Musical 1776 Recalls America's Founding Ideals | WGLT

Musical 1776 Recalls America's Founding Ideals

Mar 7, 2017

The musical 1776 depicts the human sides of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Credit ISU Center for the Performing Arts

 With the record-breaking popularity of the Broadway musical Hamilton, revivals of another show about the founding of America were sure to follow.

The musical 1776, on stage at Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts, tells the story of some of the other founding fathers -- those who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Director Lori Adams said the struggles to bridge division and reach compromise that the show depicts mirror many of the same challenges facing America today.

"To languish in the brilliance of these men and how they put it all together and what they committed themselves to is sometimes overwhelming for me and a positive experience of what this country is founded on, the rights we have and must hold onto," Adams said on GLT's Sound Ideas.

"We are still very much in the same place we were then. America is still its own great experiment," said the show's dramaturg Kelly Franklin, who researched the historical figures for the actors portraying them.

One major difference between then and now, Franklin noted, is that the signers of the Declaration understood they needed to compromise.

"What I am concerned about is, are we going to see compromise in our lives  as they did," she added. "We are living in the state of Illinois where we are without a budget are we going to finally reach a compromise. In the federal government, we are both Republicans and Democrats and no one wants to reach  across the aisle. Our founders understood compromise is not a weakness, so why are we deeming it one today.

This ISU production takes a cue from the smash hit Hamilton and is using color-blind casting. While John Adams, the key protagonist in the show is played by a white actor, one founding father is played by an African American woman, another by a white female.

"We're costuming them in period costumes and what hopefully happens, and usually happens,if the story is compelling enough, is that you accept and see who the characters are what they are doing and you just don't worry about [the unconventional casting] so much," Adams said.

When 1776 opened on Broadway in 1969, it was the height of the Vietnam War. The show ,which depicts the very human foibles of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and other signers of the Declaration, won the Tony for best musical of that year.

The film version came out in 1972 in the lead-up to America's bicentennial celebrations in 1976. The film opened amid the tumultuous years of the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's impeachment and subsequent resignation.

Adams and Franklin said the musical continues to tell a story for our time.

"I want everyone, young and old, to come away [from this show] with a renewed sense of what this country can be, and of our ideals and principles, and what we are founded on." Adams said.

Franklin said she hopes audience members will feel a renewed sense of patriotism especially at the current fractious time in our civic discourse.

"My hope is that they will themselves get involved in civic engagement opportunities, be it voting, being part of system, or even just reading the news."  

The musical is on stage at the Center for Performing Arts Tuesday March 7 through Friday March 10 at 7:30 p.m.