Review: ‘1776,’ Encores Great American Musicals at City Center
Even if you’ve been unable to score a ticket to see “Hamilton,” you can still experience the American Revolution in musical theater.
The setting: the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The goal: a document that will eventually read “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
General George Washington is battling the British Empire, the congress is postponing the discussion of declaring independence and piddling away its time over trivial matters and “secret committees.”
The production features the men of the congress, including Santino Fontana as John Adams, John Larroquette as Benjamin Franklin, and John Behlmann as Thomas Jefferson, not in period costume but in contemporary business suits. In between, a lot of fife and drum playing thanks to the Encores orchestra, led by Ben Whiteley, some bell ringing (whenever a dispatch from General Washington is read by the secretary of the Congress), romantic yearnings (how to get Thomas Jefferson to overcome writer’s block and author the Declaration of Independence? Arrange a conjugal visit by his wife), tortuous deliberations and ad hominem attacks (Mr. Adams is told multiple times and even admits himself that he is “obnoxious and disliked”), we see the birth of a nation.
It may be too much to sit through as there are far more insults and snide remarks than song, which may be a disappointment to those who recall earlier productions of the show.
Still there are some similarities (besides the period in question) to Hamilton. When it debuted in 1969, 1776 became a true cultural phenomenon that caught the attention of then President Nixon, who invited the cast to perform at the White House in 1970. (Nixon, true to character, tried and failed to censor the show, unhappy with the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” and its portrayal of conservatives.)
There are many of the same characters, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in particular, although Hamilton, who was not present at the Continental Congress, is of course absent.
While Jefferson yearned for his wife, I yearned for the first act to be over after sitting for almost two hours. Still, thanks to the haunting soldier’s song sung by John-Michael Lyles, a courier for General Washington, and numbers such as “Molasses to Rum,” sung in defense of slavery by Alexander Gemignani as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, the show had its moments and I’m glad I sat through to the end.
(Photos: Accura Media Group)