Theater Review: Would the Musical 1776 Have Worked Better as a Staged Play?

Rumor has it that people often suggested to Peter Stone, librettist for 1776, that the show might have worked better as a straight play than a musical. Humbly, and I’m sure in deference to composer/lyricist Sherman Edwards, Stone always replied that he thought the songs helped bring the historical characters to life and gave them a bit of personality. After sitting through thirteen mostly unnecessary songs (I did like two of them), I’m going to have to side with the people on this one.

The musical about the weeks leading up to the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence is a frustrating exercise for a musical lover. For the first time in my theater-going life, I found myself more captivated by the book scenes and a little annoyed at the intrusion of all that singing. And when you have a cast as talented and musically gifted as the one assembled by Lyric Stage, paired with the expansive and exquisite orchestra led by Jay Dias, it’s shocking to realize you’d rather not interrupt the gripping action with an overblown ballad or jaunty character song.

Cheryl Denson directs a dream team of familiar faces who each find their moment to shine in the three-hour production. Leading the charge for independence from a tyrannical King George III, the cranky but tenacious John Adams is brought to life by Brian Gonzales. Described often as “obnoxious and disliked” throughout the show, Gonzales does a fine job of portraying Adams’ single-minded determination at the expense of popularity among his fellow delegates at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Picking up the slack in the charm department is Benjamin Franklin (a charismatic David Coffee, thoroughly enjoying every second he’s onstage), who teams up with Adams to sway minds and hearts while tossing off witty remarks and one-liners with abandon. In true sitcom fashion, some of the funniest scenes are when Coffee and Gonzales are allowed to play up their characters’ personality differences. Can someone please develop a buddy flick for these two? I’d watch it.

Bullied into composing the all-important document is young Thomas Jefferson (Bryant Martin), a lover rather than revolutionary who only wants to be reunited with his lovely bride. Christopher Curtis and Kyle Cotton each tap into their inner villain, with Curtis playing the sneering, urbane John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Cotton portraying South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, who in the show opposes the declaration mainly because its original draft includes an anti-slavery clause. His song “Molasses to Rum” illustrates the hypocrisy of a nation that would condemn slavery while continuing to profit from it.

Though it did win the 1969 Tony Award for best musical (it edged out Hair) and go on to enjoy a healthy run with warm critical reception, 1776 has always felt like something of an odd duck to me. There is a lengthy gap between songs in Act I—over 30 record-setting minutes—while the delegates debate and gossip and bicker. It’s a wildly fascinating, if a bit melodramatic, stretch of acting that does more to illustrate the men’s personalities, beliefs, and convictions than any of the unremarkable songs that precede or follow.

The only song that truly strikes an emotional chord is the first act closer, a haunting rumination on young lives lost in battle that’s sung by General George Washington’s courier (the first president’s presence is felt only through gloomy dispatches from the front). Max Swarner predictably nails the song, commanding the stage with a heartbreaking and superb-sounding interpretation of a dying soldier whose mother is frantically searching the battlefields for his body. If the remainder of the score could match this intensity and purpose, then 1776 might feel less like an engrossing History Channel special and more like a proper musical.

All photos by Steve Riley courtesy of Lyric Stage.