1776 – A Rarely Heard Work?
New York City Center Encores! celebrates the rarely heard works of America’s most important composers and lyricists. Conceived in 1994 as concert performances, Encores! gives three glorious scores the chance to be heard as their creators originally intended.” This is directly quoted from the City Center website as the explanation and purpose of the Encores! series. It’s a worthy mission and goal, and one most of us would embrace. Their most recent concert of Vernon Duke and John Latouche’s Cabin in the Sky is an excellent example of a show richly deserving of this treatment. It was also an electrifying production of a show that will most likely never receive a full-scale production after again. Amazing music combined with a dated, mediocre book, and Cabin in the Sky was the right fit for the criteria of “rarely heard works.”
Their next offering is the Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone (book) musical about American independence, 1776. This is a wonderful musical: powerful, funny, patriotic, tense, and melodic. Edwards’s score is bright, memorable, intelligent, and witty, tipping its hat to Gilbert & Sullivan and maybe just a touch of George M. Cohan spirit. Peter Stone’s equally strong book is often referenced as one of the great librettos of musical theatre, capable of standing on its own without the score, but made all the more affecting with it. Stone somehow manages to convince an audience that an outcome we already know (American independence from Great Britain), is an uncertainty as our founding fathers debate and make trade-offs for a formal declaration to be ratified. Even down to the last moments, it is uncertain if the resolution will pass, and Stone’s book builds skillfully toward the prospect that it won’t. This is well-crafted musical theatre.
The original Broadway production of 1776 won the Tony Award for Best Musical and ran 1,217 performances (a pretty good run for 1969). A faithful but somewhat bland film adaptation was made of the show in 1972 featuring many performers from the original Broadway cast, including the unforgettable William Daniels as the obnoxious and disliked John Adams, who also happened to be the most unstoppable force behind independence. In 1997, Roundabout Theatre Company revived 1776 and that production ran for 333 performances. The musical continues to be produced by summer stocks, community theatres, colleges, and professional theatres around the country and 1776 has earned the recognition as a staple of the American Musical Theatre canon.
So I am calling “shenanigans” that 1776 is a “rarely-heard work.” In fact, do a search of summer stock theatre somewhere around The Fourth of July and you will find many-a-venue producing this show, capitalizing on marrying its patriotic themes with America’s big holiday. This musical just doesn’t seem to fit the Encores! criteria. It is true that the other half of City Center’s explanation of their purpose is that Encores! “gives three glorious scores the chance to be heard as their creators originally intended” which indicates that we will hear the score with full orchestrations. This will be a treat, because we seldom hear classic musicals with their full orchestrations anymore (a travesty of the contemporary state of theatre production). 1776, with its rich orchestrations including fife, drum, and strings will be heard in all of its glory. For this alone I am willing to excuse this step outside of their complete criteria and celebrate their choice to present this as one of their 2016 season offerings.
It has also been announced that the 1776 concert will feature non-traditional casting. A talented ensemble of culturally diverse performers has already been assembled that promises to make the concert a highlight of the year. There is nothing wrong with this. A talented actor is a talented actor, no matter what the color of their skin or cultural heritage and this production of 1776 will most certainly be a true celebration of American diversity. I do get the feeling, however, that this has been orchestrated to have the production imitate Hamilton’s revolutionary, boundaries-busting approach to re-imagining American history with overdue inclusivity. I can see the inclination for City Centers to want to draw parallels with Broadway’s hottest ticket (founding fathers, multicultural casting) and I think it makes sense.
A series like Encores! undoubtedly has bills to pay in order to make truly rare productions like Cabin in the Sky or Do I Hear A Waltz (following 1776) happen. Though I have called “shenanigans” this time around for 1776 due to its more frequently produced status, if a more popular title gets people into the seats, helping to fund the preservation of titles that need the services of Encores!, I can entirely get onboard. Let’s just not call 1776 a “rarely-heard work.”