The Elbert Files: ‘1776’ still a revelation
The 1969 Tony Award-winning musical “1776” was one of the first performances I saw in the then-new C.Y. Stephens Auditorium in 1971. Fifty-two years later, I still remember how curious it was that a musical about a two-centuries-old revolution could speak so poignantly to my Vietnam War generation.
A revised version of “1776” opens Tuesday (March 14) at the Des Moines Civic Center with adaptations my anti-war friends of old could never have imagined.
If the cast of “Hamilton,” the Broadway sensation of a few years ago, showed we are all immigrants and that skin color has nothing to do with talent and performance, “1776” brings us one step further. It casts female, trans and nonbinary actors as the “Founding Fathers” who wrote our Declaration of Independence.
I’ve been eager to see this show since a friend saw a pre-Broadway version in Cambridge, Mass., in early 2020. It was supposed to open on Broadway later that year, but COVID got in the way.
When the revised version of “1776” made it to New York last fall, it received favorable reviews.
The Wall Street Journal said the production “is disarmingly odd, occasionally thought-provoking and an absolute delight. It is also timely. As political polarization seems to increase by the day, ‘1776’ offers a telling reminder that the nation was fiercely divided from the start.”
The Washington Post said: “’1776’ – not ‘Hamilton’ – is the musical that best portrays the Founders.”
And the New York Times noted: “While the gender-flipped casting may be the show’s claim to ‘firstness,’ the core of the production is a grappling with race.”
And therein may lie an unforeseen problem, because despite favorable reviews, the New York run lasted barely three months.
“1776” closed on Broadway in early January and began a national tour that opened in Philadelphia. It then played in Chicago before arriving in Des Moines (March 14-19). Future dates include Denver (March 21-April 2) and Los Angeles (April 11-May 7).
The 1969 version of “1776” opened with John Adams standing alone onstage saying: “I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm and that three or more become a Congress.”
As Adams rants about the “illegal taxes” that Parliament and King George have laid on the colonies, the curtain opens and members of the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia shout: “Sit down, John. For God’s sake, John, sit down.”
The opening of the 21st-century version is more subtle. As described by the New York Times, the actors walk onstage in modern-day street clothes. In silence, they put on 18th-century waistcoats, leggings and buckle boots before dialogue begins.
The performance focuses on the three key members – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson – of the committee tasked with declaring independence.
After much singing and dancing, interspersed with serious dialogue, the climax is the signing of the declaration, but not until after Jefferson has tried, and failed, to include a passage condemning slavery. (Yes, that really happened; Jefferson was a very complex person.)
It will be interesting to see how “1776” does in Des Moines, where Iowa’s lawmakers are intent on curtailing the rights of women and transgender and nonbinary individuals, the very people who make up the cast of “1776.”
This year, there are efforts to eliminate access to abortion, create lists of restricted books and limit the teaching of race-related topics, including the book “1619” by Nicole Hannah Jones, who was born in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1976, the bicentennial year.
The Des Moines Civic Center, where “1776” is being performed, is within sight of the Iowa Capitol. Lawmakers could easily walk down the hill, cross the river and sit in the audience.
If they did, they might discover some commonalities with the founders.
To be sure, the issues are different today. But if you look beneath the surface, the personalities and arguments have not changed much in nearly 250 years.