1776 – the Musical
August 02 – 06, 2023
5th Avenue Theatre
Get tickets and more information here
The 1969 hit musical 1776 retells the story of American history revolving around the signing of the Declaration of Independence. While leaning towards more historical fiction than accuracy, the story is again being envisioned to boast a cast consisting female, transgender, and non-binary actors represented by a multitude of races and ethnicities.
The story takes place in Philadelphia, the early part of summer 1776. The Continental Congress, having grown tired of King George III’s heavy taxes and oppressional handling of the colonies, have gathered to declare themselves independent of England. The “Founding Fathers” of the 13 original colonies are all represented to add in their general consensus of how to be the first in world history to break away from the Parentland. While John Adams and Thomas Jefferson face off, and eventually write the declaration, Dr. Benjamin Franklin adds humor to try and sooth the ruffled feathers of the Southern delegates, who refuse to forego slavery as part of the price of being an independent nation.
The cast was good…well, good enough, with very few standouts. The main characters, Benjamin Franklin (Liz Mikel), John Dickinson (Joanna Glushak), and John Adams (Gisela Adisa) were definitely written as more of the leads. For this reporter the standout performances were the lesser characters of Abigail Adams (played by Tieisha Thomas, and doubled as Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon), ‘The Courier’ (Brooke Simpson), and Benjamin Franklin (Liz Mikel). The Courier sings the heartfelt ballad “Mama, Look Sharp”, a gut-wrenching song about a son’s cry for his mother, as he lays dying. Ms. Simpson’s voice is piercing as it reaches to the back of the theatre. *She belts it with pure power. The staging for this song is haunting, as the cast echoes the cries throughout the song. Liz Mikel as Benjamin Franklin was without doubt, the best thing about this production. She brought a good humor to the role of Dr. Franklin.
The love letters written between John and Abigail Adams are romantic legends. Those letters are often quoted in the show, as well as in song. Sherman Edwards wrote the perfect music and adapted the words to showcase their love. Tieisha Thomas as Abigail Adams brings them to life before an enchanted audience. She brings a delightful self-confidence and playfulness to the character, that is a balance for her husband. Her voice is rich and rings with emotion.
The main leads were unfortunately not as impressionable. Joanna Glushak as John Dickinson has a strong voice. She has the right emotional defiance to stand up to John Adams, and self-confidence to carry off the song “Cool, Cool Considerate Men”. After that, not much. Kassandra Haddock plays Edward Rutledge. She plays the southern aristocrat more like a Vegas showgirl, in breathy tones and the slow, sensual step of delicate porcelain instead of a southern politician. The big number “Molasses to Rum” shows the horrors of slavery and the hypocrisy of the North’s involvement. Here, it is played down with soft undertones, and delivered in the style of a 1940’s jazz cabaret act. It fails to convey the horrific point of slavery to the congress, as well as the audience. Gisela Adisa as John Adams was a letdown. The two consistent characteristics of John Adams (as said frequently throughout the show) is that he is loud and boisterous as much as obnoxious and disliked. Ms. Adisa is none of these things. Her voice was good enough, but her stage presence was lost among bigger personalities. We don’t feel for the character’s conflict, as the case they make isn’t very convincing. If it was left up to this character, we’d still be daily drinking tea. At the character’s 11 o’clock number “Is Anybody There?”, the character repeats the lyrics “All Americans Free” to emphasize a point. It does. It also puts a break into the song that lets the energy and emotional zeal of the number completely slip away. The song ends with more of a question than showing the pleading desperation and realization that the dream may not occur.
The main problem of the show, I don’t think was the fault of the performers on stage. These songs were written for male voices. No matter how great a singer may be, and many of these performers sing very well, there are songs that are written for specific types, that can’t always be reorchestrated. For example, the role of Evita was not written for a male’s voice. It doesn’t mean that a man shouldn’t sing those songs; it only means that they were written with specific types of voices in mind. A blond, Caucasian woman may be able to vocalize “And I Am Telling You-I’m Not Going”, but the delivery will leave something to be desired.
The idea of making a break from traditional casting (using a cast that identifies as either female, trans, or non-binary) makes very little difference in the show. I had no issues with the way it was cast (I have sat through Hamilton, and many performances of Hairspray among many other shows that broke from traditional casts), but if there was a major point to be made from this casting, it was missed. Since a percentage of the audience failed to come back after intermission, I’m guessing it was missed by a lot more. If all the distinctive changes weren’t expressed so clearly (or so often), I would have assumed I was watching a production put on by a college were no males (trans, or otherwise) were in attendance.
1776 originally opened on Broadway March 16, 1969 and ran for over 1200 performances. The original cast included William Daniels (John Adams), Howard Da Silva (Benjamin Franklin), Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson), and Betty Buckley (Martha Jefferson) in her Broadway debut. Nominated for five Tony Awards (1969), the show won three including Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Ronald Holgate). Controversy was had when Daniels refused the nomination, the first to do so, for Featured Actor in a Musical as he insisted that his was a leading role. A film version was released in 1972 with almost the original cast in tact (with noted exceptions including Buckley). A revival was produced on Broadway in 1997 (running 334 performances) and staring Brent Spiner as John Adams. 1776 was again revived in October 2022 with an all-new production consisting of female/transgender/non-binary actors.
*Any gender references are according to how the actors refer to themselves in the show’s program.