Book by Peter Stone . Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Nachamie
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
If 1776 was merely a musical, it would not be much of one. Its pleasant score contains not a single memorable song, and the harmonies tend toward the barber-shop variety. Similarly, Olney’s production would be unremarkable. The voices are competent, though a few – Jessica Lauren Ball and the sturdy Rob Richardson as Martha and Thomas Jefferson, for example – are wonderful. But 1776 isn’t merely a musical. It’s our story, an American history play expressed in the prototypically American art form. It moves us to joy and sadness as we see what is at bottom people like us paying high costs so that we could become – people like us. That’s why it won the Tony forty years ago, and that’s why they still do it today. And the perceptiveness and wisdom which Olney brings to this production is why it soars above its limitations and is satisfying and superb.
Those of you who are watching HBO’s excellent series on John Adams may well be reaching the same conclusion that Stone and Edwards reached when they wrote 1776 forty years ago: that among all of the Founders, our second President most reflected the American character. He was stubborn and pigheaded. So are we. He was passionate in the defense of his beliefs. So are we. He lacked Franklin’s subtlety, Jefferson’s intellectual depth, Washington’s remarkable calmness in the face of despair. So do we. He was, by his own admission, “obnoxious and disliked”. So are we.
What is so great about Olney’s production – and it is great, believe me – is that it’s Adams-centric That is to say, John Adams (Paul Binotto) steps up to represent all of us, effectively. With the benefit of two hundred thirty years’ hindsight, we now understand that separation from England was necessary, but only Adams fully understood it then, and he pushed it with a relentless vigor which made him the most hated man in the Second Continental Congress. It is this vigor that makes him the hero of 1776, and of history.
Binotto’s Adams is an exceptionally warm creature, full of himself (as Adams was) but also full of passion for the idea of America and love for those who share his dream with him. The loneliness he expresses in his letters to his beloved Abigail (Eileen Ward) is palpable (the letters were lifted, virtually word-for-word, from actual correspondence between the two), and Binotto seems in an emotional desert when he cries out to his wife. While he and Abigail are not modern characters (they call each other “Madame” and “sir” and, in moments of exceptional passion, “dearest friend”) the sentiments they utter can be understood in any age.
Olney and director Stephen Nachamie resist the temptation to bring the spotlight to bear on Ben Franklin (Harry A. Winter, in exceptionally fine voice), who is a more attractive, and attractively written, character than Adams. It would have been easy to shift the focus from Adams to Franklin. Simply have the Philadelphian play with slightly more bombast, and make Adams somewhat more wintry. – as the film, with William Daniels as Adams and Howard De Silva as Franklin, does. But what Nachamie does here is truer to history and, I think, Stone’s and Edwards’ intentions
The plot for 1776 is the same plot that gave us America. Adams burns for independence, but cannot get the Congress to follow. It takes the more clever and manipulative Franklin to put a plan into effect: he flatters Richard Henry Lee (Michael Bunce) to get a resolution for independence out of Virginia’s House of Burgess. Battling Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson (Thomas Adrian Simpson) and the dangerous Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Chris Sizemore), Adams and Franklin buy time to get unanimous support from Congress for Virginia’s resolution by commissioning Jefferson to draft a Declaration. Jefferson, after taking a deep draught of his astoundingly beautiful wife turns out – the Declaration of Independence, more or less. After Congress hacks it up (it is, after all, Congress), Rutledge presents the most dangerous challenge both to Jefferson’s declaration and to independence itself. He demands that Congress remove the declaration’s condemnation of slavery – and gives his odious requirement moral heft by pointing to the hypocrisy of Northerners who profit from slavery without practicing it. Molasses to Rum is one of the most chilling songs in all of musical theater, and when Rutledge is done, Adams and the rest cave, knowing that to deny Rutledge would be to cost them their country. They enter the scene as demi-gods, and leave it as men – compromised men, like the rest of us.
Since the NBA playoffs are beginning, let’s adopt the lexicon of the sports experts and apply them to this play. There are three keys to victory in any production of 1776, and they mark the difference between a merely good production, and a great one like Olney’s.
1. Rutledge must terrify. Toward the end of the debate on Jefferson’s resolution, Rutledge rises to ask his deadly question. “Watch out,” says Stephen Hopkins (Don Edward Black) of Rhode Island. If Rutledge hasn’t established himself as a man to fear at that point, it won’t matter how well he handles the scene or sings the song. It will not move the audience. Here, Sizemore swaggers the walk of a man who always knows that he carries the trump card, and his arrogance and grinning contempt is all the more frightening in that it is well earned. When he sings the first few lines of Molasses to Rum, you can see Adams’ heart sink – and feel your own heart sink as well.
2. Hancock must control through force of personality. Presiding Officer John Hancock (Carl Randolph) is not a major role, but it is an important one. He must be commanding or Congress will seem like mere anarchy, but he cannot seem overbearing, for fear that the conflict among the Congressmen will become secondary to a conflict between Congress and its President. Randolph, so charming as a lighthearted womanizer in Opus, is perfect in this role. He is a Hancock one would drink wine with, or turn to for advice.
3. Dickinson must have the seeds of nobility within him. John Dickinson is Congress’ most outspoken opponent of independence, and thus John Adams’ antagonist. This Dickinson, like the real one, left Congress after it voted for independence – and served in the American army to fight for it. When Dickinson stands to announce his intention, we must believe him. We believe Simpson in the role, since he manages to ground his most wrongheaded pronouncements in an air of conviction and good faith.
So hats off to Olney, which has managed a production of 1776 which is worthy not only of Stone and Edwards but of the country which inspired them. The Founders who Olney presents to us are not plaster saints. They are men and women like us. And good for us!
Running Time: 2:50, with one fifteen-minute intermission.
Where: Olney Theatre Mainstage, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, MD.
When: Wednesdays through Sundays until May 11. Evening shows on Sundays at 7.30; all other evening shows at 8. There will be no evening show on Wednesday, May 7, but there will be one on Tuesday, April 22, at 7.30. Matinee shows at 2 on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, but there will be no matinee on Wednesday, April 23.
Tickets: $43-$48, with some $25 tickets available. Call 301.924.3400 or visit the website.
More Information: on the website.