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'1776' review — gender-marginalized cast claims power historically denied them

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

There’s another award-winning history musical that contains the line, “When I meet Thomas Jefferson, I'mma compel him to include women in the sequel” - that is, to the Declaration of Independence. In 1969, the Best Musical winner 1776 dramatized the signing of that very document. The Founding Fathers still don’t include women, but this “sequel” - that is, revival, the first since 1997 - does the next best thing: employing a non-male cast as the men who once excluded them.

It is, indeed, the Hamilton approach. And there are more parallels: Both are revisionist history musicals. The soon-to-be second U.S. president is told to “Sit Down, John.” Thomas Jefferson sports a gaudy purple coat.

This 1776 is distinct, however, in that it presents as a show within a show. The actors first appear in contemporary clothing, shake their heads at the incompetence of Congress — just the Continental one, surely — and then take up the Founding Fathers’ coats and buckled shoes for themselves.

Essentially, these marginalized performers are borrowing white men’s power for three hours and using it to get their own stories heard. Watching Congress repeatedly dismiss and talk over John Adams - so much so that fellow Congressman Richard Henry Lee must present Adams’s proposal for American independence as his own - is genuinely interesting as played by Crystal Lucas-Perry, a Black woman. Adams becomes a vehicle to raise awareness that enterprising Black women are similarly overlooked - because, 1776 suggests, no one listens otherwise. (Lee is crucially cast as white; Shawna Hamic plays him with gusto.)

On the flip side, Carolee Carmello, a swaggering scene-chewer, plays the Congress’s resident "Karen," John Dickinson. She uses her power to discredit Adams, suggesting how anyone of any gender can be instruments of each other's oppression.

The congressmen’s debates over independence and many pettier issues feel like something out of Mean Girls, with cliques and an unspoken hierarchy dictating how votes swing. (Overconfident Congressmen like Dickinson and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina are queen — king? — bees, whereas the bottom is occupied by people like Adams, because no one likes him, and Roger Sherman, because he's from Connecticut.)

This cast makes these debates into genuinely funny satire of politicians’ self-proclaimed importance, when partisanship and trivial concerns often hinder meaningful legislation.

This dual-role conceit makes this revival compelling, but directors Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page fail to thread it throughout the whole show. For a majority of 1776, we're simply watching diverse actors playing historical figures a la Hamilton, with no additional layers. It's not entirely the directors' fault — Peter Stone's book, leaves little depth or suspense to be mined. We know the outcome of every debate, after all; if we didn't, we'd still be British colonies.

Edwards's songs also often stall the driving force of the show, saying in five minutes what one line could. Powerhouse soloists all but save each one: Salome B. Smith in the wartime dirge "Momma Look Sharp," Eryn LeCroy in the sweet romantic balland "He Plays the Violin," and Sara Porkalob in "Molasses and Rum," a sharp-tongued indictment of the North's hypocrisy regarding the slave trade. Hearing their voices is worth the price of admission.

And luckily, by the end, the layered roles reemerge. After reenacting a doomed debate over the abolition of slavery (which, it must be noted, inaccurately paints some Founding Fathers as pro-abolition), the performers realize the men they're inhabiting are just that: men. Their outsized, often oppressive influence on history lingers, but they're not the only ones who can revolutionize the world. One wonders why it took so long to arrive here, but the show does end on a high note as these women and nonbinary performers shed borrowed power, recognize their own, and urge the audience to recognize it too.

Short of lightning-fast rap battles, if anything can make a group of dead white men talking interesting, it's the knowledge that we're really watching a lively, fresh generation of actors making their names known and their voices heard.

1776 is at the American Airlines Theatre through January 8. Get 1776 tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: The company of Roundabout Theatre Company's 1776. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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