- Angela Allyn
1776, an up to the minute musical
Updated: Mar 5
1776 ,the musical, now on view at the CIBC Theatre in Chicago's Loop, is not your grandparents musical. The last time I saw 1776 was in the 1980’s when I watched the 1972 film. It has been hanging out in regional theatre relative obscurity for years, at last getting a Broadway revival in 1997. Watching it now, I am in wonderment at how this Edwards/Stone Tony Award winner became the darling of Broadway in 1969. But sometimes you don't see the subversion if its delivered with snappy lyrics and great dancing.
Today, though, I want you to know this revival may be the most profound musical you will attend this year.(It's a little early to tell for sure) It is important to witness it in this particular moment even as Florida and possibly other state banish the very mention of systemic racism from their educational systems.
It’s a short run, don’t hesitate to get tickets lest its gone. Let me repeat: go see this show.
The show depicts the deliberations up to the Declaration of Independence as the tense fractious nail biter it was. In this production it is women, trans and non binary people playing the Founding
Fathers, starting the show as a diverse ensemble of 2023 performers literally stepping into 18th Century shoes. The whole show kicks off with a land acknowledgment by the full blooded Native American in the cast, already setting us up for a new look at what we have previously assumed about our history. Robert Hemings, slave of Jefferson has been added to the cast of characters, silently observing and serving. And Abigail Adams gets her most famous line: "Remember the Ladies" with the full blessing of the playwrights' estates. Of course, spoiler :the men don't.
These ultra talented performers take on the cantankerous, opinionated and privileged rich white men who birthed this nation and the script masterfully lays out what a mangled, stunted and Ill formed offspring it was: the debate over the anti slavery passage that was struck from Jefferson's original draft (which leads to the chilling song Molasses to Rum) underlines the rottenness at the core of America’s founding. Our racism isn’t just systemic: it’s foundational. One can also see the inevitability of the Civil War in this catchy tale’s telling.
Back in the Nixon White House, which requested a performance of the show, the most offensive song to them was Cool, Cool Considerate Men. In today's culture wars, as we listen to the Dominion vs Fox News case, or yet another warped Supreme Court hearing, this number is the most contemporary, relevant and on the nose indictment of our country and the powers that be as they sing and dance “to the right to the right never to the left”! This cast speaks truth to power with amazing choreography.
This show is very funny and truly dark. Gisela Adisa’s John Adams is passionate, obstinate and committed to the cause. Nancy Anderson’s Thomas Jefferson is enigmatic. Liz Mikel’s Ben Franklin steals the show. But it is Brooke Simpson, the hapless courier from General Washington and an oft times Congressional observer who rips your heart out with the anti war anthem Mama Look Sharp.
David Bengali’s projection design is remarkable— I would go to the show again just to see the collage of American history that plays towards the end. And that finale isn’t the grand optimistic send 'em home singing musical wrap up that one usually sees. Instead we are left with a haunting question as the cast strips their waistcoats off and returns to the 21st century and a fade out.
Co-Directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus ask us in their note: How can we hold history as a predicament versus an affirming myth? A worthy ask. This musical will shift how you view our collective history and how you define “our”. And that is what great art should do: help us to see the world differently. This musical is an important moment even as it depicts a fictionalized time long ago. We are our history in all its twists and turns, its joys and scars, its aspirations and its failures.
1776 is running only through March 12, 2023 at the CIBC Theatre at 18 W Monroe in Chicago's Loop. For tickets and information go to www.BroadwayInChicago.com
For more reviews go to www.TheatreInChicago.com