Voices unheard in 1776 sing out for representation in touring musical ‘1776’
Joan Marcus

LOS ANGELES—The late great Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, only the second woman ever to serve on the nation’s highest tribune, was sometimes asked, “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” “When there are nine,” she’d answer. “People are shocked,” she recalled their reaction. “But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

Now let’s take a look at the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, every one of the Caucasian masculine persuasion, while their wives, mistresses, consorts, children, and slaves all stayed home, waiting to see if a new nation had been hatched from the egg of revolution. All the while, General Washington and his ragtag army were valiantly defying British troops.

In the original 1969 version of the musical 1776, in the leadup to the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976, only two actresses appeared—as Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams—and these were secondary figures of the show. (The once blacklisted actor Howard da Silva played the role of Benjamin Franklin.) And that’s been the established deployment of the genders ever since.

Until now. Directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus have taken this familiar property and completely upended it. The stunning new version is running through May 7 at the Ahmanson Theatre at the downtown Music Center. The company of artists in this 21st-century production reflect “multiple representations of race, ethnicity, and gender, and who identify as female, trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming. The words and symbols of our cultural memory take on very different meanings through the act of reframing this musical in the context of America today. By intentionally shifting our gaze, we simultaneously see not only what was, but also what can be.”

Actors’ Equity members ask for public support of their demands in a new contract for touring shows. / Eric Gordon / People’s World

Undoubtedly some of the inspiration for this new conceit comes from the astounding success of the rap-inspired musical Hamilton, which busted racial and gender, not to mention musical and theatrical constraints. And a further prod toward reimagining 1776 certainly derives from the 1619 Project, which has reawakened untold numbers of Americans to the disturbing foundations of the nation, on the backs of millions of enslaved Black workers, and the persistent legacy of racism throughout the centuries since.

“I desire you would Remember the Ladies,” wrote Abigail Adams from Boston to her husband John, and, she continued: “be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could…. That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend.” [Cue: Howls of approval from the audience.] This text, so illustrative of the very reason for staging the musical in its present avatar, has been added to the script for the first time.

Another passage from one of Abigail’s letters—that appeared in the text from the beginning—is that famous one: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” [More appreciative howls.] Audiences familiar with the way the LBBTQ+ community has been demonized by today’s MAGA forces will certainly take note of this mutually adoring couple being played by two women. And despite Abigail’s entreaties, women go unmentioned in both the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution.

The new production (seen opening night, April 12) is so right-on for our times, when a nationwide fascist cancel culture is steamrolling across the land. The performers come in every shade and hue, introduced before the opening curtain by Brooke Simpson, a full-blooded Native American and member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, who welcomed the audience to the Indigenous peoples’ land currently occupied by the Ahmanson Theater.

And it’s not only a matter of shade and origin, or gender and orientation. The leading role of John Adams is played by Gisela Adisa, who makes no special effort to disguise her Black inflection, hair, body moves, or attitude. The same can be said for Liz Mikel as Benjamin Franklin, Tieisha Thomas as Abigail Adams, and all the others whose physical characteristics and mannerisms would have eliminated them from the cast in a traditional concept of the musical. The directors conflate the centuries by throwing in lots of vaudeville routines and crude male sexual gestures that are even funnier when the “ladies” perform them.

The Declaration was signed by 56 men, after a difficult, often dithering gestation that extended from May 8th to July 4th. 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 below), but all 13 colonies have at least one delegate.

Free or slave?

It is not hard to perceive the old grievances of the Lost Cause as still a commanding feature of the new right-wing fascism. Rioters on January 6, 2021, had no shame cavorting with the Confederate Army flag. The whole Trump movement continues to be infused with the ugliest, most retrogressive strains of race hatred.

The second-act song “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” articulates a sad reality in American life that explains why so many poor people and others of modest means step to the right—because even in their poverty, they dream of one day becoming rich and needing to secure their gains through lenient taxes and other public policies that guarantee property rights over the commonweal.

The musical 1776 inevitably has to explain to modern audiences, for whom this may be the profoundest American history lesson they’ve ever received, how the 13 colonies could resist the tyranny and enslavement to the British Crown, yet preserve the “peculiar institution” of slavery at home. Some historians, led by Dr. Gerald Horne, go so far as to say that the colonists feared British moves toward ending the slave trade and slavery itself, and joined the American Revolution precisely to preserve slavery. All the rest—taxation without representation, a jury of peers, etc.—was incidental to them.

Slavery is the pivotal issue of Act 2. 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.”

South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge (Kassandra Haddock) has a big, almost operatic aria set to a swaying Caribbean beat (“Molasses to Rum”) that brings the house down. 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 New England merchants also profited mightily from slavery, through the Triangle Trade transporting slaves from Africa and Caribbean rum to the North. “You dance with us, we dance with you,” as bodies take shape resembling the Middle Passage ships bringing Africans in chains to the American colonies. What’s the difference between Boston and Charleston? 1776 can be called “critical race theory” that launched as early as 1969.

It’s left to Franklin to convince Adams that the slavery clause has to be excised if the new American nation is to arise. Right now independence from Britain is the primary issue. Elevating the slavery question to a non-negotiable status jeopardizes the one cause that can unify all the colonies and bring them to unanimity. “We must learn to live with them or pick up and go home.”

The Southern delegates actually walk out of Independence Hall so long as the clause remains. Such has been the power of Southern property owners, aristocrats, and capitalists forever in denying the social advancements that majorities of Americans embrace. The Civil War in the 1860s had to be waged in order to correct or update the revolution of 1776, and is often referred to, in fact, as America’s “Second Revolution.” In the New Deal Era, to take another, later example, Social Security did not originally include farm workers or domestic servants in order to ensure Southern Democratic votes, with the idea that a later generation would have to address such lapses. Voting rights would have to wait yet another generation. And we are not done yet. Indeed, the nation has backtracked on many of its commitments, as the headlines tell us every day. And still, one has to shout it out loud, there is no Equal Rights Amendment!

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 very 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. It is the wise and sober realists who are able to curb their idealism of the moment, ally with all available forces, and achieve meaningful advances, maintaining the longer-range agenda items high on the list for another day.

As Jefferson’s noble sentiment that “all men are created equal” is recited, his Black slave brushes his coat. The contradictions glare out at us.

The final tableau is performed against a solid floor-to-ceiling wall of kegs, containing the molasses and rum of the infamous Triangle Trade. That reminder of complicity with evil, and the hypocrisy of those who point fingers outward that could just as well be pointing back at ourselves, underscores one of the main themes of the musical, first articulated in a dispatch by Gen. Washington the Continental Congress as he appeals for more help for the revolutionary army. “Is anybody there?” he asks of the delegates. “Does anybody care?”

Among the modern “kegs” are sugar, coffee, tea, precious minerals, palm oil, fossil fuels, cocaine, heroin—in character the same kinds of extractive products, including human beings, that defined the Triangle Trade of the slavery era. We might add the military-industrial complex, the arms industry, the war machine, the poverty and racism of global imperialism, as some of the other modern “kegs” that we worship and somehow manage, as a society, to passively accept as the price of being civilized and “free.” But always, at whose expense?

The 1776 company includes a 26-member cast with nary a single weak link. Each is a standout in their role(s), testament to the theatrical principle that there are no small parts on stage. They remind us that “cross-dressing”—that has become such a divisive MAGA issue these days—has always been with us in the theater as in life. Who performed the women’s roles in Shakespeare’s plays until well into the 18th century? Uh, men! The same can be said of the Greek and Roman plays.

At the very beginning of the show, the cast appears in black and white street clothes, and handily slip into their shoes and costumes. These are working actors, the gesture implies, playing these roles tonight for your enjoyment. At the end, once again, they remove their 18th-century coats and return to civilian life. We are all actors on a stage, just as the Bard tells us.

1776 features music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, based on a concept by Mr. Edwards. The design team includes Tony Award-winning scenic designer Scott Pask, costume designer Emilio Sosa, lighting designer Jennifer Schriever, sound designer Jonathan Deans, and projection designer David Bengali. The musical team is led by Ryan Cantwell.

1776 runs through May 7 with shows Tues. through Fri. at 8 p.m., Sat. at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sun. at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available through CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at (213) 972-4400, or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Offices (at the Ahmanson Theatre) at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012.

Audiences all over the country will shortly have the opportunity to experience 1776 in its newly gendered form as the show continues its tour to San Diego and San Jose, Cal., Durham and Charlotte, N.C., Greenville, S.C., Nashville, Tenn., Washington, D.C., Houston, Kansas City, Mo., and Seattle. See here for the complete schedule.

P.S. On opening night, audiences were greeted outside the theater by Actors’ Equity members and their supporters distributing flyers alerting the public to the over two months of bargaining for a new contract with The Broadway League for touring shows. They were asking theatergoers to sign a statement of support, which obviously many did. Similar outreach was occurring at theaters all over the country. The demands were for “fair pay, appropriate housing and per diem, and sufficient coverage to ensure that the show can go on when individuals cannot.” The following day, Equity announced a tentative three-year agreement subject to ratification.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.