For a weekend, Hamilton was merely the second-best American history lesson cum musical comedy playing on Broadway: City Center just concluded an effervescent trial presentation of the 1969 show 1776, and it was so magnificently realized that one can only hope the brief run will prove to be the overture to a full-blown open-ended production on Broadway.
The musical by Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone (book) once played at a theater on W. 46th Street that, now known as the Richard Rodgers Theatre, is the current home of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s terrifically engaging show about Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson (among others). That musical appears poised to run until the tricentennial, its first-year gross having been estimated at $105 million.
Very much in answer to Hamilton, the “City Center Encores” version of 1776—billed as a “staged reading,” though it is far more elaborate than that, with fully committed acting and elegantly danced musical numbers—is a splendid affair that does for John Adams what Hamilton does for its titular figure. (Adams is referred to but not seen in Hamilton, just as Washington is referred to but not seen in 1776.)
As the Continental Congress heads toward a fateful July in a fetid Philadelphia hall, Adams is played with a delectably comic fury by Santino Fontana, who, like nearly every one of his cast mates, has a superb singing voice. Cranky, stumpy, self-righteous and ultimately triumphant, Fontana plays the audience beautifully with an opening joke about the uselessness of Congress that hits the center of the target at a moment when that institution’s approval ratings are on a par with that of your average flesh-eating bacterium. Launching into the first number, “Sit Down, John,” which captures both Adams’s peskiness and his colleagues’ dislike of him in the style of a grand drinking song, 1776 establishes the mood it will maintain throughout: frisky, good-humored, witty, and, ultimately, overwhelmingly patriotic.
As directed by Garry Hynes, much of the show is an arch reflection on today’s political follies: everyone is in twenty-first century costume, the men clad in Men’s Wearhouse finery suggestive of the unstylish suits worn by your average 2016 Capitol Hill creature, Abigail Adams (who sings duets with her husband that represent themes and even lines of writing taken from their letters) in L. L. Bean frumpery. There is also a strong whiff of Hamilton’s multicultural whimsy in the air: several prominent Signers, including Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, are played by black performers, as is Martha Jefferson. An equally vital and contemporary aspect of the show is that it never sidestepped the horror of slavery: a good portion of the second act, including the disturbing number “Molasses to Rum,” in which South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge castigates the Northerners for their hypocrisy while explaining the triangular slave trade, is devoted to the debate over whether to remove Thomas Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause, an emendation without which Independence would never have been declared.
The stirring City Center showcase is an utterly convincing reminder that 1776, which last played on Broadway in 1997, is one of the greatest of all American musicals, its book taut and suspenseful, its history-based ditties delightfully catchy and full of cheeky rhymes. In a discussion of who must write the Declaration, for instance, delegate Roger Sherman demurs with the lines, “I cannot write with any style or proper etiquette/I don't know a participle from a predicate/I am just a simple cobbler from Connecticut.” Ben Franklin, who is played with aplomb by the veteran actor John Larroquette, comes across as avuncular and roguish, not unlike Pat Moynihan in his bow tie, and has many of the best lines on stage as indeed he did in his lifetime. Jefferson, played by John Behlmann as laconic and a bit sulky, isn’t quite as endearing as Adams and Franklin here, but the contrast between his youthful good looks and Adams’ ever-furrowed brow provides plenty of comic energy. When Jefferson, suffering from writer’s block, receives a timely visit from Martha (a radiant Nikki Renée Daniels) and spirits her away for some marital frolics, Adams sputters, “In the middle of the afternoon?” Replies Franklin, “Not everyone’s from Boston, John.”
Those unfamiliar with the show may be unaware of just how brilliantly constructed it is as a piece of drama, which means the interludes between the songs are if anything even better than the numbers. Prominently featured on stage is a large display board listing each of the 13 colonies as either yea or nay, and in the early going it’s anything but given that even the resolution to begin debate on independence will pass. In later stages of the show, one pro-independence vote is lost when a Delaware delegate is stricken ill, Georgia’s vote is uncertain, and Pennsylvania, thanks to its intransigent British loyalist John Dickinson, seems unalterably opposed. (The show is admittedly a little unfair to Dickinson, but it needed an antagonist other than George III in absentia.) Independence, in short, is an impossible dream, and yet we all know it happened: the ingenuity is in the detail, in the how. Stone, drawing in many cases on direct quotation from the delegates present, and reveling in the foibles and failings of his cast—Samuel Chase of Maryland, for instance, really was known as “bacon face”—makes the story fresh, funny, and invigorating at every turn. The story of the Founding can’t be told often enough, and rarely has it been told so entertainingly.