As a great “temple” to American history, Ford’s Theatre is a perfect venue for 1776, a revival of Sherman Edwards’ and Peter Stone’s musical about the Second Continental Congress and the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Director Peter Flynn has grouped the hallowed fathers on Tony Cisek’s step-leveled set, composing them in a wide and imposing architectural triangle across the stage.
In fact, it’s a perfect musical for Washington audiences. We watch Congress in their puffery clash and polarize, then work to avoid making decisions at all costs. A congressman sitting behind me said affably, “The only difference is we don’t have canes [and walking sticks] anymore.” Washington audiences love to see ourselves and our city abused, and they howled at zingers that started right from the start when Adams aims mightily close to a theatrical bull’s eye with the aphorism, “One useless man is a called a disgrace, two is a law firm, and three becomes a congress.”
Watching this show, it becomes clear we are witnessing two miracles. One is that the United States ever got birthed in the first place. We are shown, by a great wooden roster placed upstage center that documents the states for and against “independency,” that it very nearly didn’t happen. We watch the votes swing the balance back and forth much the way Americans today watch states go blue or red on election nights. The musical would have us believe that it would not have happened if it hadn’t been for John Adam’s annoying pigheadedness, Ben Franklin’s practical if compromising diplomacy, Thomas Jefferson’s delicious wife arriving and relieving his writer’s block with a good romp in the sack, Georgia’s Lyman Hall breaking the southern block, and Caesar Rodney, the third representative from Delaware being dragged from his deathbed to vote.
I will admit I scratch my head over another “miracle,” despite its many awards and having seen its opening run on Broadway, that 1776 is considered a great musical classic. It’s a show with great feel-good American heroes, and to be sure, as a musical it’s got a great beginning. A tattoo on the snare drum brings in a piccolo, then rips full blast into a lively march. A scrim with the words “Do, or Die” flies up to reveal members of Congress sweltering in mid-summer in Philadelphia enduring the tireless rant of John Adams. “For God’s Sake, John, Sit down!” the entire Congress sings, and all agree on the one point that it’s hot as hell in Phila-del (phia).
The music carries everyone right through a lovely duet between Abigail Adams (Kate Fisher) and John (Brooks Ashmanskas). His commanding voice has grabbed the audience from the prologue with the kind of command and sheer presence that his central role requires, and her vocal phrasing in the dream sequence is as impeccable as her affection is unquestionable for this bullish, brilliant man.
Then with all that energy unleashed, what follows holds the record, I believe, as the longest scene without music in book musical history. For over forty minutes we watch Congress go at it. Entertaining in its own right, though the historical arguments might use some pruning, we were promised a musical.
The dramatic scene bears historical significance as a whole, and we do get some detailed insight into the individuals who made up the Second Continental Congress. As Stephen Hopkins, the irascible Rhode Island congressman, Floyd King dips into his rum and smacks his lips, stumbling out periodically to piss. Robert Cuccioli is wonderfully cast as what might have been just the glowering villain, but this singer-actor is as powerful in voice as he is in his most dashing and persuasive presence. He makes his case as John Dickinson, the strong and charming landowner from Pennsylvania who wants to continue to appease Britain.
Whatever that behemoth scene gives us as rich, historical background, it is a darn challenge for musicians, performers and audience to crank things up again. The able Jay Crowder provides very strong choices in his musical direction to keep kicking the show into high gear. Both in broad strokes and in little details, he has communicated so well that the musicians never fail him.
Which brings us to another reason, in addition to the book with its sustained dramatic scenes provided by Peter Stone, I consider 1776 a flawed musical, and that is the lyrics. How many songs can you set with the last word being unaccented and still build a hit number, let alone a show? Occasionally, a word like “saltpeter” offers the last, unaccented syllable as a little grace note, a tease from Abigail Adams, filled with tender irony. But its overuse in songwriting causes the setting of such words in English to go down in pitch at the end of phrases, and the result is the words get swallowed and they are hard to sing in a sustained way.
The cast is wonderful to a man. (The talented women are sadly sidelined by the manly business of Congress.) In fact, if you have been to Ford’s Theatre before, you know that several of these performers hang around as historical ghosts, much like the phantom of the opera so that one must assume some of them reside there. Chris Bloch is back, stepping once more nimbly and in good voice into the role of Benjamin Franklin (same role, another musical). Stephen F. Schmidt plays the daffy Virginia “old boy” Richard Henry Lee, prancing through a rather inane “here a Lee, there a Lee, everywhere a Lee-Lee” with a great deal of verve, making us believe he’s loving it. Tom Story and Drew Eshelman do due diligence as the Congressional Secretary and Custodian respectfully. Michael Bunce, as Maryland’s Congressman, spends most of his time eating his way through congressional sessions.
As a shameless fan of Bobby Smith, I single him out to describe how he (like several in this cast) can be so arresting and detailed in his characterizations. I watched with growing curiosity the careful way he prepared the arc of his character James Wilson of Pennsylvania (the careful patting of his upper lip and nervous determination to retire into the background) and how this set up the pivotal scene in the second act. At that moment, Wilson realizes the entire history of the country turns on his vote, and his timidity will not allow him to risk being singled out for posterity. One of the great surprises in history and delights of the show was that it is this conflicted, weasley creature who enables the Revolution to move forward.
There were several moving moments. Both Fisher’s Abigail Adams and Erin Kruse’s Mrs. Jefferson have voices as clear as bells that elegantly float through songs. Their entrances do much to relieve the men’s weighty intellectual debates and bring to life the personal dimension. Flynn has directed a delicious scene, both amusing and touching in its demarcation of character, when he has the three giants (Jefferson, Franklin and Adams) sing and dance “He Plays the Violin” with the pulchritudinous Mrs. Jefferson.
Richard Pelzman is also effective as a giant presence from Delaware, who is powerlessness to help his dying friend and colleague, played movingly by Buzz Mauro. Sam Ludwig, as the courier, a young man who has seen battle and death up close, has the moving ballad “Momma, Look Sharp” which brings the real world of war into the proceedings.
Gregory Maheu, another of Ford’s favorites, gets a wonderful turn in one of the more stand out performances of the evening. In the first act, Maheu represents Edward Rutledge, one of the click and clack brothers of South and North Carolina with Patrick O’Hearn as his team player. But in Act II he sings “Molasses to Rum.” He starts by demanding that the slave clause be taken out of the resolution so that the south can come on board, then builds the song into a frenzy about slaves being captured, bought and sold on the block. Orchestration includes the sounds of whips cracking and African drums. He conjures African names and seems to channel a spirit world, taking huge risks vocally and emotionally in a charged and electrifying performance.
The consummate skill and powerful energy of Ashmanskas as Adams and the support of a fine cast allow the show to float skillfully through three hours, despite its challenges. The orchestrations are filled with variety and good dynamics, and, conductor George Fulginiti-Shakar gets the balance with the pit orchestra just right with a rich, clear sound in the auditorium and good support for the singers. Director Flynn is to be commended for bringing historical drama to such detailed life. I came away feeling I know something about each one of these men who signed the Declaration of Independence. For this alone, it’s worth going down to Ford’s Theatre to cast your vote for Philadelphia’s Second Continental Congress.
Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Book by Peter Stone based on a concept by Sherman Edwards
Directed by Peter Flynn
Music Direction by Jay Crowder
Choreographed by Michael Bobbitt
Produced by Ford’s Theatre
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours 55 minutes with one 15-minute intermission