Before 1776 begins, an actress gives a land recognition speech. Brooke Simpson, herself Native American, lists the many tribes that lived on land currently occupied by the CIBC Theatre in downtown Chicago. Acknowledging the U.S.’s indigenous population has become standard procedure in curtain speeches and program notes. Doing so before a musical that chronicles the writing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia seems like a liberty bell that delivers a dozen messages in a single ring.
Among them are the 1969 show’s ongoing references to treason and rebellion. Since January 6, 2021, when thousands stormed the U.S. Capitol, these words have moved out of history books and into daily conversation. Depending on your loyalties, the script points out – and current culture supports – taking arms against the government can make you a freedom-loving patriot or a seditious rebel.
Heaven and Earth in 1776
Could composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards and book writer Peter Stone have anticipated these urgent new layers to their creation? Furthermore, could these two white men, creating a musical inspired by the Continental Congress’ white men, have anticipated Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus’ production in which every single role is played by a woman, many of them women of color?
In this writer’s opinion, the latest ideation of 1776 should leave Sherman and Stone resting happily in musical theater heaven. The co-authors’ irreverent back story on how the Declaration of Independence narrowly missed the trash bin – amid flies, heat and plenty of rum – can be told by performers of any gender or race, so long as they are skilled. As the cast synchronizes their swaying white-stockinged legs and black-buckled shoes underneath a long wooden table in Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve, they puncture the Founding Fathers’ myth with an absurd yet well-intentioned zeal that this viewer couldn’t resist.
John and Abigail Are the Core
Described as “obnoxious and disliked” by all (including himself), John Adams and his wife Abigail form the narrative’s core. They exchange letters that musically communicate the hardship of Abigail’s single-parent farm existence and John’s frustrations with a sluggish Congress. John demands that Abigail send him saltpeter, Abigail demands that he send her sewing pins. Their prickly but loving relationship serves as a contrast to Thomas Jefferson, here portrayed as a lusty husband who can only draft the Declaration of Independence when Adams brings his young wife Martha to Philadelphia.
Soaring melodies and skewering ensemble numbers take us high above the quotidian details of 18th Century government. In Mamma, Look Sharp, we get a common soldier’s heartbreaking account of friends lying dead after a bloody battle on a village green. In The Egg, we get a bit of schtick as Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson contemplate the hatching of a new nation. Molasses to Rum spells out the deeply entwined commerce of the northern Colonies with the slave-owning southern Colonies.
Who is a patriot and who is a traitor is certainly determined by winners, losers and the historians who record it all. But when it comes to 1776, theatergoers may determine that its creative liberties meld into another form of liberty – a single ring that delivers a dozen entertaining messages.
Directors: Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus
February 28 – March 12, 2023
Sundays - 2 pm *additional 7:30 pm performance on 2/5
Tuesdays - 7:30 pm
Wednesdays - 7:30 pm *additional 2 pm performance on 2/8
Thursdays - 7:30 pm
Fridays - 7:30 pm
Saturdays - 2 pm and 8 pm
18 W. Monroe St.
About the Author: Susan Lieberman
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.