American Conservatory Theater’s “1776 — The Musical”: a review (and a history lesson)

Last night, we went to see the American Conservative Conservatory Theater’s production of 1776 — The Musical.  It was a lovely production, with almost uniformly strong performances.  1776 hit Broadway in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam war and one year into Nixon’s first term.  Although ostensibly meant to record (musically) those Continental Congress deliberations that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence (it starts on May 7, 1776, and concludes on July 4, 1776), the book’s writers couldn’t resist throwing in some pro-Democrat, anti-War politics along the way — but more on that later.

The play’s energy comes from John Adams, the explosive, deeply committed patriot who was, as the characters keep reminding him, “obnoxious and disliked,” but was nevertheless respected for his driving will.  The character is drawn as cantankerous, loyal, brilliant, and devoted to his wife, Abigail.  Credit goes to John Hickok for his solid performance.  He acted well, sang well, and danced well, which is always a good thing in musical theater.

Likewise, Andrew Boyer was a charming Benjamin Franklin, a genius, wit, patriot, and semi-faux dilettante who was, nevertheless, just as committed to the cause of liberty as was Adams.  Unlike Howard da Silva, the actor in the original stage version, who also starred in the 1972 movie of the same name, Boyer did not use a booming, deep voice for the part.  Instead, he opted for the slightly tremulous voice of an older man.  On rare occasions, his words seemed to slither down his neck and into his collar, but overall making it clear that Franklin had been around a while made for a smart performance.

Brandon Dahlquisit played Thomas Jefferson, and while he was occasionally too languid and passive for my taste, he had a lovely voice.

Although the three leads anchored the play, the star turns came from Jeff Parker, as John Dickinson, the landed Pennsylvanian who would not separate from England, and Jared Zimmerman, as Edward Rutledge, the slave-owning North South Carolina planter who would not tolerate Jefferson’s stand against slavery in the proposed Declaration of Independence and who, in a magnificently delivered performance of Molasses to Rum, about the “triangle trade“, reminded the assembled New Englanders that they too profited from slavery.  Both men fully inhabited their roles and their singing was better than the lead actors.  Parker also demonstrated true professionalism when he refused to let a bloody nose impair one of his key scenes defending the status quo.

The rest of the cast turned in equally fine performances.  There are only two female roles in the play, but both actresses carried them off well.  Abby Mueller, as Abigail Adams, couldn’t sing as well as she could act, but her acting was warm and immediate enough to overcome her occasional lapses into sour notes.  Andrea Prestinario, who had the one other female role, as Martha Jefferson, Thomas’s new bride, was pretty as a picture and could sing quite well.  She was a little too enthusiastic as Jefferson’s well-loved bride the morning after, but it was a charming performance.

As for the rest of the men portraying the delegates to the Continental Congress, military messengers, and pages, each fully carried his own weight.  Their performances were fluent and their singing was tuneful (always a good thing in a musical).

The production quality was as good as the acting.  The set was a simple one, never shifting from the interior of Constitution Hall (as it’s now known) in Philadelphia.  The men sat at and moved around tables set in tiers, with the highest point occupied by John Hancock, the Congress’s president, and the Congress’s secretary.  On the stage’s left, were those opposed to independence (southern slavers and northern landowners) and on the right were those who supported it (small northern farmers, laborers, and professionals).  The costumes were just right — neither too fancy, nor too plain — and the nine-pierce orchestra, which was hidden under a stage extension built over the pit, did a delightful and professional job.

All in all, it was as good a performance as one could ask for.  And yet, I still have quibbles.

Quibble number one:  The second act drags.  The first act has several cheerful, rousing, clever songs.  The second act is dominated by dirges about war and slavery.  The entire audience was getting very restless in the last half hour.  A man seated near me fell asleep, snoring loudly; another person kept burping; while a third man went on a knuckle-cracking binge.  I understand that the authors wanted us to have a sense of how fragile the alliance was between north and south, and landed and professional, but the second act should have been trimmed, either when written or when produced.

Quibble number two:  The waltz did not exist in 1776, although it crops up in two musical numbers.  Just sayin’….

Quibble number three (and this is the big one):  When John Dickinson makes the case for staying loyal to England, the Mother Country that has served many well, and that offers tremendous opportunities in the new world for wealth and advancement, the scene ends with slave-0wners and the gentry singing “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.”  By the time the song begins, the audience fully understands that these are the “bad” guys  because they support slavery and big money at the expense of “the people.” Having established this premise, the song then goes on the attack against Republicans, circa 1969.  The men identify themselves as “conservative” and, in a repeated chorus, say that the country must move “to the right” and never “to the left.”

The audience in San Francisco loved this song, chortling every time the dandified 1 percenters moved “to the right.”  I, on the other hand, wanted to stand up and holler out, don’t you guys know any history?  The notion of conservative is as 19th century construct, while the ideas of Left and Right originated with French Revolution, in 1789, long after the events portrayed.

Speaking of the French Parliament, Baron de Gauville explained, “We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp.” It’s worth keeping in mind that the ones on the Left eventually relied on the guillotine to make their point.

No one in the Continental Congress was moving either Left or Right.  Nor was the Revolution one of the “workers of the world,” since this was a pre-industralized era, versus “capitalists.”  The American revolution was a middle class revolution.  Middle class people in the north (farmers, tradesman, professionals) and middle class people in the south (plantation owners, tradesman, professionals) were yearning for economic freedom.  They actually had few problems with the British model for law and society.  They simply resented being bossed around from the other side of the Atlantic, often to their economic detriment.

For a song to imply that Republicans — the party that freed the slaves — are a bunch of Neanderthal racists is invariably irritating, and tends to blunt my enjoyment of 1776.  It also foments stupidity in the audience, blunting their ability to realize that Republicans, who value individual liberty, are the heirs of the Founders, as opposed to Democrats, the party of big government, who would have chosen, in 1776, to remain wedded to England, with everyone subordinate to the King.

If you’re in the Bay Area, and want to see a good performance of a Broadway classic, I can recommend this production.  Just keep in mind that, despite the strong often impressive reliance on historic events, it’s entertainment, not fact.

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  1. jj says

    I, on the other hand, wanted to stand up and holler out, don’t you guys know any history?
    No, they don’t.  It isn’t – and hasn’t been – taught for a long time; it isn’t read, and it isn’t told in stories to the kiddies ’round the fire on long dark winter afternoons any more.  How would they know it?

  2. lee says

    I worked ona small college production a million years ago. I had a major crush on Edward Rutledge. And because of that, and the fact that I now live in South Carolina (and work with a Rutledge, near Rutledge Street), I can say that Rutledge represented SOUTH carolina, not North Carolina. (North Carolina was always kindly yeilding to the gentleman from South Carolina…) 
    I had a lot of random memories from that prodution, so many years ago… (whcih we did in 1976, like just about every summerstock, college and commu ity theater.) Edwar Rutledge was so cute; Thomas Jefferson was an a****le; The young messenger guy, (a local high school kid) was a very cute blonde guy and had the most beautiful voice, and killed himself later that year after his girlfriend not only dumped him, but rather publically humilated him; his sister was Martha Jefferson, and she was drop dead gorgeous, and incredibly sweet. John Adams was indeed obnoxious, and I sure didn’t like him. Ben Franklin was married to Abigail Adams, and they were both so much fun to hang around with. She was a great mother hen for a high school kid. But I had a great time working on that production. I really didn’t “get” the politics of it–I was a high school kid at the time.
    A couple of decades later, a read a review of a production in NYC. This would’ve been the nineties. The review gave the production a thumbs up, but said that although much of the musical heald up over thirty years, the politics didn’t, and that the writers would’ve been better off leaving 1969 politics aside, and hewing more faithfully to the period. The reviewer did not go into detail, however, on what he meant. And this was not exactly a review in National Review or the Weekly Standard. (At the time, I was still a typical lefty idiot, who would not read NR or TWS, ew.) It would almost have to have been a a pretty standard publication like the New Yorker, or New York Magazine, or even the Village Voice. Possibly NYT. Anyhow….
    A few more years later, after 9-11, and my own enlightenment (and subsequent rightward shift) , I read about the movie. Possibly on a conservative blog, maybe a print publicarion. And they pointed out similar sorts of problems such as Bookworm does. I’d forgotten about it, since I do have such fon memories of so many years ago….

  3. lee says


  4. FunkyPhD says

    I think it’s the American Conservatory Theatre, not the American Conservative Theatre (though as a former Bay Arean, I’m taking transcontinental delight in thinking about how insulting that troupe would take this mis-appellation!).  

  5. groman says

    Theater people just cannot resist the urge to disparage Republicans or conservatives. When we lived in NY, my wife and I would go into the city once a year to see a show. During the Bush years almost every performance included a little dig at either GW or the Republicans apropos of nothing in the play. Of course the oh so sophisticated audience would chortle with approval, proving themselves to be the mind numbed robots they accuse others of being. 

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