A New “1776”

I’m going to guess I’m not the only person who learned about the triangle trade from a musical. Late in the action of the show of 1776, a delegate to the Continental Congress from South Carolina named Edward Rutledge reacts to his northern colleagues’ concern for black people held in bondage in the south by reminding them that a lot of northern fortunes were based on bringing the slaves over. He sings, “Molasses to Rum.” It is a savage number, boiling with sarcasm, very close to an aria. It is the best number in Sherman Edwards’s score. In the original stage production and in the faithful film version, it is a tour de force solo piece. I remember the impact of Clifford David’s performance on the Saturday matinee I saw it, the day before the show opened and surprised the smartasses of Broadway by becoming a smash hit. It was a showstopper for a character we all hated. The heightened lighting burned into our eyes the image of Rutledge standing on a congressional desk imitating an auctioneer selling human beings. (You can see an effective replica in the film with John Cullum playing Rutledge here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeuaTpH6Ck0&ab_channel=PlayNowPlayL8tr)

The new revival at the Roundabout doesn’t trust that a great solo performer singing this powerful song will carry it off. The directors, Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page, bring others into the number, including turning the black performers in the show into figures on the auction block. This heavy-handedness blunts the effectiveness of the number. In their effort to reinvent the show, Paulus and Page meddle with this song and several others, underscoring the points they want to make, points that the audience would have understood without being bludgeoned.

Paulus and Page have a workable idea: to stage a show all of whose characters but two are male with female or non-binary performers, many of them people of color, and to rely on the transformational talent of the cast to make the audience invest in the machinations behind the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. I think the idea is enough. We in the audience would have been perfectly capable of figuring out the ironies. If Sara Porkalob had been permitted to sing “Molasses to Rum” solo as originally written, we would certainly have put together that her character was singing to a John Adams played by Crystal Lucas-Perry, and we would have registered that Lucas-Perry is a black woman. We would have been allowed to consider the possibility that the ancestors of this performer might well have been brought over on one of the ships the song describes. We would have been allowed to own this realization, to have felt a collaborator in creating a meaning of the sequence for ourselves.

Is 1776 a masterpiece? Not quite. Peter Stone’s book is a remarkable organization of material and Sherman Edwards’s music is melodious, frequently witty and occasionally lushly romantic. On the other hand, Edwards’s lyrics are a very mixed bag. “Molasses to Rum” and “Mama, Look Sharp” are powerful and lean and poetic. But “I’ve been presented with a new son by the noble stork,” a line cooked up to rhyme with “New York,” is just one of several lines in the show that induce cringes. Still, the whole ends up being considerably greater than the parts, and if some of the history is distorted to make the pieces fit, the depiction of coercion and compromise as part of the process of government resonates with contemporary poitical wrangling. “Traditional” history books teach the creation of this country as a shining accomplishment. 1776, in whatever version, reminds us that many of the battles we continue to fight today have their roots in the flaws and hypocrisy that were present at the start.

I think Paulus and Page would have done better to cast brilliantly and stage the story cleanly without the heavy-handed embellishments. There was one point toward the end of the show when Patrena Murray, playing Benjamin Franklin, apparently was directed to give a key line with great arm-waving gestures. I thought in that moment, “The line is strong enough. It doesn’t need punching up. If Murray had just been allowed to say it simply, it would have been more powerful.” That in microcosm is my response to much of the production.

I was glad to see it nonetheless. Crystal Lucas-Perry makes a strong, determined John Adams, and Carolee Carmello is a ferocious John Dickinson. Though I miss the grace of Eddie Sauter’s original orchestrations, the new vocal charts by AnnMarie Milazzo are frequently ravishing. If I want to revisit elements of the original show (like the dance music in “He Plays the Violin”), I can always pull out my DVD of the film directed by Peter Hunt (who also staged the original Broadway production). One day I hope someone will try this casting concept without the overt editorializing. I have a hunch it would work just fine.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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1 Response to A New “1776”

  1. Dear Jeffrey: Would you like a media review copy of Paul Salsini’s new Sondheim & Me? (Bancroft Press of Los Angeles, October 2022) Please reply. Thank you. Brandon: bstickney@bancroftpress.com

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