Ways of Seeing: ‘1776’ set the stage for ‘Hamilton’
Every Broadway musical theater freak has a dream role. The last time I publicly pronounced mine was during a mic check for the Middlebury Community Players’ 2017 production of “Working.” To ensure that the sound system was functioning properly, each cast member was asked to step forward and deliver a theatrically-relevant sentence. “How about your dream role?” someone suggested. “That’s easy!” I thought and strode downstage: “John Adams in an all-female production of ‘1776.’” “Are you listening, Dora?” I hinted to our esteemed director.
Now for those of you who are “Hamilton” freaks (and I certainly count myself among you), a longing to play John Adams may seem ill-advised. Already deemed “obnoxious and disliked” by his congressional colleagues in “1776,” Adams fares considerably less well from Hamilton’s perspective. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s anti-Adams rap-rant begins with “arrogant, anti-charismatic, national embarrassment” and ends in ways unbefitting of this column. (The rap was ultimately cut from the show, but the final 1776-referencing curse still remains).
Nevertheless, the first Adams I met was another story: a handsome William Daniels striding through the Congressional Chambers, damning his colleagues who are dragging their feet on the question of independence. “I have come to the conclusion,” Adams declaims in his opening salvo, “that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress.” Needless to say, I was hooked. At age 11, I was fascinated by the colonial cause, mostly blind to the corruptions and compromises of the Founding Fathers and thoroughly ticked off at Nixon. The young Adams was my hero and if I couldn’t be him, I wanted to play him. Thus began the pipe-dream that never truly drifted away.
Fast forward to July 4, 2020, and who knew how exciting a zero-plans, still semi-quarantined holiday could be? A text had come in from my dear friend Jody, whose devotion to 1776 is matched only by my own. Word was out. An all-female production of “1776” with a racially diverse, non-binary cast is bound for Broadway in the spring of 2021. (Please, O Theater Gods, may Broadway be safely open in 2021). Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, out of “Hamilton” a new “1776” was being born.
But what of the old “1776,” which premiered on Broadway in 1969 and was adapted for the screen in 1972? Dated as it may seem, the film version made it on to the New York Times list of recommended viewing for the “please stay at home” July 4th weekend. Does it still inspire in spite of its mixed reviews and plentiful historical inaccuracies? In my experience, no one abstains (courteously or otherwise) from “loved it” — “hated it” debates when it comes to this show. For my own part, however, I know that a certain nostalgia for my 11-year-old self plays too heavy a hand for me to behave as good academics “should”: scorning the fictionalizing of history — especially the claim made by Jefferson that he has arranged to free those whom he had enslaved — or raising an eyebrow at the unimaginative, sexist renderings of the only two female characters to appear (Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams).
Of course, these critiques should be raised. But when pondering “1776,” I am brought back, instead, to the questions that the play and film originally sparked. Who was that strong-minded Abigail Adams and where could I find her actual letters? (The answer: not by Googling, but by riding my bike to the town library.) Did the signing of the Declaration of Independence really hinge upon eliminating a crucial clause denouncing slavery? (No, but also yes. It’s complicated.) Did Ben Franklin really propose the turkey as the national bird, only to be over-ruled by Adams’ counter-proposal of the eagle? (There is no evidence for this, nor of Jefferson’s offering of the dove as a third option and, in fact, the national bird decision did not transpire until 1782.)
In short, “1776” galvanized my growing curiosity about history and my love for Finding Things Out — aided and abetted, of course, by my mother’s gentle, yet frequent refrain “well, you could look it up.” (Kudos to you, Mom.) “1776” also taught me to “check my biases” long before the phrase was current. With Adams as my chosen hero and liberal Massachusetts as my favored state, I was happy to sit on my abolitionist high horse. Then I was brought down by South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge (John Cullum) who delivers a stinging rebuke of New England in his song “Molasses to Rum.” No classroom mention of the triangle trade could evoke the Northern colonies’ complicity in the slave trade as effectively as Rutledge does when he spits out his final sneer: “Mr. Adams, I give you a toast! Hail Boston! Hail Charleston! Who stinketh the most?!”
I hated Rutledge and his Southern co-conspirators to just the degree that authors Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone wanted me to, perhaps even more. But I was chastened by the facts. If I had been wrong about Massachusetts, what else was I wrong about? This realization, too, sent me on a still compelling journey of knowing, not knowing and hoping always to stay attuned to knowing what I don’t know.
What will the new “1776” look like? How will audiences respond when the two women playing Thomas and Martha Jefferson remain locked together in a long, passionate embrace while Adams and Franklin make multiple failed attempts to introduce themselves to Martha and finally give up? Will the director create a moment when the Northern members of the Continental Congress all don cloth face masks while the Southerners adamantly refuse? How will Rutledge’s gruesome evocation of the auction block be heard and interpreted today? I can hardly wait to find out. In the meantime, however, I remain grateful for the old “1776.” Grateful, especially, for the many good questions it handed on to me.
Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities. She lives in Monkton where she tends — and is tended by — a small flock of adorable sheep.
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