It would be tempting to lay blame for the inadequacies of the Encores! revival of 1776 squarely at the feet ofHamilton, the current Broadway hit which has redefined the notion of an historical musical. But that would be unfair. Hamilton actually owes a debt to 1776, a musical which was ground-breaking in its day and which scored a clutch of Tony Awards in 1969, for 1776 demonstrated that it was possible to stage history in other than dusty, fusty ways, in ways that would capture the imagination of audiences.
Being “of the moment”, fresh and inventive is what has propelled Hamilton into being the hottest ticket on Broadway at present. Like it or not, any revival of 1776 has to find a way to hold its own in the face of the momentum behind and interest in Hamilton.
More a play with music than a musical, because despite its prize-winning status there is no true cohesive style to the score, 1776 centres on the very personal political squabbles which resulted in the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the foundation of the USA. With music and lyrics by Edward Sherman and a book by Peter Stone,1776 makes it clear that the petty bickering and horse-trading that defines the modern Congress was another legacy left by the Founding Fathers.
It also makes it clear that politics is a dull, dehumanising business and that the personal cost of principled decision-making can be high. With speeches drawn directly from the mouths and letters of those who were there when the Declaration was signed, the material has the ring of authenticity. Some of it is genuinely gripping.
But what 1776 needs, two hundred and fifty years after the events which inspired it, and nearly fifty years since its Broadway premiere, is directorial style and vision which transforms it from outdated period piece to exuberant, vital entertainment for audiences of 2016. And, in this respect, Garry Hynes, who directed the semi-staged concert version for Encores!, simply failed to deliver.
Most egregiously, the large cast, for the most part, are not dressed in clothes of the period. Proceedings would have been vastly improved if either there were period costumes for all or modern concert performance attire for all. A mid position was pointless.
All of the founding fathers were white and much of the country was involved in slavery in 1776. Colour blind casting is admirable and appropriate in ninety-nine percent of cases; sometimes, as here, it is difficult to reconcile the notion with the politics or drama in the work. Molasses to Rum, a thundering and volatile number about slavery delivered by one of its most passionate advocates, lost a deal of its power because the room was not filled exclusively with white and angry men, making decisions about the fate of people whose skin was a different colour.
But, more importantly, if the decision is made to colour blind cast, why was gender neutral casting left off the table? If you are not going to use an all white male cast to depict the all white male founding fathers of America, why wouldn’t you have talented women play some of the roles? Half measures in equality are often as bad as no measure.
Finally, Hynes’ staging and the movement/choreography from Chris Bailey was lamentably uninspiring. A lot of people sitting on chairs, occasionally standing to shout or agitate, does not make for involving, entertaining theatre. There was hardly any use of movement to make a point, create an effect, show a change of dynamics, stimulate interest. Having the conservative faction exit stage right at one point was the apex of achievement in this department.
Given all this, inevitably, the success of this revival of 1776 rested entirely on the shoulders of its cast. Thankfully, there was help at hand.
In what must be the most public audition for the role of Horace Vandergelder in the upcoming Bette MidlerHello,Dolly!, John Larroquette was superb as the loquacious, indulgent and acerbic Benjamin Franklin. He conveyed Franklin’s sense of the absurdity of those who did not see as he did as well as the twinkling humour he could wrench out of every topic or debate, usually to confuse or obfuscate.
But his passion for Independence was never in doubt. The ludicrous comic number, The Egg, where Franklin tries to persuade John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that the Turkey ought be the national symbol and not the Eagle (history records that was indeed Franklin’s view) was absurdly, almost surreally, effective – and very fun. Equally, rage you could almost taste was evident in the passages where Franklin debated and then capitulated on the question of prohibiting slavery in the Declaration. Larroquette was masterful in every way.
Unconvincing vocally and peculiarly prissy as John Dickinson, Bryce Pinkham nevertheless established his character as entirely blue-blooded and thoroughly obstinate. The number he leads with his Conservative fellows,Cool, Cool, Considerate Men, should have brought the house down, but didn’t. On the other end of the scale, Alexander Gemignani sizzled and shocked in his big number, Molasses to Rum, an acutely powerful encapsulation of why slavery was critical to enterprise and why “niggers” were not people, but property. Gemignani’s vocal power and agility here was quite exceptional.
There was good work from John Behlmann (Thomas Jefferson), John Hickock (Dr Lyman Hall), Laird Mackintosh (Judge James Wilson), Michael McCormick (John Hancock) and Michael Medeiros (Caeser Rodney) and each had their moment in the spotlight. Mackintosh’s plea about the future and how people will remember him was especially illuminating.
Using a technique that permits insight into the inner feelings and private correspondence of John Adams, scenes occur which show he and Abigail communicating across great distance. These scenes are beautifully handled, with the ever reliable Christiane Noll breathing melodic and melancholic life into Abigail. Her modern day farm daywear notwithstanding (really, the men get suits, the women outside gear?) Noll was both strong and fragile, and her presence made Adams more understandable as a man. Compliments was a thrilling highlight of the evening, butYours,Yours,Yours perhaps the most insightful.
Other members of the company displayed varying levels of skill but almost all sang well, and the large ensemble numbers were powerful and reverberating.
An odd song, He Plays The Violin, sung by Martha Jefferson who is brought to the debate by Adams in order to focus her husband’s attentions as only she can, is sung magnificently by Nikki Renée Daniels. For the ears, this is a much needed breath of fresh vocal skill.
However, the bulk of 1776rests firmly on the shoulders of John Adams, here played by Santino Fontana, an actor of particular and exquisite skill.
Adept at light comedy, soft romance, bitter drama and insular pragmatism, Fontana made Adams real – in his own words, he was “obnoxious and disliked” but Fontana used that as a way to unpeel this rich character.
Without Fontana, this production of 1776 could have amounted to little. With him, it has an engaging quality that keeps interest alive, despite the limitations of the staging, and his work with Larraquette is enormously enjoyable.
It was a joy to hear The Encores! Orchestra in full swing under the baton of Ben Whiteley. The sounds they produced gave full value to Edwards’ music and, apart from Fontana and Larroquette, were the enduring saviours of this 1776.