another generation, some insults, for instance toward the king, were retained in the Declaration. The exasperated Adams exclaims, “This is a revolution, damn it! We’re going to have to offend somebody!”

It’s left to the wise old sage Franklin to convince Adams that the slavery clause has to go if a new American nation is to arise. Right now independence from Britain is the primary issue, and elevating the slavery question to a non-negotiable status jeopardizes the one cause that can unify all the colonies and bring them to unanimity. These, of course, are the messy, wrenching compromises that history is full of, yet without which advances could not have happened. Such painful decisions are sadly in the nature of progress, which never takes place simultaneously on all fronts. There will always be the idealists and purists, of course, who want their maximal demands met now—and even demand them of history.

I have rarely been so patriotically moved as by the sound of the Liberty Bell ringing out from the orchestra as the Declaration is signed.

Fine musical direction of a nine-person orchestra is by Jeff Rizzo. Staging and direction are by Broadway veteran Glenn Casale. The newly improved sound system works splendidly: Rarely did I miss a word. Scenic design of the unitary set is by Stephen Gifford; lighting design by Jared A. Sayeg, especially effective in the Courier’s war story scene; sound design by Leon Rothenberg and Phil Allen; costume design by Shon LeBlanc; hair/wig/makeup design by EB Bohks; properties design by Kevin Williams.

1776 plays through Feb. 3 at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, rightly hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the best Broadway-style houses in Southern California,” on Weds. and Thurs. at 7:30 pm, Fri. at 8:00 pm, Sat. at 2:00 and 8:00 pm, and Sun. at 2:00 pm.

There will be an Open-Captioned performance on Sat., Jan. 26 at 2 pm and an ASL-interpreted performance on Sat., Feb. 2 at 2 pm. Talkbacks with the cast and creative team will be on Weds., Jan. 16 and Weds., Jan. 30.

The theatre is located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada, CA 90638, near the intersection of Rosecrans Avenue where the 91 and 5 freeways meet. Parking is theatre-adjacent and free.

Tickets can be purchased at La Mirada Theatre’s website or by calling the box office at (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.

Four additional performances of this same production will be given at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts at California State University, Northridge (The Soraya) Feb. 8-10. For further information on these see here.

Mark Gruenberg contributed to this review.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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