Sometimes I talk about parts of culture that are too deep in my soul for me to analyze them much. Star Wars, The Princess Bride, Les Miz…
1776 isn’t quite at that level, but it’s close. Whenever I think about the show as a piece of theater, I first have to parse out years of childhood memories, family lore, inside jokes,(New York abstains…courtesly), and it’s not as fundamentally impossible as others but it’s a lot of work.
Luckily, last night as I sat in New York City Center watching the Encores production of 1776 I didn’t have to because they did the work for me. Stripped down of it’s period trappings, just the amazing play and it’s delightful musical interludes, 1776 is much easier to meditate on.
I say play instead of book, because more than any other musical, the songs in 1776 are supplementary material. They’re great, and I love them, but could be excised almost entirely and you’d still have a fully formed piece and a very good one at that. But it’s the songs that elevate it to great. They’re performed spectacularly here, especially Santino Fontana as John Adams, who’s casting I side eyed. The man is literally Prince Charming, how was he going to play the “obnoxious and disliked” lead here? He did it very well.
Above all else, though, what I love about 1776 is that it’s a love letter to American Ideals, while still managing to be largely human. One of the joys of being a citizen of this very young country is that our history feels like we can touch it, we don’t have to dig far to find it’s core. The human element of that history has yet to be lost, because it was only 250 years ago.
Sometimes the reasoning behind the choices made by the Encores series are painfully transparent in their attempt to grab the zeitgeist. (When I saw Gentlemen Prefer Blondes there with Megan Hilty the year Smash premiered is one instance…) No one is even pretending that the decision to do 1776 wasn’t to highlight it’s similarities to Hamilton, the playbill even featured a lengthy conversation between Lin-Manuel Miranda and original John Adams, William Daniels. And Aless, Jess, Alex and I certainly spent a good portion of our conversation laughing about how we kept waiting for an explicit reference. (There wasn’t one, they played the show straight.)
There always things I remember about musicals I know inside out like this, and things that I forget. I always forget how funny the first act of 1776 is and then in turn, how intense and uncomfortable the second act is. The long scenes discussing the founding fathers complicity in slavery is…unsettling. But important, in the end Ben Franklin points out, they aren’t gods and shouldn’t be remembered as such. They were men, brilliant, visionary men, but men all the same. Men who were flawed, and products of their times and blinded by that at times.
Overall, it was worthwhile to lean back and enjoy this show again, and to sit up and listen to it, to revel in every “Good God,” and shout of “sit down, John.”
Is anybody there? Does anybody care?