‘1776’: Taking politics to the Aspen stage

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Aspen Community Theatre's 2010 production of "1776" Dress Rehersal, Nov. 2

ASPEN – In 1969 – one year removed from perhaps the most tumultuous year the United States has been through since the Civil War – a musical came to Broadway and broke new ground by taking dead-serious aim at the issues of the moment. “Hair” addressed, above all, the Vietnam War, but also the other issues that were dividing America: rock ‘n’ roll, sexuality, drugs and the draft.

Also in 1969, another musical hit Broadway that was directly about politics – and had virtually nothing at all to do with the debates that were raging in the late ’60s. “1776” – which would go on to beat out “Hair” for the Tony Award for best musical – was set nearly 200 years in the past, and stayed away from even metaphorical references to 20th century issues. With music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, “1776” stuck very much to its own time, and its own piece of critical American history: the Continental Congress, held over one sweltering Philadelphia month, when delegates from the 13 colonies debated whether to declare their independence from Great Britain.

“The ’60s were a hotbed of political events, a politically passionate time. But this show didn’t address any of the hot-button issues of the ’60s,” Pat Holloran, who directs Aspen Community Theatre’s current production of “1776,” at the Wheeler Opera House. “I think it was intended more as a motivational piece of the human condition, more than specific politics. It was an overview, optimistic, about possibilities – what man can accomplish, how they can stick to their principles. Or even, can they have principles?”

The question of whether a man can have principles is answered, more or less, in the first scene. John Adams, a lawyer from Massachusetts, has become so passionate and unrelenting in his drive for American independence that he has become a thorn in the side, even something of a comic figure, to the rest of the delegates. “Sit down, John! For God’s sake, John – sit down!” sing the rest of the members of the congress.

In that musical number, Adams’ principled stance is made more vivid by the petty issues that distract the other delegates: “Someone ought to open up a window,” sings one; “No, no, no/ Too many flies,” responds another – while Adams (played by Graham Northrup in the ACT production) attempts to stick to the topic at hand. The song concludes: “Will someone shut that man up?” And Adams replies: “Never!”

Holloran, who worked for 20 years, off an on, at Aspen’s defunct Crystal Palace dinner theater, has directed a pair of musicals for Aspen Community Theatre – “Mame” and “My Fair Lady.” (He also starred as Tevye in ACT’s “Fiddler on the Roof.”) But this was the first year that he proposed which musical should be staged, and with “1776,” he didn’t think the odds were good that his would be selected. The cast features over 20 men, and only two women (Julie Maniscalchi as Adams’ supportive wife, Abigail, and Jennica Lundin as Thomas Jefferson’s wife. Martha), plus there are elaborate costumes and period sets.

But Holloran believes that the ACT producers and board went with “1776” because of its current relevance. He also noted that the musical went more or less dormant through the ’80s, but has “picked up steam,” with numerous productions – including a 1997 Broadway revival – in recent years.

“Because of the political climate, the divisiveness, the timing seemed right,” he said. “When I went on line, I was surprised to see how many people are doing it. I guess a lot of people are of the same mind-set as me.”

While “1776” didn’t speak to the burning topics of the era when it debuted, it does address issues that are forever bubbling under the surface of a democracy – and ones that have been boiling over in recent years. What does it mean to take a principles political stance? What is the role of compromise? And how do we as a nation stay focused on the big picture and the common good, instead of getting bogged down in small, parochial matters?

“1776,” said Holloran, “says how even strong-minded people can come together for a common goal. As citizens today, we don’t see that all the time. It’s about a weighing of priorities, really, and trying to represent your principles without stonewalling everyone else’s opinion.”

While the musical illustrates parallels between 1776 and 2010, it also points out a significant difference. It’s hard to make out the voices of modern politicians who is the equivalent of Adams – someone who keeps their eye on the grand, defining issues, and is unconcerned with how they are seen.

“What’s different is, they represented their own minds,” Holloran said. He added that technology was a major factor behind the differences between the two eras. “In 1776, in Philadelphia, they were distant, in miles and communication, from their constituents. Representatives today are so much under the immediate microscope that it’s difficult to vote your mind. Back then, you voted for someone for their ability to make decisions, then you sent them off to Philadelphia, 500 miles away, and trusted they would represent your best interests.”

“I sometimes wonder if they’re even allowed to step back and see the big picture and bring that to their constituents,” Holloran said of modern-day politicians. “They’re inundated with small details and private interests.”

But enough about politics. “1776” is, in fact, a historical comedy more than a drama, with Benjamin Franklin (Jeff James-Schlepp) emerging as the humorist of the crowd. The comedy often comes from the eloquent, witty speech-making – which Holloran says may be another lost art.

“I’m fascinated by the language,” Holloran said. “The use of language is so expressive. We may have lost much of our ability to express ourselves in language and words. Part of the challenge for the actors is to use this flowery language that we’re not used to. They required that ability back then to persuade.”

“1776” is also one man’s journey. Without Adams reflecting on his own faults, discovering his ability to compromise, and allowing himself to be inspired by his wife, this story would be in a history book, not on the stage.

“If he was just a bull-headed, stubborn politician, he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what he accomplished,” Holloran said. “He’s very slow to back down. He doesn’t compromise a lot of his principles to get what he wants. But he does have to compromise.”


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