Is Anybody There? 1776, Love and Liberty

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?

Lies Musical Theatre Told Me: For God’s Sake John Sit Down!

Welcome back to Lies Musical Theatre Told Me! This is one that I think about frequently this time of year.

With the exception of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson The Continental Congress was a bunch of indecisive idiots (and they were ALL super horny)

The culprit here is of course the amazing 1776.

We're waiting for the chirp, chirp, chirp, of an eaglet being born...

We’re waiting for the chirp, chirp, chirp, of an eaglet being born…

If you aren’t familiar, 1776 chronicles the week leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s insightful, funny, brilliant and, being that it’s a musical about the founding fathers, totally dorky.

I think it can go without saying that I love 1776. I love it because I love musicals, and I love American history, and I really love The Declaration of Independence. In my early American Lit course in college we read both the Declaration and the Constitution and analyzed them as non fiction literature and it was one of the best experiences of analysis I’ve ever had.

Anyway, my love affair with 1776 began when I was about twelve. Our local high school put on a production of the show, starring now almost famous Brad Weinstock as John Adams.

Brad, as Frankie Valli in the national tour of Jersey Boys, we're all very proud

Brad, as Frankie Valli in the national tour of Jersey Boys, we’re all very proud

I’m pretty sure that Brad was great, but I don’t really remember because my memories of that production are clouded by my friend Joe’s older brother Sean playing Richard Henry Lee. To be fair, “The Lees of Old Virginia,” is a big show stealing number, but Sean was consistently stealing shows from the other kids. The next year he stole Into The Woods from the boy playing The Baker, but that’s a different story.

I was transfixed by this odd little show, which only had a few songs and no women. Well, 2 women. I loved it in fact. I wanted to go right out to Sam Goody or Tower Records and buy the OBC Recording. I didn’t, but that’s only because my mom owned it on vinyl. Because I wasn’t yet a full blown theatre geek, I didn’t quite understand how cool it was that my mother owned a vinyl copy of the 1776 OBC Recording. I did understand how cool it was that William Daniels was the original John Adams.

That's young Mr. Feeney. That's why they went to John Adams High School. It's a joke. Get it?

That’s young Mr. Feeney. That’s why Corey and Co. went to John Adams High School. It’s a joke. Get it?

I also may be using the word “cool” incorrectly here. But I listened to the record over and over again. The reason that my mother owned this record was simple.

To celebrate the bicentenial in 1976, the parish my mom grew up in put on a production of 1776. My grandfather played Thomas Jefferson. Now, there’s a number, “But Mr. Adams,” that is basically John Adams trying to convince various members of the committee of five to write the Declaration of Independence. When he goes to Jefferson, who of course ends up writing it, (if you don’t know this go find your middle school social studies teacher and punch them in the face.) Jefferson simply says “Mr. Adams, leave me alone.” Here’s the thing though, the “alone” is on a high G and the entire phrase is belted. It’s incredibly difficult. So, when my Grampy would practice the song, while his five young children tried to sleep. He would reach that moment, this beautiful dramatic vocal fanfare and miss the note. Now messing up a note is not a big deal in rehearsal but can be quite frustrating. To vent said frustration, Grampy would shout, “God damnit Irene! (My grandmother) I can’t hit that note!” This is a little bit of family lore that my mother spins frequently and always giggles her way through it.

Anyway, this is all a prelude, because 1776, like so many other shows that I love is a big fat liar.

Lie #1, of course is that the congress was super lazy and petty. Except John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The first half of the show is Adams imposing his will on the congress about Independence. He is labeled as “obnoxious and disliked” and no one agrees with him. But no one else even wants to talk about independence. Not John Hancock, no one, except Ben Franklin, and Richard Henry Lee, sort of. Obviously Adams wins and then America becomes a thing.

Here’s the main reason that 1776 decides that the reason the Declaration of Independence almost didn’t happen is because Thomas Jefferson wanted to go home and have sex with his wife.

This is an actual plot point. Thomas Jefferson is asking John Adams to leave him alone, so that he can go home and boink Martha Jefferson. This is resolved when Adams and Franklin bring Martha to Philadelphia, somehow, and then she and Tom have sex in the middle of the day and it’s very scandalous. This also leads to one of the best character songs in the history of theatre, “He Plays The Violin.” It also leads to a really boring duet between John and Abigail Adams where they sing about how they miss having sex.

That’s the only reason there are even women in the show at all. That’s why you don’t see many amateur productions of it anymore. No girl parts.

Katie and I fight about it yearly, because I want to put it on with our company Tom Foolery Theatre so badly it makes my head hurt, and we can’t, because Katie refuses to allow gender blind casting. (She is, by the way mostly right, and I mostly start these fights after a few drinks.) However, if you’re in Allendale, New Jersey tonight and you see a dark blond haired girl and a red haired girl marching drunkenly through the streets shouting, “SOMEONE GO AND OPEN UP A WINDOW!” “WELL FOR GOD’S SAKE JOHN SIT DOWN!” at the top of their lungs, that’s me and Katie.

Happy Fourth of July Everyone!