On April 2nd, I had the honor of seeing the Encores! production of 1776. The play stars Santino Fontana as John Adams, who is coercing the rest of the Continental Congress to declare independence. It’s a simple plot, and the show ends with each representative signing the Declaration of Independence. Where this show shines is through its witty dialogue and clever song lyrics.
In a world where Hamilton is king, this production met Lin Manuel Miranda’s Twitter challenge by using colorblind casting. During a Q&A after the show, a member of the creative team admitted they had considered casting women as Founding Fathers, but had ultimately decided against it because of the work they had done restoring the original score. The production featured a minimalistic set and modern costumes.
This is the third time I have seen a live production of 1776, but the first time I had ever seen it modernized. I was shocked several times by how this modernization changed my interpretation of the play’s story, and made it relevant to today’s political issues.
The first change that shook me had to do with costumes. The men are all in suits, which makes sense given they’re all part of the same community, the Continental Congress. But Abigail Adams is a character apart from all the action – not just by location, but gender and status as well. When Christianne Noll stepped on stage in her jeans, boots, plaid shirt, and winter vest, you knew she was different before she said a word. When Nikki Renée Daniels came on stage as Martha Jefferson, she wore a nice dress with an expensive-looking overcoat. The modern clothing choices for these characters highlighted the disparity in their socio-enonomic statuses. That’s a visual cue not present in most other 1776 productions. An audience with a contemporary perspective won’t recognize difference in status from period-accurate fashion.
At the end of Act 1, the only men in Congress are all southerners, and they sing “Cool, Considerate Men,” which is about how pompous and right-wing they are. In the film, it’s all about their flouncy sleeves and stylish canes. This number in Encores! performance, led by Bryce Pinkham as John Dickinson, was the performance in the show. In his very modern Republican suit, Pinkham looked more like Marco Rubio. It was chilling.
The last modernized moment that blew me away was “Mama Look Sharp,” when the haggard teenage looking African-American soldier in camouflage pants, who has been delivering letters from General Washington, finally speaks, and sings, in Congress. The reason I got chills was because this soldier made me think of the Black Lives Matter movement. The song focuses on the story of a group of boys who fought too young, and the mothers who were left devastated. It reminded me of the Black Lives Matter movement because right now teenage boys and girls are out protesting in their cities, and mothers have every right to fear for their safety. 1776 is the story of a revolution, and if this generation is revolting about anything right now, it’s the lack of equality in our society.