If the Founding Fathers had been Founding Mothers

The touring cast of “1776.” Photo by Joan Marcus

The revolution continues

“1776” at the Ahmanson features an all-female, gender-expansive cast

by Bondo Wyszpolski

John Cage is quoted as saying, “I like being moved. I don’t like being pushed,” and I’ve sensed that many viewers of “1776,” in the production recreated by directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, have felt not so much pushed as shoved into watching an interpretation that may seem a bit of a travesty, to put it mildly. Others, of course, to be fair, have hailed this redesigned musical as a progressive and timely breath of fresh air.

Back in 1969, Sherman Edwards wrote music and lyrics and Peter Stone the book of what became a Tony Award-winning hit. In short, four numbers (1-7-7-6) bested four letters (H-a-i-r) for Best Musical. It was probably a safe choice, although I think that “Hair” made the bigger splash and overall has better songs, including “Aquarius,” “Easy to Be Hard,” and “Good Morning Starshine.”

“1776” takes place during the spring and early summer of 1776 when delegates from the 13 colonies gathered to hammer out a declaration of independence from British rule.

From New Hampshire and Delaware down to South Carolina and Georgia, each delegate arrived with his own concerns and agendas to protect and push for. Endless bickering was therefore guaranteed from the start, and the musical shows that despite the heated discussions, where shouts nearly lead to fisticuffs, the Founding Fathers created a document that for the most part still serves this country rather well.

Normally, reaching for some verisimilitude, the cast would consist of white males of middle age and, for moderation and sentimental relief, a couple of women, in this case Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams.

Liz Mikel as Benjamin Franklin, Nancy Anderson as Thomas Jefferson, and Gisela Adisa as John Adams. Photo by Joan Marcus

Directors Page and Paulus, however, chose to stir the pot and to project some of our topical concerns into their production, to bring to the delegates’ table, so to speak, representatives who were not present at the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence. And this was done by casting actors, in their words, “who identify as female, trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming.” Lest we be seen scratching our heads, the Ahmanson program includes a section entitled “A Note about pronouns and gender at ‘1776,’” which attempts to answer the question, “What do you mean by ‘gender expansiveness’?”

Critics tend to be even-handed when discussing the show, because while they may find the concept and/or the execution distasteful, they try to take the time to discuss the acting, the choreography, the singing, costumes, and so forth. Audience members — and I’ve read the comments on many sites — often walk out at intermission.

By provocatively overlaying one text or reading upon another, the show can seem dangerously close to parody and even insult. Liz Mikel, for instance, who plays Benjamin Franklin, seems like a stand-in for Whoopi Goldberg. We know that concepts and ideas applied retroactively to historical events can backfire, and so one does this at great risk. In this case we can also determine the directors’ good intentions, which are to highlight the marginalized and neglected, to “simultaneously see not only what was, but also what can be.”

Clearly, this production falls under the umbrella of diversity, inclusion, and equity, which has caused quite a sea change in the theater and onscreen, with people of color now in most television commercials and black actors thrust into roles that previously were understood to have been written for someone lighter skinned.

Each of us has an opinion on how that’s been playing out, although embracing our differences and sharing the pie equally is certainly a noble endeavor. But there’s a problem here, and it emerges in spite of seemingly good intentions.

Art needs to challenge, to push the envelope, to make us rethink preconceived notions and all that, but there’s always the possibility of miscalculation, and I fear that a reconfigured show like “1776” won’t so much enlighten its audience as put it on the defensive. The danger here is that, instead of nurturing diversity, the show actually fosters or entrenches divisiveness. To put it another way, there could just as well be a violent backlash against “gender expansiveness” (i.e., all right already!) as a broader acceptance of it.

So, who is this show preaching to, because it is preaching? Think about this.

The actors onstage in “1776” tend to be quite good even if we don’t find them believable in their roles. Gisela Adisa as John Adams is among the standouts, and her intimate moments with Tiesha Thomas as Abigail Adams provide a touching respite and interlude. Liz Mikal, despite what I said earlier, is an entertaining (but slightly buffoonish) Ben Franklin. Other notable performances are given by Nancy Anderson as the beleaguered Thom Jefferson, forced to edit or delete portions of his declaration draft, as well as Joanna Glushak as Pensylvanian delegate John Dickinson and Kassandra Haddock’s Edward Rutledge from South Carolina. The last two, portrayed as the “villains” of the piece because of their strong resistance to, let us say, the flow of history, give the narrative some much-needed sting, despite our knowing how the tale eventually unfolds.

Tiffani Barbour as Congressional custodian Andrew McNair (left), and Brooke Simpson as the Courier (center), the latter performing “Momma, Look Sharp.” Photo by Joan Marcus

The best songs are in the second act (so don’t walk out yet!). “Momma, Look Sharp” is ably sung by Brooke Simpson as the Courier, and in this production she’s backed by a chorus that embellishes the poignancy of the number, which emerges somewhat unexpectedly. Simpson identifies as a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe and prior to the start of the show came out to remind the audience that the Music Center was built on Tongva land — an admonishment of sorts that some people have tired of hearing. The other song, “Molasses to Rum,” is aimed like a musket shot by Edward Rutledge at New Englanders who may denounce slavery but at the same time enable the slave trade to continue and who also benefit from it.

Perhaps it is faint praise to say that the directors have created something that is surely thought-provoking, although riding to some extent on the pigtails of “Hamilton.” I can’t predict how this production will be remembered and judged in the future, but I do not recommend it, and in fact feel it was more honestly presented this past January by the Aerospace Players at the James Armstrong Theater in Torrance. If you’re intrigued, read the other reviews, there are lots of them out there, and choose for yourself whether this is the vision of “1776” you’re willing to embrace.

1776 is onstage through May 7 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave, downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Dark Monday. Tickets, $155 to $40, at the box office or by calling (213) 972-4400, or visiting online at CenterTheatreGroup.org. ER


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