CAMBRIDGE — At a precarious moment for the nation’s 2½-century-old democratic experiment, the American Repertory Theater’s Broadway-bound revival of “1776″ sets out to interrogate the morally compromised origins of that experiment.
Co-directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus and featuring a multiracial, multi-ethnic cast of female, trans, and non-binary actors, the ART production emphasizes the contradiction at the heart of the Declaration of Independence: namely, that the signers of a document proclaiming freedom as the paramount value deliberately chose to remain silent on the enslavement of their fellow human beings.
That original sin isn’t likely to get mentioned much at next month’s Fourth of July festivities. Any endeavor to push it closer to the center of the nation’s consciousness is a worthy one. And in purely theatrical terms, there are moments of great power in this “1776″ that will stay with you.
But Page and Paulus are only intermittently able to overcome the 1969 musical’s built-in flaws and limitations.
Unlike that other well-known take on the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War era, “Hamilton,” which is bursting with one indelible Lin-Manuel Miranda song after another, “1776″ features a score by Sherman Edwards that, with a few exceptions, falls well short of memorable.
Peter Stone’s libretto is sturdy and sometimes witty but mighty talky. It dramatizes the debate among delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776 on whether the colonies should break away from Great Britain, with Massachusetts delegate John Adams (Crystal Lucas-Perry) a prickly and forceful proponent of independence. There are less-than-compelling stretches in “1776″ when delegates are lobbing barbs at one another while seated at their desks.
Not until well into Act Two does the momentous issue catalyzing “1776″ (and this revival) truly take center stage: the decision by delegates to delete an anti-slavery clause from the Declaration. This is when Page and Paulus are able to put more of a distinctive stamp on “1776.” (Disclosure: Paulus directed “Crossing,” an opera by my son, Matthew Aucoin.)
The original passage by Declaration author and Virginia delegate Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis), who was himself a slaveholder, described slavery as “this execrable commerce” and “this assemblage of horrors.” South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge (Sara Porkalob) voices implacable opposition to the clause, and Rutledge does not trouble to conceal his reasoning: “They are not people. They are property.”
Though Adams decries the obscenity of “half a million souls in chains” and declares, “If we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us,” basic humanity doesn’t stand a chance when weighed against the financial interests of these assembled eminences and of the colonies they represent. Ultimately, delegates from the North as well as the South support the removal of the antislavery clause.
Following the premiere at the ART, “1776″ will move to Broadway in September, then launch a 16-city national tour in February. (It was originally slated to premiere in May 2020 before the pandemic intervened.) With its nontraditional casting, the production is making a worthwhile statement about representation, and about whose lives and perspectives are and are not chronicled in the history books, though it is obviously not the first show to make that statement.
New York’s Public Theater recently premiered “Suffs,” a musical about the suffragist movement with women and non-binary actors in the roles of male historical figures. Back in 2018, a production of “1776″ by Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre featured women and people of color in roles usually played by white male actors.
At present in the ART’s “1776,” more variety and nuance are needed in Lucas-Perry’s portrayal of Adams. More nimbleness of wit is needed in Patrena Murray’s portrayal of gout-ridden Pennsylvania delegate and general polymath Benjamin Franklin. And more force is needed in Joanna Glushak’s portrayal of John Dickinson, Franklin’s fellow Pennsylvania delegate and independence opponent.
Not a thing more is needed from Porkalob as Rutledge. Local audiences may remember — they certainly should remember, if they saw it — Porkalob’s astonishing, ART-presented solo shows, “Dragon Lady” and “Dragon Mama.”
In a scene staged with chilling force by Page and Paulus, Porkalob commands the stage in “Molasses to Rum,” a cold-blooded evocation of the financial facts behind slavery and the hypocrisy of those who decry it but profit from it.
Another shattering scene in which this “1776″ delivers on its ambitions features Salome B. Smith as a courier who —with the cast somberly arrayed like witnesses behind her — voices the haunting final words of a mortally wounded young soldier in “Momma, Look Sharp.” Smith stops the show.
Allyson Kaye Daniel is an elegant and welcome presence as Abigail Adams, who periodically materializes to banter with, and sometimes instruct, her husband. In what the ART says is a first for a professional production, the script for this “1776″ includes a substantial excerpt from Abigail’s famous “Remember the Ladies” letter to her husband.
“Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could,” Abigail tells John — a line that reverberated within the Loeb Drama Center. With one of our two major political parties giving itself over, bit by ominous bit, to authoritarianism, and with the Supreme Court apparently poised to soon deliver a huge blow to women’s reproductive freedom, Abigail’s words are likely to resonate on Broadway and across the country as well.
Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards. Book by Peter Stone. Based on a concept by Edwards. Co-directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus. Choreographed by Page. Coproduction by American Repertory Theater and Roundabout Theatre Company. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through July 24. Tickets from $25. 617-547-8300, www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org