"1776," at Pioneer Theatre Company
by Eric D. Snider
Published on September 20, 1998
Why would you want to see "1776" -- a musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence -- when you already know how it's going to end? Because of the three hours of powerhouse entertainment that lead up to that end, that's why. (Perhaps, in this era of "Titanic," that's not really a fair question anyway.)
And while we know the Declaration of Independence eventually DID get signed, perhaps few of us know the struggles that came before it. "1776," being performed at Pioneer Theatre Company through Oct. 3, depicts those struggles brilliantly: humorously, engagingly and excitingly. There actually IS tension and suspense as to whether the thing's going to get signed or not!
"1776" is told through the eyes of John Adams (Kurt Ziskie), the fiery delegate from Massachusetts who seems never to rest, relax or shut up. He is a man obsessed with freeing the colonies from Britain, and he won't rest until he has convinced every other delegate of the same thing.
His major opponent on the issue is stately John Dickinson (Max Robinson) of Pennsylvania, who still hopes for reconciliation with the mother country, despite the war that the colonies are currently fighting (and losing). The rest of the colonies are more or less evenly split, with Adams trying to win them over one by one.
On his side is Benjamin Franklin (Benjamin Stewart), who is portrayed here exactly as we like to think of him: wise, funny and old. He falls asleep during Congress meetings (who wouldn't, really?), leers at pretty women, and is fond of quoting himself. Stewart's performance is the easy-going balance to Ziskie's tightly wound Adams.
"1776" is full of conflict. Aside from the ongoing war, which is only referred to and not seen, there's Adams vs. Dickinson; the Southern colonies vs. Thomas Jefferson (played with dignity and strength by Patrick Boll); one Delaware delegate vs. another; Adams' longing to be back home with his wife Abigail (Victoria Mallory) -- and EVERYONE'S got problems with Jefferson's proposed Declaration, wanting to take out a word here or put in a word there. (Anyone who has ever tried to write something via committee will relate to the agony and absurdity of that scene.)
Though "1776" is a musical, it is not a traditional one. There is no overture, no big finale with the entire cast singing and dancing, and in fact, there are only 13 songs in the entire show (20 or more is typical). Most of the songs are funny, reinforcing the show's depiction of the delegates are real men: argumentative, hot and sweaty ("It's hot as hell/ In Philadel-/ Phia," sings one lyric), prone to making bawdy jokes, and stubborn. Yet the show manages to show us our forefathers in a way that makes them seem real without tearing down our lofty images of them. Adams is obnoxious and loud-mouthed, Jefferson can't write until he sleeps with his wife one more time, Benjamin Franklin is lecherous and doddering -- but we still love them. If anything, seeing a more realistic portrayal of them just makes us admire them more, because we see them as real people, not as 18th-century superheroes whose faces we know only from looking at our currency. Ultimately, every man follows his conscience and acts honorably -- whether he signs the Declaration or not -- and we gain new respect for the men who founded our country.
The show, while generally light in tone, has some serious moments, too. The news from the battle's front is never good, and South Carolina's Edward Rutledge (Robert Bartley) sings a slap-in-the-face of a song about slavery and the hypocrisy involved therein. And the long scenes of debate over the issues are fascinating. The costumes are so real and the acting so good that you feel you're watching the real Congress. Through humor, music and powerful performances, "1776" shows the importance of standing up for one's beliefs, the importance of fighting for a cause, and most importantly, the basis on which the United States of America was created. It may not actually be your patriotic duty to see this show, but it sure comes close.
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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