‘1776’ in 2022: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of a Dual Reality

“Our contribution to the history of the production is our bodies, our physical selves,” Crystal Lucas-Perry said of the Broadway revival of “1776,” and its cast of female, nonbinary and trans actors. Clockwise from top left: Sav Souza, Lucas-Perry, Elizabeth A. Davis, Carolee Carmello, Patrena Murray and Oneika Phillips.Credit…Camila Falquez for The New York Times

How do you solve a problem like America?

For the creators of the musical “1776,” the answer was to wrap it in jaunty tunes, 18th-century double entendres and enough twisty dialogue to make a dramatization of the debate over the Declaration of Independence feel like a thriller.

Premiering on Broadway in 1969, the musical ran for 1,217 performances, won the Tony Award for best musical and, over the last 50-plus years, has left more than a few critics scratching their heads over how such a resolutely square show won over Vietnam-era America.

But 1776 isn’t what it used to be. In 2022, a touchstone of national identity has become a culture-war hot potato. And “1776,” which arrives on Broadway in a new revival this month, isn’t the same either.

The revival, directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, has the familiar rousing melodies (in new, rock-infused arrangements), star-spangled color scheme and corny dad jokes. But they’re delivered by a racially diverse cast of women, nonbinary and trans actors, whose embodiment, Paulus said, wakes the language up.

“I want the audience to hold that dual reality, of what the founders were, but also a company of actors in 2022, who never would have been allowed inside Independence Hall,” Paulus said in a video interview last month, after the show concluded its pre-Broadway run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where she is artistic director.

The idea, she said, using a phrase that has become something of a mantra for the show, “is to hold history as a predicament, rather than an affirming myth.”

Announced in 2019, the revival may initially have seemed to be riding the post-“Hamilton” vogue for all things Founders, while doing that show’s inclusive casting one better. But the two-year pandemic delay — which saw nationwide racial-justice protests, a bitterly contested presidential election and the Jan. 6 insurrection — have only heightened the stakes.

“The deeper you get into it, the more poetry, the more stuff, exists inside of it,” Page said, in a separate video interview.

At bottom, “1776,” he said, is “about a clandestine meeting of people who desperately want to change the world.”

Then again, “1776” was never the whitewashed retro-patriotic celebration it is often remembered as. For all its traditionalist guys-in-powdered-wigs look, the show — with songs by Sherman Edwards, a history teacher turned Brill Building tunesmith, and a book by the playwright Peter Stone — was as politically pointed in its time as “Hamilton” (and perhaps, some argue, more so).

Written ahead of the Bicentennial, it was meant to humanize the founders — “Demigods? We’re men, no more, no less,” Benjamin Franklin declares — while also challenging what the authors described as the “jingoistic” history they had learned in school.

Sara Porkalob, center left, Lucas-Perry and Davis in the production during its pre-Broadway run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.Credit…Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

There was the bite of songs like “Momma, Look Sharp,” a denunciation of the carnage of war that might have been sung by a G.I. on Hamburger Hill. And there was “Molasses to Rum,” a chilling call-out of freedom-espousing New England’s complicity in the profits of slavery.

The production even stirred its own mini-controversy: When cast members were invited to perform the show at the Nixon White House, they were asked to cut “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” a satirical minuet of money-loving conservatives who move “ever to the right, never to the left.” (They refused.)

“I continue to be surprised when I meet people who say, ‘Oh, 1776! It’s my favorite musical. It’s just what our country needs!” Paulus said. “I keep thinking, what are they talking about?”

But then, when the touring production company NETworks first suggested the show to her in February 2019 as a possible revival, she knew little about it, except that it had beaten out “Hair” (which she had directed a Broadway revival of in 2009) for the Tony. “I had a vague assumption it was a kind of a celebratory look at American history,” she said.

When she read the book, on a long plane ride, she said, she “almost fell out of the airplane.”

In particular, she was struck by the dramatic climax: the debate over Thomas Jefferson’s fiery denunciation of the slave trade, which was ultimately cut from the Declaration, to secure unanimous approval.

Even talking about it now, Paulus still sounds incredulous. “I was unaware of that crossing out,” she said. “How could I not know?”

“That began my journey into the show,” she continued. “I had to reckon with my own experience of American history.”

A 2016 Encores! concert staging in New York had already used some racially diverse casting. Paulus said she was told off the bat that the estate would be open to an all-female cast, but she emphasized that the production takes a less “binary” view of gender.

There was a first reading in New York in August 2019, with the principal actors, including Crystal Lucas-Perry as the irascible and obstinate John Adams, leader of the “independency” faction. By early March 2020, the show was fully cast, with an opening in Cambridge set for that May, to be followed by a national tour and then a Broadway run.

Instead, they retreated to Zoom, like the rest of American theater. Without the pressure to stage the show, Paulus said, they could go deep in American history, including meetings with various scholars like the political theorist Danielle Allen and the historians Vincent Brown, Jane Kamensky and Annette Gordon-Reed.

With the approval of the creators’ estates, the show includes a (wordless) depiction of a 14-year-old Robert Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved bodyservant (and brother to Sally Hemings), inspired by Gordon-Reed’s scholarship. It also adds a long excerpt from Abigail Adams’s famous letter advising John to “remember the ladies.”

While the gender-flipped casting may be the show’s claim to “firstness,” the core of the production is a grappling with race.

Even before the murder of George Floyd, Paulus said, discussions around race within the company were “very raw.” Then came the protests, and the roiling conversation on racism, representation and hierarchy in the theater set off by the “We See You, White American Theater” open letter.

In September 2020, the American Repertory Theater announced a set of initial antiracism commitments. When it came to “1776,” she said, the conversations prompted by the protests “impacted everything about our process.”

Paulus said she first met Page (whose long résumé as a choreographer includes extensive collaborations with Beyoncé) in 2017, when he was starting the M.F.A. program in directing at Columbia. He was initially hired as the show’s choreographer, in 2019. In the summer of 2020, he also became co-director.

“I felt that the most powerful and honest reflection of our collaboration,” Paulus said, was to be “coequals.”

Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus directed the production, which starts previews on Broadway Sept. 16 and opens Oct. 6.Credit…Matthew Murphy

The George Floyd moment, Page agreed, “changed everything” about the show. The team, including the set designer Scott Pask, had already started moving away from the original scenic designs, which Page described as attempting to land the show too much “in the world of realism.”

“We came together and said, this doesn’t feel right anymore,” he said. “We started asking, when you break it all the way down to the core, what is this piece about?

“These were men who were attempting to make a change inside the world,” he continued. “Who cares about the chair they sat in, and are we getting it right?”

The production, with its spare, Brecht-influenced design, is set not in Independence Hall in 1776, but onstage in 2022, where it’s performed by a company of actors from the present who arrive in street clothes, with no fanfare, before putting on their 18th-century(ish) waistcoats and period-appropriate shoes.

(One performer also puts on a beaded necklace — seemingly a nod at the fact, mentioned in Stone and Edward’s original authors note, that Native American leaders would often appear before the Continental Congress, as leaders of independent nations.)

Page, whose other recent directing credits include this summer’s revival of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Barrington Stage Company, also cited the importance of an “affinity space” for Black cast members, which helped guide the show’s exploration of race.

“With the other cast members, the main thing we communicated was, ‘You’re going to feel some things,’” Page said. “What the Black cast members asked was to leave your fragility at the door.”

In a group interview with four of the show’s founding “fathers,” Elizabeth A. Davis, who plays Jefferson, recalled a video meeting in which cast members presented their family trees, as part of an exploration of how personal and national history intersect. She said she could still remember exactly where she was sitting — “in my grandmother’s old room, in the middle of Texas” — as Black colleagues described hitting the so-called slavery wall, beyond which ancestry can be hard to trace.

“It was a profound moment for me,” she said. “It was understanding something not just intellectually, but viscerally and cellularly.”

Lucas-Perry nodded. “I remember saying, ‘I feel a little without,’” she said.

The 2020 protests, Lucas-Perry said, contributed to a “hyper-awareness” of the way the casting altered the meaning of the text, and the importance of a production using diverse bodies “just because it can.”

“Our contribution to the history of the production is our bodies, our physical selves,” she said. “We were looking for ways of taking advantage of moments where you can dig deeper into what it means to be other.”

“Momma, Look Sharp” lands differently sung by a Black woman (the big-voiced Salome B. Smith, as a courier bringing news from the front) to another Black woman, after the founding “fathers” have left the room. (The courier’s piercing “Momma!,” Page said, echoes Floyd’s cry as he gasped for air.)

But the show’s dark heart is the silky and sinister “Molasses to Rum.” Traditionally, it’s presented as a vocal tour de force (see John Cullum’s stentorian baritone in the 1972 movie), and critics have often paid more attention to the singing than the chilling substance of the song.

In their staging of the song (sung by Sara Porkalob), Page and Paulus force the audience to consider the enslaved people who form one corner of the Triangle Trade not as abstractions, but as real bodies, massed in a wordless chorus that includes the Black actors who play Adams, Franklin and John Hancock. (The sometimes defiant choreography, Page said, reprises some gestures from “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.”)

Carolee Carmello, who is joining the Broadway production as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania (one of the cool, conservative men), played Abigail Adams in the 1997 Broadway revival, which had a white cast. She had heard “Molasses” hundreds of times, but wasn’t prepared for seeing it in the new production.

“The understanding of what they’re actually arguing about is extremely powerful,” she said.

Lucas-Perry said the song “feels like it goes on forever” — “and it did go on forever,” she added, referring to slavery. “I’m not going to lie,” she said of the scene. “There’s not a night where it doesn’t hit me.”

“Hamilton” was fundamentally celebratory, reflective of the liberal optimism of Obama-era America, and the feeling that the arc of history was bending its way. Page and Paulus’s “1776,” for all its humor and exuberance, is darker and more uncertain.

But neither show is the last word on the founding, or on the Declaration, a document that might be seen as the ultimate American classic: time-bound and flawed, but also profound and visionary — and requiring continual revival and reinterpretation, by a perpetually changing cast of Americans, to stay alive.

Page summed up the heart of 1776, and “1776,” crisply: “How do we self-proclaim our presence in the world?”

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