Wednesday, October 5, 2022


Last night, as I was coming home from seeing the Broadway production of 1776 by Roundabout Theatre Company, I found out that Charles Fuller, author of the brilliant A Soldier's Play, had died.

Roundabout's revival of A Soldier's Play, which I saw at the beginning of 2020 before a certain virus shut down the world, was staged in the American Airlines Theatre, the same theatre where the current revival of 1776 is now playing.

A Soldier's Play is probably the best thing I've ever seen Roundabout do, so it's not much of a criticism to say that the company's current production doesn't live up to it. Nevertheless, it's interesting how different these two historically set revivals were.

Both productions were very much about the present, about now, rather than events that happened decades or even centuries in the past. The production of A Soldier's Play didn't try to run away from the past, though, presenting it with more-or-less historical accuracy, and trusting the audience to make their own connections to America in the 21st century.

The current revival of 1776, however, is in danger of breaking its arm due to the strength with which it is patting itself on the back. As the show's co-directer Diane Paulus notes in the program, the cast provides "multiple representations of race, gender, and ethnicity." This is true, but hardly revolutionary. Yes, this production of a famously male-heavy show has no cis-gender men on stage, but that's hardly a first for 1776.

I remember visiting Nittany Theatre at the Barn out in the middle of Pennsylvania back in 2017, and the cast was reminiscing about years gone by when they had done an all-female version of 1776. Rather than boasting about it, though, they admitted, "Actually, a lot of smaller companies around the country do the play that way. It's kind of become commonplace." The current revival also gets milage out of casting people of color as enslavers, but this is hardly new, either. (Hamilton anybody?)

Hamilton famously dresses its characters in period clothing from the neck down, while heads are left wig-free with hats and hair styles that are modern. The result is a balance that allows the audience to dig into history while ghosting (as Marvin Carlson would put it) contemporary America on top of the centuries-old characters. Costume designer Emilio Sosa instead leans into the contemporary for 1776, providing knee breeches, shoes, and coats that evoke the 18th century, but making sure everything underneath those fancy coats drag us back to the present.

There's a similarly heavy-handed flight from the source material in the stylistic renderings of Sherman Edwards's 1969 score. The music leans into its own corniness at times, but the performers often seem embarrassed by the notes they're singing. Their anything-but-the-melody approach to the music was probably meant to be refreshing, but it sometimes reminded me of the Forbidden Broadway lampoon of Donna Murphy "Whistling a Sondheim Tune" in a revival of The King and I.

The play's core trio of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson is ably played by Crystal Lucas-Perry, Patrena Murray, and Elizabeth A. Davis. However, my favorite musical numbers were those sung by minor characters. As Martha Jefferson, Eryn LeCroy makes the typically weak number "He Plays the Violin" actually work. I've never been a fan of "Momma, Look Sharp" either, but Salome B. Smith nails it as the Courier. "Molasses to Rum" is always a chilling showstopper, but Sara Porkalob knocks it out of the park singing the song as Edward Rutledge.

Both Paulus and her co-director Jeffrey L. Page (who also choreographed the show) have done audiences a favor in bringing this classic musical back to the stage. For all their efforts to make the play relevant to a modern audience, though, the most powerful moments in the piece come from the lines written by book writer Peter Stone, many of them cribbed from the letters of the Founding Fathers themselves.

Sometimes you don't need to beat the audience over the head with an idea, but can just allow great material to speak for itself. That's what Roundabout did with their production of Fuller's A Soldier's Play, and I hope we can see more revivals like that one in the future.