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In the Broadway musical '1776,' the revolution is in the casting

The company of this production of <em>1776</em> is multi-racial and trans, female and non-binary.
Joan Marcus
/
Roundabout Theatre Company
The company of this production of 1776 is multi-racial and trans, female and non-binary.

The classic musical 1776 has been given a revolutionary new production on Broadway. Instead of telling the story of the founding of America as this musical is usually performed, with a cast of mostly-white men, this version uses multi-racial actors who are female, nonbinary and trans — people who weren't even considered in the Declaration of Independence.

When 1776 premiered on Broadway in 1969, America was enmeshed in the Vietnam War and the antiwar musical Hair was a big hit. So a musical featuring singing and dancing Founding Fathers seemed like longshot. Instead, it became a popular Tony Award winner.

Co-director Diane Paulus had never seen or read 1776, when she was approached about working on a new production. She said she found the script powerfully relevant, but wanted to give the show a new frame.

"We're here, it's 2022," she said. "Now you're going to watch this cast, literally and metaphorically, step into the shoes of the Founding Fathers and ... enact this history."

The script remains the same, but this production reimagines many aspects of the show – from musical arrangements to the choreography to a kind of Brechtian, presentational staging.

"Bertolt Brecht would say [it's] making the familiar strange," co-director and choreographer Jeffrey L. Page said. "You start to lean forward and hear it in a very different way than if it were being said in the 'typical' — and I use my air quotes – in the typical way the text would be said."

The production has gotten mixed reviews – some critics find the approach refreshingly illuminating, others, not so much: one critic called it "terminally woke." Patrena Murray, who plays Benjamin Franklin, said that even before it opened, she was hearing grumbles from purists on social media.

"Sometimes I look at the Facebook posts," she said, "and I see folks who I feel need to see the play but won't, because they call it 'revisionist theater.'"

But for the cast, many of whom, like Murray, are Black or people of color, it is powerful to take on these traditionally male, white roles as the characters debate the place slavery should have in the country.

"It's incredibly validating to literally step your foot into something that feels like you're stepping into a history where you were purposely not meant to be," said Crystal Lucas-Perry, the Black actor who plays John Adams.

Elizabeth A. Davis as Thomas Jefferson, Patrena Murray as Benjamin Franklin and Crystal Lucas-Perry as John Adams in <em>1776</em>.
Joan Marcus / Roundabout Theatre Company
/
Roundabout Theatre Company
Elizabeth A. Davis as Thomas Jefferson, Patrena Murray as Benjamin Franklin and Crystal Lucas-Perry as John Adams in 1776.

Some of the staging radically revises musical numbers. For example, "The Egg" was originally just a sweet song sung by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, as they contemplate the birth of a new nation.

In this new version, a video of 246 years of American history — good, bad and ugly — flashes on a curtain behind the actors.

"We've always been interested in these Founding Fathers in this show being radical," said co-director Paulus. "And there was something about "The Egg" that made us think, could we experience this number not as a kind of cute musical theater number, but can we actually really explode it into this radical act, almost kind of punk in its spirit?"

So while that video displays on a screen behind the actors, a noticeably pregnant Elizabeth A. Davis, who plays Jefferson, shreds on an electric violin.

"I'm playing the National Anthem, Jimi Hendrix style," Davis said, "but I could just be, like, chicken-scratching and we would get the same message: that this is about revolution, this is about turning things on its head."

Thomas Jefferson, who was a slave owner, wrote a clause in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence abolishing slavery. And the climax of 1776 is the fight over that paragraph. The delegates from the South want it cut; the delegates from the North want to keep it.

Diane Paulus said the words they are fighting over "called out slavery as an excuse for commerce. I didn't know that in my American history education, I wasn't aware of this," she said. "It was this musical that taught me that ... the institution of slavery was being discussed in 1776. And there was an opportunity for it to go into this founding document of the Declaration of Independence. But for the sake of unanimity, it was crossed out."

The company of Roundabout Theatre Company's <em>1776</em>.
Joan Marcus / Roundabout Theatre Company
/
Roundabout Theatre Company
The company of Roundabout Theatre Company's 1776.

One song, "Molasses to Rum," sung in the show by a delegate from South Carolina, points out the North's complicity in the slave trade. In the original, it's a chilling solo. Here, it's an ensemble number and Black actors are seen as enslaved people.

"You see the performers in their identities, whether they're Black or non-Black people of color in our cast, collaborate in this enactment to show the audience that this is not something that we look at from the past, but this has resonance and continues to have resonance."

The staging doesn't just shake the audience; it shakes the actors.

"It's heavy and it's not easy," said Crystal Lucas-Perry. "And what it costs us as performers, you know, as people of color, as people of different ethnicities and genders, there's a cost that goes into it."

And, in this interpretation of the musical, the signing of the Declaration of Independence at the end isn't a triumph, but a warning about how high those costs are for the country.

"Independence is just another word for freedom," actor Patrena Murray said. "And so, one of the things that I think about this play is, 'Well, freedom for who, really?' As Frederick Douglass wrote about the 4th of July, 'What does your 4th of July mean to me?'"

Audiences across the country can contemplate that question. After 1776 closes on Broadway Jan. 9, it goes on a 16-city national tour.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.
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