The Controversial Revival of ‘1776’: Was It Really That Bad?

“1776” is a 1969 comedy musical about the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, with a book by Peter Stone and music by Sherman Edwards. This musical, despite its immediate rave reviews, has always been controversial, whether for supposedly being too disrespectful to the Founding Fathers or allegedly glorifying their actions. Still, the recently closed 2022 revival of the show stirred up a whole storm of new disputes. Why? The all female cast.

Women being casted in male roles is not all that uncommon, especially in productions of “1776.” In a show of 26 characters, only two being women, most non-Broadway productions end up casting women just to fill Congress. Most fans of the show agree that gender-blind casting has no effect on the message and themes, but the deliberately all-female cast seemed to set off some nerves.

There was outcry from all sides of the political spectrum: one side complaining about the inclusion of women in the story of signing the Declaration, and the other calling it white feminism, as the focus on women overlooks the themes of white supremacy in the show. There was a lot of comparison to Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit “Hamilton,” known for casting actors of color in the roles of the founding fathers.

The corner of 43rd Street and Broadway in New York City. Source: Jorge Soto Farias, through Pexels

Despite the heavy emphasis on the casting and the fears that it would overshadow the show’s message, the actual production, past the casting, is practically the original musical played straight. Some major changes would be the changes to the first song of act two,  “The Egg,” which is universally considered to be one of the boring duds from the original show. In the revival, it’s transformed into a rock number with a projected slideshow of American achievements, showing pictures of gay liberation movements, civil rights protests, and more. While regarded by many as cringey, it definitely grabbed the attention of the audience.

“It was woke, alright,” wrote blogger Kevin Diaz in his review of the show. “Woke as in I didn’t fall asleep halfway through.” Even the better liked songs of the show, like “He Plays The Violin” and “Momma Look Sharp,” were drastically improved, but the undeniable show stopper was “Molasses to Rum.”

“Molasses to Rum” is one of the final numbers of the show, and shares the platform with “Momma Look Sharp” as a slap to the face in the middle of a jaunty, irreverent comedy. While “Momma Look Sharp” shows the horrors of war, both going on at the time of the production and at the time of the Declaration, “Molasses to Rum” is the song that rings the strongest today. 

The song, sung by South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge, who protested against the Anti-Slavery clause of the Declaration of Independence, calling out the Northern delegates for contributing to slavery just as much as the south and feigning innocence. In the revival, it was an intense, nightmarish sequence with the objective of disturbing the audience, sung impressively by Tony-nominated Sara Porkalob. The revival’s “Molasses to Rum” was definitely the best version of the song I have seen, and many others seem to agree.

Of course, there were many other creative changes from the original that were not received well. For example, the character of Lewis Morris, the New York delegate who took the place of John Livingston, was removed. His iconic lines on how “Nothing happens in New York!” were given to Livingston instead, which unfortunately caused a plot conflict.

The costumes have been one of the biggest points of contention. Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams’ dresses weren’t historically accurate, and the coats of the Congress were made from brightly colored patterns that lead the main trio of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to clash when together. Another huge problem was the othering of the non-black actors of color, especially during Molasses to Rum. In the slave auction sequence, they were placed with the white actors as those taking part in the auction, while the black actors were standing on the tables. This binary view of race caused unfortunate and uncomfortable implications about non-black people of color.

Despite these issues, it was overall an enjoyable show to see. Once critics got past the casting, most people changed their opinions on it, agreeing that it was a flawed but entertaining show. Even so, this does raise the question: if it’s just a run of the mill production of “1776,” why did they deliberately cast all women and nonbinary people? 

On Broadway, there are rarely any roles for gender-nonconforming women and nonbinary people. Female actors usually have to fit in one box and if you deviate, you are very unlikely to be cast in anything. The purpose of this casting seems to be heavily related to creating roles for people typically undervalued on Broadway.

“The casting is providing resources,” said Sara Porkalob in her interview with Vulture, “The resources include a weekly salary, but also exposure for actors who traditionally would not be cast in this show. In terms of visibility, it is showing our audiences all of these faces that wouldn’t typically be seen.” 

The cast of the most recent iteration “1776”. Sourced from Playbill.

The racially diverse and all female cast was also meant to shake up the perspective given in the story, and force the audience to see more than just the surface of the play. Yes, “1776” is about war and racism, but both are heavily intertwined with misogyny, especially in the creation of this country. The revival forces you to look at the people left out, people who are just as American as the men who argued those months in Philadelphia.

“The specificity of the way that we are cast lends itself to the universality of what we have all been through as Americans in our own right.” said Gisela Adisa, the current actress playing John Adams, in a promotional video for the United States Tour, “It’s a love letter to America.”

Personally, I really enjoyed the revival. It was one of the most creative and entertaining versions of the musical I have ever seen, and while it was flawed, all productions are. I see why many people wouldn’t like this version of “1776”, just as they might not like any other Broadway musical. Nevertheless, the intense backlash to a production of “1776” where the biggest difference is who was cast really shows how to many people, the only two genders they know are male and ‘woke’.

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