1776-musical

Courtesy of Columbia Masterworks

April 10, 2016

DOOLITTLE | Sit Down, 1776

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“Does anybody care?” John Adams inquires of an empty congress chamber at the climax of 1776, but he may as well ask the same of a modern, post-Hamilton audience settling for the second best founding fathers musical to grace the Broadway stage. It’s impossible to talk about 1776 today without drawing immediate comparison to the groundbreaking hip-hop musical that I have tried so hard to avoid talking about in a column but oh well, there it is. It was a comparison that City Center Encores! attempted to lean into with their latest revival of the classic 1969 musical, setting it in a modern context and boasting a “multi-racial” cast. But is that a comparison anyone should wish to invite?

Hamilton has fostered a bit of a love-hate relationship with 1776; Lin-Manuel Miranda was clearly inspired by the classic in its personal, unabashedly human treatment of the larger-than-life figures that led the fight for independence, but he also seems to carry some degree of shame by operating in its shadow. Hamilton has tried endlessly to distance itself from what 1776 was, from its diverse cast to its hip-hop-inspired score, and has succeeded for the most part; at any rate, Miranda makes his opinions clear in Act II of Hamilton, when he bellows the best reference-insult of the show, “Sit down, John, you fat motherfucker!” And yet, in the greatest irony of all, when the cast of Hamilton takes the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre — once the 46th Street Theatre — every night, they walk in the footsteps of the great Ken Howard, Howard Da Silva and William Daniels, of Boy Meets Girl fame.

1776 is not a very good musical. That’s an objective fact. The score, written at the height of counterculture experimentalism in 1969, seemed positively antique as it played against shows like HAIR, an exercise in nostalgia not just for the Golden Age of Musicals 20 years past, but for what America had been before Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination and the miscellaneous tumults of the decade. Sherman Edwards, a Brill Building pop songwriter-turned-history teacher, decided to meld his meager musical skills and his obsession with musical history into a bouncy, extremely short score — the cast recording clocks in at a cool, considerate 41 minutes, overture and all — of passable songs that sort of all sound the same. In fact, 1776 holds the musical theatre record for most time passed between two notes played, 30 minutes early in the first act; as a popular anecdote goes, pit musicians were actually allowed to get up and leave!

1776’s saving grace is its famed book, possessing what is perhaps the greatest script in the history of musical theatre. 1776 should have been considered an excellent straight play, encapsulating all the wit and bite of the founding fathers, but the addition of average songs diminished its quality and lent it a wonky, irreverent tone. And yet, Broadway audiences on the cusp of the nation’s bicentennial ate it up; it ran for three years and received the movie treatment, reserved for only the most popular musicals.

It makes perfect sense that City Center Encores! would want to capitalize on all of the Hamilton hype and the dearth of available tickets by reviving 1776 for the modern audience. What theatregoers received, however, was a failed approximation — a misunderstanding — of what Hamilton meant to the theatre community. While it claimed to have a “multiracial” cast comparable to Hamilton, a mere three supporting characters were played by black actors, and those that were were questionable at best and problematic at worst. When Martha Jefferson took the stage to sing the beloved “He Plays the Violin” played by Nikki Renee Daniels, the audience was awestruck; casting Martha Jefferson as black seemingly ignored Thomas Jefferson’s own maligned relationship with slavery and his mistress Sally Hemmings. Later, when George Washington’s envoy is killed in the field of battle dressed in a modern hoodie — a touch of symbolism as subtle as a bat upside the head — singing the heartbreaking “Momma Look Sharp,” the casting manages to seem politically/racially charged and entirely apolitical at the same time, as if they knew they were trying to send some message, but weren’t entirely sure what that message was.

Instead of recasting our founding fathers as people of color and recontextualizing our history for oppressed groups, a la Hamilton, 1776 resorted to meaningless stunt casting, without a whit of thought or reason. Instead of making America’s white history accessible to every citizen, 1776 became a bit of white voyeurism. For better or worse, I don’t think we’ll be seeing more of 1776 anytime soon.

Sean Doolittle is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at spd64@cornell.edu. Pulp FictSean runs alternate Mondays this semester. 

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