I have somehow managed to live nearly half a century on this planet without ever having seen a production of 1776 – a remarkable circumstance, considering that the musical has been around almost as long as I have. This is also a rather embarrassing circumstance, not just because it tells you how old I am, but also because to have been so long unacquainted with one of the chestnuts of the American musical theater undoubtedly threatens to undermine my credentials as a connoisseur of theater. I can only say two things in my defense: 1) my days of true musical fandom were brief, pre-teen, and ranged quite narrowly from A Chorus Line to Evita; and 2) my lack of experience with most musicals staged pre-1975 and post-1979 means that I’m in many ways an ideal audience member for restagings of “the classics,” since I’ve got no memory of a storied original to which I might compare a new production.
1776 tells a fictionalized version of the effort by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to convince the second Continental Congress in Philadelphia to pass a proclamation of independence from Britain. Since there’s not a lot of suspense about the outcome to this story, writers Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards instead mine the comic potential of the premise that the writing of our hallowed Declaration of Independence by the revered Founding Fathers was, in fact, an all-too-familiar case of legislative sausage-making by a group of flawed and at times hypocritical and self-serving politicians. This bubbles up some very funny and all-too “of-the-now” political critique, all the more remarkable given that the musical was written in 1969 – a good 44 years ago. That the lyrics of the conservative Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson’s song continue to ring true (“To the right, ever to the right, never to the left…with our land, cash in hand”) is a sign of how little progress (or perhaps better, how much regression?) has occurred on the US political front in my short lifetime.
The first half of the musical paints a lighthearted, cartoonish picture of a bickering group of ineffectual men in an overheated room. No one likes John Adams (“For God’s sake John, sit down!”), so no one will vote for his proposal for “Independence-y.” Ben Franklin gets Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee to propose the measure instead, and the motion is accepted, but – oh no! – Dickinson insists that the vote must be unanimous, which looks impossible, so Adams stalls for time by moving that a committee write a Declaration of Independence before the vote is taken. His committee is given three weeks to write the Declaration (and to drum up support for independence); the writing task falls to a young Thomas Jefferson, who is too horny to think straight, and only manages to overcome his writer’s block after his bosomy wife arrives to take care of his sexual needs. We’re in well-established musical comedy mode here: fools, buffoons, straight-talking straight men, cute buxom blondes, gentle sexual innuendo. But then the play changes sharply after the intermission, as the stakes shift from comic (can Jefferson extricate himself from the arms of his adoring wife long enough to get the Declaration written by the deadline?) to serious (Should Adams compromise on the language condemning slavery in order to get the Declaration passed? How will George Washington be able to confront 25,000 British troops with just 5,000 demoralized colonial soldiers?) It is to the writers’ good credit that they highlight the serious issues contextualizing the vote – and, rightly, the play does not let us forget that the men who signed the Declaration put their lives on the line with their signatures – but the theatrical upshot is that the musical becomes a hagiographic tribute to the very document it originally seemed intent to deflate and demystify. At the end of the play, an enormous facsimile of the original Declaration is revealed as backdrop to the solemn, iconic signing ceremony, and the memory of the sausage is erased in worship of the holy all-American hot dog it got processed into.
If, unlike me, you’ve seen a previous production of 1776 and enjoyed it, then there is plenty for you to like in the production now on stage at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. It’s a solid, well-sung, nimbly-performed show, energetic and funny in all the places it should be. The slide into sentiment in the post-intermission half feels overplayed, but I won’t fault the cast for that, because I’m not sure how any production could successfully manage the shift in tone that the play demands. The cast is uniformly strong, although at times they don’t all seem to be in the same play. This is especially true of Steve Vinovich, whose charming Ben Franklin resembles the sort of affable, avuncular Mensch you might find on Old Jews Telling Jokes. Hayden Tee, who plays Edward Rutledge, also seems in a different show – a lyric opera, to be precise – although here the incongruity seems due less to his interpretation (he has a gorgeous voice) than to the sinister subject matter and melody of his signature solo number about slavery, “Molasses to Rum.”
As strangely dark and out of place that number and (frankly) the whole second act feel, on the whole the cast and production deliver the goods, and with them an opportunity to hold our nose as we contemplate the great sausage-making enterprise this nation of ours seems always to have been. Indeed: taken as a whole, the Public’s “Made in America” season thus far has been quite successful in highlighting the ironic and depressing ways in which dysfunctional political and social dynamics have remained stubbornly unchanged throughout American history; 1776’s portrait of the (Continental) Congress at work continues in this vein.