'1776': Theater Review

New York City Center Encores Production of 1776 -H 2016
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
This precursor to 'Hamilton' holds up superbly.

Santino Fontana stars as John Adams in the Tony-winning 1969 musical about the Founding Fathers, which Lin-Manuel Miranda credits as his inspiration for 'Hamilton.'

Is there room on Broadway for two musicals about the Founding Fathers?

The answer is a resounding yes, if the revival of 1776 being presented for an all-too-brief run by City Center's Encores! series is any indication. This beloved 1969 Tony Award-winning show was an obvious inspiration for a musical currently running on Broadway that you may have heard something about — Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton. And that production's mega-success might well have had something to do with the decision of Encores! to mount this musical, which has hardly been neglected over the years. It was adapted into a very faithful film version in 1972, was revived on Broadway by Roundabout in 1997 and is often seen in regional theaters. While this current incarnation is not perfect, it nonetheless makes a compelling argument that the show would find receptive audiences for a commercial run.

1776 is an unusual choice for Encores!, which generally spotlights little-seen musicals featuring worthy scores but problematic books that make full-blown revivals unlikely. Their productions often heavily abridge or alter the original librettos to make them more accessible. There's no such need here. The book by Peter Stone — dramatizing the debate within the Second Continental Congress over the issue of independence and the ratification of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration — is considered one of the finest in all of musical theater.

This version staged by Irish director Garry Hynes (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) duly recognizes its quality, making only minor cuts. Indeed, one scene in the first act goes on for more than 30 minutes with nary a single musical note, leaving the large orchestra located at the rear of the stage to twiddle their thumbs. Not to worry, though, as the musicians, when called upon, splendidly render the score under the expert direction of Ben Whiteley.

But to praise the brilliance of the dialogue is not to diminish the beauties of the score by Sherman Edwards, who wrote several pop hits ("See You in September," "Wonderful! Wonderful!") though no other musicals. While it produced no enduring standards, the score features many gorgeous and stirring numbers, from the propulsive opener, "For God's Sake, John, Sit Down!," hurled by the Congressmen at their annoying colleague John Adams, to the haunting "Momma, Look Sharp," sung by a young military courier about the human toll of war, which makes for a powerful and highly atypical first-act closer.

The most startling aspect of this version is the ill-advised decision to have the performers in modern dress. This show, like many Encores! productions, is semi-staged, with modest scenery — basically some platforms boasting tables and chairs, plus that all-important scoreboard on which the states' votes are tallied — and many of the actors hold scripts in hand. But the contemporary suits and ties — not to mention Abigail Adams' skinny jeans and down vest, Martha Jefferson's skimpy summer dress and the congressional custodian's janitor uniform — don't exactly exude historical atmosphere. Oh, for some powdered wigs!

The production also features a multi-racial cast which, ironically, proves more jarring than the mostly black and Hispanic ensemble of Hamilton. It's not a problem, but it is rather distracting at times. Seeing the talented Nikki Renee Daniels as Martha Jefferson, for instance, it's hard not to think of Sally Hemings, although it's an allusion that may well have been intentional.

Considering the show's considerable demands, the ensemble is largely fine despite their limited rehearsal time, with the choral numbers particularly impressive. Santino Fontana is a suitably stirring Adams, even if his natural youthful appeal belies the constant references to his character being "obnoxious and disliked." John Larroquette, who previously proved his musical chops with his Tony-winning turn in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, is an amusing Ben Franklin, although he doesn't quite convey sufficient slyness; and John Behlmann makes for a strapping, matinee-idol Thomas Jefferson.

Christiane Noll is wonderful as Abigail Adams, with the scenes between her and Fontana, taken largely from their characters' real-life correspondence, providing some of the show's most moving moments. Bryce Pinkham is a little too strident as John Dickinson, making him seem more villainous than necessary. Jubilant Sykes lives up to his name with his over-the-top turn as the florid Richard Henry Lee. Alexander Gemignani delivers a showstopper with his powerful rendition of the morally complex number "Molasses to Rum." Daniels' charming rendition of "He Plays the Violin" exuberantly conveys the song's double meaning. And MacIntyre Dixon amusingly reprises his role of the custodian from the 1997 Broadway revival, although his brief misplacing of one of the states' votes during a crucial tally could well have changed the course of American history.

Speaking of which, the marvel of this show is how it manages to keep us in suspense even though its outcome is known to all. That it does so is a testament to the superb writing, which features generous doses of humor. It was to be expected that the calculated jibes against Congress and the New York Legislature would prove laugh-getters in this blue-state crowd. But when the audience applauds upon the return of Delaware's mortally ill Caesar Rodney (Michael Medeiros) to cast a pivotal vote, it's a powerful indicator of just how successfully 1776 makes history come alive. 

Venue: New York City Center, New York
Cast: Terence Archie, John Behlmann, Larry Bull, Nikki Renee Daniels, Andre de Shields, MacIntyre Dixon, Santino Fontana, Alexander Gemignani, John Hickok, John Hillner, John Larroquette, Kevin Ligon, John-Michael Lyles, Laird Mackintosh, Michael McCormick, Michael Medeiros, Christiane Noll, Bryce Pinkham, Wayne Pretlow, Tom Alan Robbins, Robert Sella, Ric Stoneback, Jubilant Sykes, Vishal Vaidya, Nicholas Ward, Jacob Keith Watson
Music & lyrics: Sherman Edwards
Book: Peter Stone
Director: Garry Hynes
Set designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: Terese Wadden
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Musical direction: Ben Whiteley
Choreographer: Chris Bailey
Presented by New York City Center Encores!