That sense of new ownership joyfully pervades this splendid production, which officially opened Thursday night at Broadway’s American Airlines Theater. Directors Jeffrey Page and Diane Paulus adhere to the philosophy of “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda, the founding father of the proposition that all men (and women and trans and nonbinary people) are created equal when it comes to serenading us about the birth of the country.
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“The eagle inside belongs to us!” sing the actors portraying John Adams (Crystal Lucas-Perry), Benjamin Franklin (Patrena Murray) and Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth Davis) in the goofy affirmational anthem “The Egg.” That Lucas-Perry and Murray are Black and Davis is a visibly pregnant White woman adds layers of thrillingly novel context to a song that composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards wrote more than half a century ago for three White men — William Daniels, Howard da Silva and Ken Howard – in the original Broadway version. The faces have changed, the revival asserts. And so most assuredly has the nation.
This “1776” was born earlier this year at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., with essentially the same cast (the magnetic Carolee Carmello joins it here as John Dickinson, the conservative Pennsylvania delegate who resisted independence to the end). The show has benefited from its run-up to Broadway. The musicality and portrayals have matured, with Murray contributing a wonderfully vinegary turn as Franklin and Lucas-Perry’s headstrong Adams commanding center stage.
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Projections creator David Bengali provides a deeply meaningful element for those keeping score of how the delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia were won over to the cause of freedom: The colonies’ vote tallies for independence are flashed onto the upstage curtain of Scott Pask’s spartan set. And costume designer Emilio Sosa blends eras and styles fashionably so that the 22 actors seem to step effortlessly in and out of time.
In between the votes, mind you, there is a lot of talking and only 12 songs and a reprise. The musical drought in a long stretch of the first act leaves you feeling that Edwards leaned too heavily on Peter Stone’s libretto to carry the exposition. Miranda has spoken of his debt to “1776,” but the earlier musical is not composed in the insistent, sung-through vein of “Hamilton.” So a modern audience may find that this history lesson demands a little less process and requires a little more patience.
Page, who also choreographed, and Paulus devised a muscular palette of movement to drive some of the numbers, particularly in the exhilarating opening, “Sit Down, John,” that establishes the show’s theatrical conceit, which is that the Second Continental Congress managed to adopt the Declaration despite Adams’ pushiness and the delegates’ constant irritation with him. That he is “obnoxious and disliked” is about the only thing everyone agrees on from the start. Crystal-Perry’s Adams is more true believer than nag, so we never tire of the character’s litany, and the epistolary scenes involving Adams and his wife, Abigail (the mellifluous Allyson Kaye Daniel), exude relatable passion.
Some other performances have gained in strength and panache, notably Shawna Hamic’s turn as Richard Henry Lee (singing the comic “The Lees of Old Virginia”) and Salome Smith as the courier delivering front-line correspondence from (an unseen) George Washington. The staging of “Momma, Look Sharp” is hauntingly anchored by Smith’s solemn bearing and supple vocality. Sushma Saha, Jill Valery, Liz Mikel and Brooke Simpson are among the many others who add incisive support.
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I’m partial, too, to Sara Porkalob in her dazzling portrayal of South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge as the embodiment of Southern devotion to slavery and a refusal to go along with the revolution unless Jefferson’s document strikes all mention of the “peculiar institution.” This “1776” all but uses a highlighter to note the cruel paradox of an elite group of colonists demanding freedom while neglecting the plight of their enslaved populations.
The hypocrisies are spelled out enthrallingly in “Molasses to Rum,” Rutledge’s potent number near the end of the musical, when several Black actors shed their Colonial waistcoats and portray people being auctioned off by their enslavers. Porkalob prosecutes the interlude with a smile that radiates guile and superiority. This is a triumphantly malicious capstone to the proceedings.
Inequality fostered in nation-building is never far from the thoughts of Paulus and Page. In one sequence rich with meaning, a Black servant helps the slave-owning Jefferson on with his coat, while the Declaration of Independence is read to the delegates in the next room. The look they exchange says more than words or music ever will.
1776. Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone. Directed by Jeffrey Page and Diane Paulus. Music supervision, David Chase; sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Emilio Sosa; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Jonathan Deans; projections, David Bengali; hair and wigs, Mia Neal. With Gisela Adisa, Nancy Anderson, Tiffani Barbour, Sav Souza, Eryn LeCroy, Joanna Glushak. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Jan. 8 at American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St., New York. roundabouttheatre.org.