The latest revival of “1776,” a musical about the Founding Fathers debating the Declaration of Independence, opened on Broadway last summer at the American Airlines Theatre, and closed last weekend.
A touring production now launches in the city where the story is set: Philadelphia. “1776” runs at the Forrest Theatre from Feb. 14 – 26.
“I think it was very smart producing to launch our tour in Philadelphia,” said co-director Diane Paulus, who first visited Philadelphia as an eight-year-old to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell with her mother, taking the train down from New York.
“For research for the production, I came back with my own family and my girls. We did the tour at Independence Hall and passed by the street where Thomas Jefferson actually wrote the Declaration of Independence,” she said. “This city and these places have lived inside this production for years now as inspiration.”
The way history is told on the streets of Philadelphia has changed from the time when Paulus was a girl: a plaque outside Thomas Jefferson’s house, for example, makes reference to Robert Hemings, whom Jefferson owned as an enslaved valet.
A block away, the site of the first presidential house where George Washington lived, describes the lives of the enslaved people kept there.
“1776” also does its part to change the narrative of the founding of the country.
The scene at Independence Hall imagined by Paulus for the musical is much different than it actually looked almost 250 years ago: there is not a white man in sight. All the characters are played by a cast with multiple representations of race, ethnicity, and gender.
These performers, including Black women and transgender actors, would not have been allowed to enter Independence Hall at the time of the signing of the Declaration, but in “1776” they are portraying John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, et al, as they engage in debate about separating from the British crown.
Paulus did not change the words of the original musical written in 1968 by Peter Stone, saying new meanings are evoked when those words come out of the mouths of people who were not considered by the Declaration when it was written.
“There’s something about theater-making in this way that wakes up the audience, that makes you pay attention to the language in a new way,” she said. “We are asking the audience to be a partner in this, to embrace the core action of the show as these people who are radicals and revolutionaries doing something unheard of, risking their lives to create a country based on an idea.”
Paulus’ co-director, Jeffrey L. Page, has roots in Philadelphia. He studied theater at the University of the Arts, and still keeps in touch with a network of younger people in the city that he mentored as a student teacher. Page is currently the artist in residence at the Philadelphia Theater Company.
Page was brought on to do the choreography for the show, and said Paulus asked him to co-direct the production. He said he comes with a background of being Black in America, carrying the perspective of the young people he mentors.
“Most of these young people in North Philly, most of these young people in South Philly – just being in Philly they would have no clue what the idea of 1776 is, because historically they don’t understand how they belong inside that narrative,” he said. “Being a Black person often feels like you are excluded from the narrative of 1776.”
While Page and Paulus did not rewrite the music composer Sherman Edwards had written for the musical, they discovered that the music had already been changed by the time the show opened in 1969. Page met with Edwards’ son Keith who showed him the original sheet music before it was altered for the Broadway production.
“When it went to Broadway originally it transformed his music into something that he did not intend for it to be,” Page said. “His stuff sounded to my ear like Lauryn Hill. It sounded like Amy Winehouse. It sounded in that realm.”
Page said he is attracted to working on well-established musicals – he is currently directing a production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in Rochester, New York – and finding cracks in their time-tested structures where he can explore contemporary ideas. For 1776, he uses music and choreography to convey ideas that are not in the script.
“I think words say one thing in the body, in the sound of the words – they convey a counterpoint,” he said. “I believe that when we speak words, we’re actually not saying something at the same time. I was able to really dig into that.”
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