Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review - 1776: SPOILER: They vote in favor of independence

As is frequently noted by lovers of strong book musicals, part of the brilliance of Sherman Edwards (score) and Peter Stone's (book) 1776, their 1969 Broadway tuner about the efforts of John Adams to convince the continental congress to vote for independency from Great Britain, is that the audience walks into the theatre knowing full well how it's going to end, and yet the authors (and history) keep you on The Edge of your seat wondering how the devil it's going to happen. With a unanimous vote necessary ("So that no colony be torn from its mother country without its own consent.") and Pennsylvania's John Dickinson leading the arguments for property-owners whose personal economy is protected by loyalty to the crown and South Carolina's Edward Rutledge keeping the deep south unified in favor of individual states rights that protect their practice of slavery, June of '76 concludes with half the congress against independence.

While Stone's book maneuvers the facts just slightly to favor dramatic effect (My pet peeve with the show is that Dickinson, presented here as a staunch loyalist, was actually a patriotic pacifist who favored diplomacy over bloodshed and was nicknamed "The Penman of The Revolution.") it's a model of perfect musical theatre craft that features intelligent dialogue and controversial themes without ever being didactic or stuffy. The lighter, comic moments flow easily from the characters and there's even a bit of heart-tugging romance. While Edwards' lyrics may occasionally land awkwardly on the ear ("And just as Tom here has written / We say, 'To Hell with Great Britain.'"), there are gems throughout the evening. "The Lees Of Old Virginia" is filled with toe-tapping fife and drum spirit, "Yours, Yours, Yours" is an eloquent ballad with lyrics based on the correspondence between John and AbiGail Adams while he was fighting for independence in Philadelphia and she was fighting to keep the family farm from failing, and Adams' soaring proclamation of determination, "Is Anybody There?," (also based on his actually writings) ranks up there with "Rose's Turn" as one of the great dramatic 11 o'clock solos.

And if I have a few grievances with director Gordon Greenberg's otherwise splendid and very enjoyable Paper Mill Playhouse production, it doesn't squash my enthusiasm for the venture. Nor should it keep anyone who might want to cleanse their theatrical pallets of dubious achievements like High School Musical and Mamma Mia (send your hate mail to from enjoying the refreshing breeze of well-written, thoughtfully acted musical theatre.

I'll start with my main complaint. While I've enjoyed Don Stephenson's engaging musical comedy talents both on Broadway (as Leo Boom in The Producers) and off (starring in the Irish Rep's pocket production of Take Me Along), the interpretation of John Adams he and Greenberg present seems to exist on a different plane of reality from the rest of the production. Sure, it's repeated throughout the piece that a major obstacle in having Adams being the spokesman for independence is that he's considered, "obnoxious and disliked," by his fellow congressmen, but while the other actors play for realism, Stephenson's nasal-voiced arrogance and pompous manner gives the impression that our future 2nd president was some secondary comical character out of a Charles Dickens novel. There are times when he's outright foppish, delivering lines with haughty sarcasm, doing takes to the audience on punch lines and getting downright macaroni by tickling Thomas Jefferson's chest with a quill Pen while trying to convince him to write the Declaration of Independence. To his credit, Stephenson does what he does very well and did get quite a few laughs on opening night, but the interpretation poorly serves the show; particularly when the script demands sincerity.

Happily, the rest of the company scores quite well in their more traditionally-played roles. Conrad John Schuck makes for a delightfully crusty-voiced but playful Benjamin Franklin and Kevin Earley nicely plays Thomas Jefferson's development from a shy, quiet congressman to an important statesman, but it's the Tories who provide the major fireworks. The calm, understated elegance with which Robert Cuccioli's Dickinson points out the impossible odds against winning a war against Britain builds to a fierce and thrillingly sung crescendo as he leads his fellow loyalists in the conservative anthem, "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men." As South Carolinian Rutledge, James Barbour savors his speeches with a smooth relaxing drawl that masks his character's firm control of the southern block. With the score's most demanding song, "Molasses To Rum" (a condemnation of northern hypocrisy in damning slavery while profiting from it via the Triangle Trade), Barbour displays a magnificent sense of dramatic and musical prowess; easing comfortably into the opening lyrics until the fire within him catches and turns to an evenly controlled rage. His acting choices within the lyric and the dynamics with which his varies his rich baritone adds interesting textures to the already fascinating words and music.

Another outstanding vocal and acting performance comes from Griffin Matthews, who plays the weary soldier who appears several times to deliver dispatches from General Washington. He sings, "Mama, Look Sharp," a recounting of a dying soldier's last words as he lay bloody on the battlefield, with a still and heartbreaking innocence. By going non-tradionally and casting a black actor in the role, Greenberg is able to add a small, but very poignant moment in regards to the colonies' debate over slavery.

The rest of the fine company includes Nick Wyman as an exasperated John Hancock, Aaron Ramey as a rousingly self-absorbed Richard Henry Lee, Lauren Kennedy, who, as Martha Jefferson, sings the double-entendre waltz, "He Plays The Violin," with a satisfied glow and Kerry O'Malley as the resourceful and supportive AbiGail Adams.

While some of the book scenes speed along too quickly to really take in the richness of the text, and Kevin Rupnik's somewhat too small set (originally designed and built for the stage of the Pittsburg Civic Light Opera) results in some awkward staging moments, Paper Mill's 1776 still provides more than enough reasons for celebration.

Photo by Kevin Sprague: Conrad John Schuck, Kevin Earley and Don Stephenson

Related Articles

From This Author Kristin Salaky