As you begin to watch the current revival of 1776, don’t forget the 10-minute rule.
It’s been attributed to Sondheim, who often said that if you precisely establish what you plan to do during the first 10 minutes of a musical, the audience members will accept your ground rules.
Once you’ve shown them your approach, you can proceed in that style all performance long – as long as you informed them at the top.
Case in point: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. You may think that the first words “Playgoers, I bid you welcome” are said by Pseudolus, but they’re actually recited by our narrator Prologus. He immediately breaks the fourth wall and introduces the actors who’ll play the many characters.
Thus, at the end of the Act One, when Pseudolus is about to be killed, it’s not a stretch for him to look out at the audience, become Prologus once again and proclaim “Intermission!” You wouldn’t accept Henry Higgins, Harold Hill or Hamilton looking out any crying “Intermission!” out of the blue at the end of their first acts, because MY FAIR LADY, THE MUSIC MAN and HAMILTON don’t establish that style early on.
So within the first 10 minutes of this 1776, the curtains part on a group of individuals who embody multiple representations of race, ethnicity and gender. They’re people who identify as female, transgender and non-binary.
That isn’t the only way that they don’t remotely resemble the men who established the United States of America 246 years ago; all wear contemporary clothes.
In the 1969 and 1997 Broadway productions of 1776 (as well as the 1972 film), we first saw characters, not actors; here instead we see performers, not characters.
Only now will they change into 18th century linens, brocades and britches to become the characters that librettist Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards wrote.
So who are these performers? None is a cisgender male, although, aside from the show’s few female roles, each is playing one.
I suggest that those contemporary duds tell us that they are a group of community theater performers who very much wanted to do 1776. When auditions were held, not enough men showed up. Perhaps the ones that did were found wanting in talent, attitude or availability.
That poor turnout didn’t deter these performers who still yearned to do the show. Not even Elizabeth A. Davis’s advanced pregnancy would make her give up her chance to perform. Now there’s a trouper!
You might even feel that you’re at a community theater production before you even sit down, for the red, white and blue stage curtain you see as you enter the house is terribly faded. We can imagine that it was brand-spanking-new in 1973 when this community theater first mounted 1776. Its constant use for subsequent productions (and maybe one or two of GEORGE M! as well) has made it threadbare and weatherbeaten.
Note, too, that this curtain parts in the middle and doesn’t rise into the rafters as the ones do in most professional productions. That type of curtain is most often seen in community theater.
There’s no set to speak of; random tables and chairs will have to do in front of a dull brown cyclorama. Yes, many community theaters are hurting for dollars these days (just like their Big Sister professional theaters, for that matter).
The “community theater” comparison may seem to be a snide, left-handed compliment. No. As I recently wrote about the Bergen County Players’ RAGTIME in Oradell, New Jersey, “Once again, community theatre comes through and proves that many people who wanted marriage, children and a paycheck every Friday nevertheless have talent of a very high magnitude.”
So NONE of this is a slam against the cast, which shows talent at every turn. Everyone’s truly terrific – as extraordinary as Carolyn Pain was at the 3rd Street Theatre’s 1988 production of MINNIE’S BOYS in Phoenix.
This community theater take is my opinion and interpretation, to which I’m entitled, just as co-directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus are entitled to theirs. However, they expect me and every theatergoer who enters the American Airlines Theatre to think otherwise.
In the Playbill, Page states “We can blur the lines between the occluded and the included. We can illuminate new dimensions of our national story.”
How? Paulus explains that “as artists, we are embracing our American history as a human predicament and are committed to the process of learning from the past in order to move forward together.”
Jason P. Frank in New York Magazine summed up “the casting strategy’s goal: to remind the audience of the faces that were not considered during the Declaration of Independence’s writing.”
Is this what audiences will take from this production? In many interviews that James Goldman and Sondheim gave before they opened FOLLIES, they said that their metaphor was about the decline of America. Those who attended the musical could be pardoned for not gleaning that; most simply took the show at face value and saw it as two married couples’ fights in between terrific songs and production numbers.
Seasoned theatergoers – and those who attend Roundabout Theatre Company productions certainly have earned that adjective – may simply see this as Broadway’s latest non-traditionally cast production. Can we really expect anyone to say “Ah! These peoples’ forebears weren’t represented in 1776, 1969 or 1997, so Page and Paulus are making it up to them?”
Yes, Page and Paulus’ interpretation is established in the Playbill’s “A Note from the Artistic Director.” But what percentage of people will read that? Certainly not the ones who’ll arrive at eight p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays only to find that the show had already started at seven.
In this show about liberty, this production takes more than one. Many of today’s directors want to bring 20th century musicals into the 21st century in the way the performers sing. Similarly, many of today’s theatergoers have experienced fewer Broadway musicals than rock concerts and episodes of AMERICAN IDOL. For those vehicles, the norm is long-held notes and melismas (meaning single notes instead stretched over several syllables).
What’s more, more than an entire generation has been carefully taught to scream when someone holds a note for an inordinate amount of time. Performers too enjoy the adoring shrieks that inform them that their voices are much appreciated. So directors of today’s musicals have seen what audiences like and how they like it, so they – including Page and Paulus – give it to them just that way.
Thus the 1776 cast makes many of Edwards’ single notes into long melismas. Crystal Lucas-Perry as John Adams sings “Vote yay-ay-ay-ess.” Gisela Adisa as Robert Livingston of New York warbles “Buut-utt-utt.” Allyson Kaye Daniel’s Abigail Adams offers more than one lengthy melisma when she sings “What was there, John” in what was never there before.
Proof positive that Paulus and Page have succeeded in their goals comes from the “Whoos!” that greet the end of songs. For the record, at the October 12 matinee, Sara Porkalob received the most “Whoos!” (from five separate theatergoers) after she, as South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, had finished “Molasses to Rum.”
Porkalob, by the way, spoke to New York Magazine, and said that this production is “inviting our audiences to consider how our country was founded without the consideration of people like our cast in mind.”
That’s not at all fair. 1776 indeed shows that Adams, Franklin and Jefferson greatly considered people who were Black. Because the break from England had to be unanimously approved by all 13 colonies, the musical stresses that these three men agonized over the issue and had no choice but to compromise when two Southerners would absolutely not give in. Roundabout theater audiences are less likely to be ashamed of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson, and will probably instead admire the strong attempts that they made for a cause that would not profit them in the least (as more than a million audiences have done in the past).
Besides, Stone’s script hardly gives the slavery issue short shrift. A look at the published text shows that Rutledge begins his objections to Jefferson’s goal on page 112, and that the issue isn’t resolved until page 132. That’s 20 out of the script’s 141 pages — nearly one-seventh where slavery is front and center.
Onto Page’s choreography, which is quite bizarre. He likes to have his performers make quirky gestures, take odd positions, and do strange moves in unison to punctuate a lyric. While Adams sings that the delegates “can’t agree on what is right or wrong,” in fact everyone else in the cast is in agreement where gestures are concerned, as each delegate makes the same peculiar moves. If Page insists on making his delegates gesticulate, then he should differentiate the gestures between the two groups to show how politically far apart they are.
Alas, such herky-jerky motions reappear later in “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.” Now the conservatives are at odds with the lyric “What we do, we do rationally,” for their moves are hardly rational. Much of the time, they appear to be suffering strokes.
With no scenery to speak of, projections take up the slack. Certainly what David Bengali has designed for the final scene is a smart and effective variation from the 1969 scrim.
But here’s the biggest flaw: projections take the place of the day-by-day calendar and the scoreboard that tells us the number of yeas, nays and abstentions. Instead, projections of these statistics come and go.
Why not keep them in place all performance long? A theatergoer needs to know exactly how many days the delegates have until that July 4th deadline and how far apart the two sides are whenever he or she wants to be reminded; it greatly contributes to the tension.
With the date and score only intermittently visible, attendees are deprived of much of the drama. As the days dwindle down to a precious few – and the yeas and nays haven’t changed in some time – the calendar and scoreboard constantly remind audiences that unanimity and The United States of America ever happening seem unlikely. That tension is lost when playgoers are only fitfully shown through an occasional projection on how close or far the pro-independence delegates are to their goal.
Credit Page and Paulus with some good ideas. They have the curtain part during “The Lees of Old Virginia” to show us Lee’s forebears, played by the performers who aren’t in the number. During “Molasses to Rum” – a song that many theatergoers over the years have found hard to understand because it requires a histrionic delivery – Page and Paulus create a genuine musical scene: some performers play slaves who are being auctioned and some portray those who are purchasing them. In both of these songs, that famous theatrical maxim “Show, don’t tell” is at work, and the results greatly speak for themselves.
When the Courier first arrives with the dispatch from General Washington, we notice a bandaged leg and a limp. However, on successive visits, the Courier limps less, giving us the impression that the wound is healing and the worst is over. This provides a nice metaphor in suggesting that the Colonial army is getting stronger.
Another change almost works. When Adams is singing the impassioned “Is Anybody There?” someone indeed is: that Courier who overhears him and then seems inspired to return to the battle lines and fight. (The only problem here is that “Is Anybody There?” isn’t a diegetic number; it’s a collection of Adams’ private thoughts which he wouldn’t be saying aloud.)
Did Page and Paulus know in advance that the 1969 New Haven tryout had “Momma, Look Sharp” include mothers looking for their sons on the battlefield in hopes of finding them still alive? (Virginia Vestoff and Betty Buckley, respectively Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson, as well as Carole Piasecki, eventually written out of the show, doubled in these roles.)
Or did these co-directors come up with the idea on their own? Whatever the case, Liz Mikel (John Hancock in other scenes) plays a mother who fears the worst. However it wound up in this production, it remains a good idea.
Directors like to keep things moving at all costs, but some of the moving in this production costs clarity. Delegates scurry here, there and everywhere around the stage and are not always seen in the same place from scene to scene. Until now, 1776 has had its characters pretty much sit in the same seats all performance long, which helped an audience to remember who these delegates are and how they’re voting. Here constant roaming denies theatergoers that advantage.
Many directors will do anything that will make the audiences laugh, for theatergoers do enjoy a good guffaw. Perhaps that’s why Page and Paulus had Jefferson’s violin case brought on stage prior to his entering the Congressional Chamber. Given that he’s there to hear whether or not his declaration will be ratified, you may well wonder why he’d bring his musical instrument with him.
One explanation: Page and Paulus have his slave bring it on to remind us that Jefferson was, as Rutledge mentions, “a practitioner.”
Jefferson, with bigger things on his mind, forgets about the violin and leaves it on the floor as he enters the chamber. But Page and Paulus then go for a wild anachronism: Adams retrieves it and mime-plays a few guitar licks a la Jimi Hendrix.
Well, the 10-minute rule allows this, doesn’t it? But this air-guitar playing may be the last straw for many who feel that a different 10-minute rule should be applied: 10 minutes will be more than enough for them to rule out this production.
Perhaps these people will be able to catch and enjoy a 1776 that does it the way the authors wrote and envisioned it – at their local community theater.