You say you want a revolution well, you know, they rarely are revolutionary in the retelling. In the late sixties, “1776” was the brainchild of history-teacher-turned-pop-songwriter Sherman Edwards, who wrote the music and lyrics. Edwards sought to make history come alive while making a statement about what the Revolutionary War could teach us about the Vietnam War. “We’re in the middle of Vietnam, for Christ’s sake, and you want to wave the flag?” William Daniels infamously said to Edwards and book writer Peter Stone when he was asked to play John Adams. It was a divisive time when those who supported the war and those who didn’t were tangled in passionate debate at every level of society. Our Founding Fathers had become remote, beyond all of that. “1776” took them off their pedestals and revealed them as clay-footed human beings who passionately squabbled over something as fundamental as American independence.
Fast-forward over a half-century later when Vietnam is long-settled history and “1776” itself has become as fossilized as the Founding Fathers. “Hamilton” became a phenomenon by resurrecting our Founding Fathers as hip-hoppers of color. Could “1776” be taken out of mothballs and made fashionable again? Yes, thought director Diane Paulus, by having it performed by a “multiracial female, transgender and non-binary” cast. (Choreographer Jeffrey L. Page co-directs.)
Given that gender bias might even be stronger than racial bias since it cuts across races, it is hardly surprising that this new “1776” is causing more controversy than “Hamilton.” Does it work? It takes some getting used to, but it does.
When a Black woman (Gisela Adisa) comes out in front of the red-white-and-blue curtain and talks about how dysfunctional Congress is, everyone laughs and claps. It could be today. Projections and the fact that we see the cast put on long white stockings and overcoats as the curtain opens tell us we’re at Congress in 1776 Philadelphia. There are no powdered wigs here. The cast sings, “Sit down, John!” and yes, it sounds quite different with higher voices though no less commanding. You might mistake Benjamin Franklin (Liz Mikel) for Whoopi Goldberg with the long dreadlocks, though Franklin’s image is flashed to guide us. You get the idea.
The novelty wears off quickly yet the cast is so strong you cannot help but be drawn in. Every cast member is a triple threat who can sing, act and dance magnificently. Their gender does become irrelevant. Oh, wait. Only men were part of Congress then though they represented others not there. And they didn’t represent others who were there. To have races and genders tell a story that they were not a part of then is remarkably relevant. It is their story, too.
That point is particularly brought home when Adams, Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (Nancy Anderson) sing “The Egg” about the hatching of America while projections of future America are shown.
The climax of the show, when the entire South threatens to walk out over the slavery clause of the Declaration of Independence, takes on entirely new meaning here. A Black couple behind me were actually gasping out loud at the proceedings, fully knowing the outcome and that it would take another war nearly a century later to eradicate slavery.
Not everyone will be crazy about the way that much of the music of “1776” has been rethought here. “Momma, Look Sharp” is no longer a tender ballad of loss and sacrifice but a show-stopping anti-war power anthem. “Molasses to Rum,” which indicts the North for its enabling of the slave trade, is staged by having cast members auctioning off other cast members. Thought-provoking choices, to be sure.
“1776” at CIBC Theatre, 18 West Monroe, broadwayinchicago.com. Through March 12.