Theater Review: The Encores! Revival of 1776 Adds Modern Touches to a Powerful and Deserving Show

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Santino Fontana (John Adams), John Larroquette (Benjamin Franklin), and John Behlmann (Thomas Jefferson). Photo: Joan Marcus

Like the thirteen colonies awkwardly hammered into a union, the musical 1776, which is about that hammering, is a bizarre construction that should not work. The idea for the show was outré in itself, let alone in its provenance: It was the dreamchild of a New Jersey schoolteacher and passable pop songwriter named Sherman Edward. By the time he got his historical costume musical about the ratification of the Declaration of Independence on the boards, in 1969, the Vietnam War was in full rage and game-changers like Hair and Cabaret had blown away the Broadway template. Who would sit for a longish (and originally intermission-less) show featuring grumpy old men doing gavottes in breeches? A show with hardly any women, unusually few songs (at one point, 30 minutes go by with no music at all), and no inherent suspense?

But the oddness of 1776 turned out to be its genius. Peter Stone, hired to reshape Edwards’s dry chronicle of three months in Philadelphia into a feasible drama, figured out that even with a foregone conclusion the battle could be surprising; 1776 is not so much about how we came to be a country as about how close we came to not being one.

That Edwards’s songs, with their often-peculiar lyrics, are so secondary, and Stone’s book so good — certainly one of the best ever written for a musical — makes 1776 an unexpected choice for the Encores! series, which almost always faces the opposite situation. (The limp and objectionable text of this season’s first Encores! entry, Cabin in the Sky, makes that show almost unperformable today, despite its lovely score.) Yet the choice also makes perfect sense, and not just because it allows Encores! to hop a ride on Hamilton’s Founding Father juggernaut.

Though the show was a hit in its original production, and had a moderately successful revival in 1997, it was sorely in danger of disappearing forever into the stock and amateur market, where its strengths, including a knockout orchestration by Eddie Sauter and its delicious choral arrangements, were likely to become liabilities. At Encores! those strengths are restored, and then some — Sauter’s orchestra of 22 players has even been expanded, to 29. The sound from the orchestra, with Ben Whiteley conducting, is glorious and so (I’ve buried my lede) is the production. Under Garry Hynes’s patient, probing, and emotionally vivid direction, it ranks as one of the best of the 68 musical revivals Encores! has offered in its 23 years of operation.

Hynes, best known for riveting stagings of Irish dramas including The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West, did not seem an obvious option, either. To my knowledge, the only musical she has ever directed is the dour Juno, based on Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, in a 2008 Encores! production. But as an expert in setting off theatrical fireworks without benefit of kick-lines or special effects, she turned out to be an inspired choice. 1776 features a cast of 26 actual individuals, all but two of them historical, who served in the Continental Congress or were connected to it. (Even the show’s custodian is based on the real one.)

Stone’s book characterizes each of them confidently, some in only a few lines, and some, like John Adams, in hundreds. Adams, of course, is the obnoxious hothead spurring the Declaration; Ben Franklin, his main supporter here, is the randy old sage given to spouting adages. Together they dragoon the diffident Thomas Jefferson into writing the document while fighting off the self-preservative arguments of their chief antagonist, conservative John Dickinson. Hynes has cast the show beautifully, which is half the battle: whether quickly etching indelible portraits of secondary players (André De Shields as the sauced Stephen Hopkins; Robert Sella as the congressional secretary) or digging deep into characters well known to history (especially Santino Fontana as Adams) the actors thrillingly succeed in making the drama play as if it never happened before — onstage or off.

Hynes underlines that sense of newness by neutralizing the period aspects of the show. The congressmen wear modern suits, and Abigail Adams, back home in Massachusetts, is hilariously dressed in L.L. Bean. (The costumes are by Hynes’s longtime designer Terese Wadden.) In addition, there is the production’s color-blind casting, which Encores!, again referencing Hamilton, has perhaps over-advertised. Among other nontraditional choices, the courier delivering General Washington’s dire dispatches from the field is the young black actor John-Michael Lyles. (Hynes deploys him, sometimes in a hoodie, to haunting effect, and he sings the score’s standout number, “Momma, Look Sharp” heartbreakingly.)

But my one quibble with this 1776 is about this color-blindness: It ought to have been more pervasive. Not that I would choose, having seen their excellent work, to replace any white actor I saw, but with only a few mostly secondary characters being played by nonwhite actors, the aesthetic intention is unclear. What are we to make of the furious and profound fight over Jefferson’s denunciation of slavery in his draft of the Declaration when only white actors are participating in it? And what are we to make of the lovely Nikki Renée Daniels as Jefferson’s young wife, Martha, when she suddenly runs into his arms after arriving in Philadelphia from the farm in Virginia? At last night’s opening, the audience gasped; they evidently thought, as they surely would not had there been more black actors, that she was Sally Hemings.

They got over it quickly; there’s not much in the musical theater that’s as charming as the scene in which Martha dances with Adams and Franklin while Jefferson sleeps off the effects of their romantic reunion. To the strains of “He Plays the Violin,” with concertmistress Suzanne Ornstein getting a chance to show off her exuberant fiddling, 1776 makes history in more ways than one. And when at the end, spoiler alert, the Declaration gets signed, we know, not so much from high school as from the sensational dissonance of the clanging orchestra chimes, that history is still messy, still happening. It’s a brilliant and terrifying way to bring down the curtain. But then the show, and Encores!, had a damn good story to work with.

1776 is at City Center through April 3.