The opening moments of the musical 1776 are punctuated with the explosion of gunfire. It’s the sound of General George Washington’s undersized army of teenagers and old men fending off the British, and an exciting way to start a play about the birthing of the Declaration of Independence.
1776 is about the twenty-one men in the Continental Congress, whose bickering and lollygagging could have been, by all rights, nothing more than a dramatized history lesson of the kind one is forced to watch in grade school while throwing spitballs—but playwright Peter Stone and composer and lyricist Sherman Edwards don’t let that happen. More than anything, the play is about the idiosyncrasies of the men behind the famous document, and the fervent belief that the American spirit used to stand for something noble.
Director John Miller-Stephany keeps the set simple and wisely focuses on the actors, all of whom deserve high praise. Bostonian John Adams, “obnoxious and disliked” by pretty much everybody, is played with likeable irascibility by Michael Thomas Holmes. The Gout-ridden Benjamin Franklin is fond of quoting himself and napping during debates. Peter Michael Goetz’s good-natured interpretation is a hoot. Richard White has a show-stopping number as Richard Henry Lee called “The Lees Of Old Virginia.” Thomas Jefferson is played with brooding, taciturn grit by newcomer Tyson Forbes. There are other standouts as well: Bradley Greenwald, as South Carolina’s representative Edward Rutledge, sings an aria called “Molasses To Rum,” about Rutledge’s opposition to abolishing slavery. Greenwald performs it magnificently, even if the song does feel like an apologetic insertion by the authors. Lee Mark Nelson gives a skillfully nuanced performance as John Dickinson, the one delegate who refused to sign.
The play is bookended by two images: the seditious political cartoon of a snake cut into eight segments with the phrase “Join, or Die” printed beneath it, and the reenactment of the delegates as they sign the Declaration, their signatures highlighted above them (image courtesy T. Charles Erickson). Never has the phrase “John Hancock” been demonstrated so poignantly on the American stage.
1776 runs through August 26 at the Guthrie Theater.