Once again, Encores! pulls a musical gem from out of the ether, this time 1776, last seen in revival in 1997 with Brent Spiner (born 1949) as John Adams. 1776 features music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards (1919-1981) and a book by Peter Stone (1930-2003). The original production opened on March 16, 1969, at the 46th Street Theatre and played for 1,217 performances, winning the Tony for Best Musical, trouncing Hair and Zorba in the process. (Inexplicably, time has looked favorably on both Hair and Zorba, but here the Tony committee made the right decision.)
The show was invited to perform at the White House, Courtesy of then-President Richard Nixon (1913-1994). This caused concern for some in the show, most notably Howard Da Silva (1909-1986), who played Ben Franklin. The last time Da Silva had received an invitation from Nixon, it was to testify before 1947's House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), the anti-communist purge Nixon enabled during his time in Congress. Da Silva refused to talk and was subsequently blacklisted from Hollywood for many years. Amazingly, the show decided to play for the President, and did so uncut.
Many are familiar with the movie version, released in 1972 and retaining the entire, original Broadway cast – a rarity at the time. The film is a record of the show as it was originally, save for the excision of a song critical of a conservative Congress, “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” which was cut by Jack Warner at the request of Nixon – a cut the Broadway producers would not allow when the show played live in the White House. The film was a commercial disappointment, but it has had a continual afterlife on television, where it plays every July 4th.
In an election year, when it seems that the nation is moving further and further away from the democratic ideals of the Founding Fathers, it’s only natural that Encores! revive the show now. Despite that impetus, though, it is a choice more interesting than artistically sound, for no matter how much I immoderately love 1776, I must admit that it is an uneven, and ultimately unsuccessful, show. While it has always remained a great favorite of Your Correspondent, I cannot dismiss its many flaws.
What’s good: Peter Stone’s book, which is amusing, compelling and historically accurate. Rather than render the Founders as a bunch of plaster saints, he creates real human beings who have their private agendas, rivalries and petty complaints. What’s not-so-good: much of the score by Edwards. It’s not surprising that there are no songs from the show that have emerged as standards, because none of them work outside of the context of the action of the show. And even with that in mind, most of the songs are ponderous, heavy-handed and unsingable. What’s bad: even a musical with indifferent songs should sing, and so much of 1776 concentrates on the book, that the distantly-placed songs often seem like an after-thought.
The original Broadway and film cast were able to surmount many of these complaints through sheer charm and magnetism. The Encores! cast includes Santino Fontana as John Adams, John Behlmann as Thomas Jefferson, and John Larroquette as Ben Franklin, with Nikki Renée Daniels as Martha Jefferson and Christiane Noll as Abigail Adams. With the surprising exception of Larroquette, each performer brings a great deal to the table.
We have admired Fontana in the past (notably in Cinderella and Zorba), but he is perhaps too soft and likeable a player for the obnoxious and disliked Adams; he is, however, top notch in his romantic duets with the incandescent Noll, who glistens as Abigail.
Daniels has only one number as Martha Jefferson, but she and it are spectacular. Her voice is clear and dulcet, shimmering with a vibrancy that is palpable. One day she will be a big star. Behlmann, as Jefferson, is Americana personified. Tall, lanky and impossibly handsome, Behlmann brings Gary Cooper more to mind than Jefferson, but his grace and charm radiate from the stage.
Larroquette would initially seem to be inspired casting, but his performance is disappointing. As written, Franklin serves more as a Greek chorus to the action, making wry asides and winking at the audience. Larroquette – under-rehearsed and under-prepared – seems so peripheral as to be absent. Franklin has the best lines in the show, but you wouldn’t know it from Larroquette’s lazy performance.
Director Garry Hynes stages 1776 in contemporary times, and it’s not surprising that much of the cast struggled with their lines in such a book-heavy show. But the Congressmen who do not carry their weight (how some things never change!) are more than complimented by those who shine. Particular praise should go to Jacob Keith Watson as Robert Livingston of New York, Macintyre Dixon as the Custodian (handily stealing every scene he is in), and the fabulous Robert Sella as Secretary Charles Thomson. Thomson is a thankless role, but Sella brings so much wry humor, understatement and weight to the part that the impression is undeniable – more of Mr. Sella, please.
Alexander Gemignani nearly stops the show with his powerful number “Molasses to Rum,” a song virtually impossible to sing, and Bryce Pinkham, as Pennsylvanian John Dickinson, shows very strong. Ben Whiteley is the guest music director, and he acquits himself smartly.
Much like the original, Viet Nam-era production, director Hynes uses the story of the Founding Fathers to comment on contemporary, dysfunctional politics. Where the original emphasis may have been on a Congress and American leadership disassociated from the public actually fighting the war, Hynes uses the opportunity to attack our Congress which is so mired in party politics as to be paralyzed. The song “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” has been slightly tweaked to Conservative men, and while we here at The Jade Sphinx think there is more than enough opprobrium to spread on both sides of the political divide, the choice works well.
Though never a perfect show, 1776 is a stunning reflection of American ideals, grounded in debate, high-minded moralism and Enlightenment era independent thinking. We could use a little more of all of that right now.