A few Tuesdays ago, on Nov 6, these United States put a record 125 women in office. Nearly 42 of them were women of color. In the next Congress, 125 women will serve, occupying more than 10 additional seats than in the current Congress of 535, House and Senate.
In the imagined Second Continental Congress of the New Repertory Theatre’s 1776, the number is more like 10 to 11, women to men. Co-directed by Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards, the New Rep’s 1776 maintains all the charm and spirit of the beloved original C-SPAN with songs. In its retelling of the months leading up to Congress’s decision to declare independence, Adams is still impassioned, his wife Abigail’s letters are beautiful and teasing, Franklin is ever whip-smart and wise, Jefferson’s a horny and reticent newlywed, and the deep South, a force to reckon with. The men who eventually sign the document at the end of the musical this time simply look a lot more like the people we pass on the streets everyday—racially diverse, in patent leather heels, metallic pleather leggings, ponytails, and braids.
“Don’t worry, John,” Franklin (played deftly and impishly by Bobbie Steinbach) tells Adams (a more fiery, exasperated Benjamin Evett) when Adams stands aghast outside of Jefferson’s bedroom, waiting for him to finish bedding his wife so he can begin writing our declaration. “The history books will clean it up.” Since its Broadway opening in 1969, what 1776 has done best is to remind us of the foundational myths of our country by imbuing the men who seemed larger than life in our elementary school textbooks with humanity, dirtying up the record a bit. New Rep’s production is no different.
In Cristina Todesco’s scenic design, a collage-like backdrop depicts the traditional, historical paintings we’ve seen of the Second Continental Congress. White, wigged, and buttoned up, the men gather round a desk with long faces, a notable contrast to the colorful, vibrant cast playing them below. 1776 makes much of Congress’s awful discomfort in the humid Philadelphia summer and resulting inability to make any decisions. Indeed, New Rep’s cast splays out comically on chairs, loosening their neck ties, eating from Chinese takeout boxes, playing with a slinkies, shuffling decks of cards, dancing sometimes stilted and corny choreography. Various pointless committees are announced and never attended. Every now and again, however, Adams bursts through the apathy to stir up the delegates, and his provocations bring certain conflicts—most notably Southern slavery—to the floor for open debate. Suddenly things are not so funny or trite anymore.
In the production’s most haunting song, “Molasses to Rum,” Shannon Lee Jones presents a scathing, haunting Edward Rutledge as he scoffs at the North’s superiority to the South, arguing that the economic links that make up the triangle slave trade implicate all of America in the sins of slavery. During this number our attention is drawn for the first time to the backdrop mural in an otherwise unremarkable set. The clearly depicted faces of Adams, Jefferson, Hancock, and the rest of Congress darken, seeming at first to blush with shame, then to redden with guilt, as we are forced to consider how the self-evident inalienable rights Jefferson so eloquently defended were not for all men on American soil.
We know what eventually happens on July 4, 1776, yet New Rep’s talented cast makes us hold our breath. The agony of Adam’s fight, the power of Abigail’s letters (sung by a powerhouse Carolyn Saxon), the bitterness of the Southern colonies, all make it feel that our country’s pivotal decision really does still hang in the air. When Hancock finally calls for the vote, the audience hushed. Would the South vote “yea”? Would Edward Wilson of Pennsylvania break from his tyrannical co-delegate John Dickinson and stand with Franklin on the side of independence?
In more ways than one, 1776 is an easy sell here in Boston. At the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown, the actors perform just mere miles from the Braintree farm where Abigail Adams toiled to care for her family while John was off piddling, twiddling, and resolving in Philadelphia. Many of the show’s jokes land here. “Not everyone’s from Boston, John,” Franklin reminds Adams to a ring of laughter about the ever-present uptightness of Bostonians. In a quibble over whether “inalienable” or “unalienable” is correct, Adams reminds Jefferson that he is a Harvard graduate to another round of guffaws. In yet another scene, a courier (Steven Martin) from the front lines of General Washington’s struggle against the British army announces that he’s from Watertown. “Where’s that?” the congressional custodian asks him. “Massachusetts,” the young soldier replies proudly.
When that same soldier goes on to sing a heart-wrenching lullaby, “Momma Look Sharp,” about his dying comrades, we are reminded just how close to home the Revolutionary conflict really was in these parts. For Massachusetts women like Abigail, it wasn’t just extra work like making saltpeter and bullets. It was also the trial of burying sons and husbands, in graves that we walk past today in Cambridge, Boston, and Quincy. It’s hard not to fall under 1776’s patriotic charm, and the New Rep manages to give our shared history a new face, questioning our nation’s past while also celebrating the invention of its foundational commitment to equality and hope for a sovereign nation of free men.
- THROUGH 12.30 AT THE MOSESIAN CENTER FOR THE ARTS, 321 ARSENAL ST, WATERTOWN. NEWREP.ORG