ART reframes the framers with a new take on ‘1776’ musical

John Adams needs Thomas Jefferson to pin down and write the Declaration of Independence. In order to concentrate, Jefferson has to sleep with his wife. After he gets over his shock, Adams realizes he can barely make it without his.

In the middle of ‘1776’, as John Adams fantasizes about reuniting with his wife, Abigail urges him to ‘remember the ladies’. Directors Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page took the plea from a letter Abigail wrote to John and added it to the American Repertory Theater’s revival of the 1969 Tony-winning musical. The addition is at the heart of the production—a co-presentation with the Roundabout Theater Company runs until July 24 at Loeb Drama Center ahead of a fall debut on Broadway.

“1776” has a cast of female, non-binary and trans actors. About half are people of color, including lead actors Crystal Lucas-Perry as John Adams and Patrena Murray as Benjamin Franklin. This history of the Declaration of Independence is told by people who centuries ago would have been excluded from the rights Jefferson obtained for his peers.

So many see the Founding Fathers as infallible, or as Ben Franklin puts it, “What would posterity think we were? Demigods?” Infallibility leads to perfection and perfection is a state of stasis. The original production of “1776” broke the myth of the demigods. The revival of Paulus and Page continues in the reframing of the framers.

Franklin ends his reflection on posterity with, “We are men, no more, no less.” “1776” digs into the fallibility of these men who struggle with sins of vanity, gluttony, infidelity, cowardice and greed at the cost of “half a million souls in chains,” as John Adams puts it.

Sara Porkalob as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina brings a terrifying threat and repulsion to the song “Molasses to Rum” with her angry crow from “Molasses to rum to slaves/Oh, what a beautiful waltz/You dance with us, we dance with you /In molasses and rum and slaves.” The song is in low light, among dark shadows, but Rutledge’s message is clear: Rich, white men in the North benefited from complicity in slavery.

“1776” highlights the reality of the Continental Congress. To secure the votes for independence, the representatives continue the horror of slavery. To gain independence, the Continental Army needed middle-aged men and boys killed by professional soldiers – sung as a gospel song by a brilliant Salome Smith as the unnamed Courier, “Momma Look Sharp” takes us away from the hall filled with powdered sugar wigs to a battlefield where a dying child soldier cries out to his mother.

While “1776” does not shy away from the horror of the time, it is shot through with humor and melody. Not a lecture or class, it’s a dynamic, captivating Broadway musical about to win a Tonys in 2023 (Lucas-Perry must win one!). That comes from a cleverly cast group of performers with cracking acting, vocal power, charisma and chemistry.

The conversations between Adams, Franklin and Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis) run from bawdy to stupid to witty – Adams’ best line: “I’ve come to the conclusion that one useless man is a disgrace, two become a law firm, and that three or more become a congress.” From operatic high notes to impassioned oratorios, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and Joanna Glushak, like the wildly smug John Dickenson, deliver four of the best performances the ART has ever seen.

Many want an image of the Founding Fathers, of the Constitution, of Broadway musicals or gender or culture or the ‘American way of life’ that is forever unchanged. But John Adams is remembered for fighting for change. “1776” became a blockbuster as it changed the theater form. Art, culture and democracy require change. For all three, there is no perfect ending, only bold, stumbling beginning after beginning.


For more details and tickets for ‘1776’, visit americanrepertorytheater.org.

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