Sherman Edwards worked for nearly 20 years on this project before the Broadway debut took place on March 16, 1969. Though Edwards had written his own libretto, Peter Stone was eventually brought in to provide a rewrite. The partially fictionalized result is a dramatic view of the men who led the colonies toward their break from England and of the arguments and concessions that led to this event, highlighted by the drafting and ratification of the Declaration of Independence.
Althought the structure of the musical was somewhat unconventional, the Broadway production of 1776 was well received and ran for 1217 performances, closing on February 13, 1972. The production was nominated for five Tony Awards and won three (Best Musical, Featured Actor for Ron Holgate, and Best Direction by Peter Hunt), as well as a Theatre World Award for Ken Howard. The Broadway run was followed less than a year later by the film version, from Columbia Pictures, which included some of the Broadway actors and was nominated for an Oscar (Best Cinematography) and a Golden Globe (Best Musical/Comedy).
What we have onstage at the Benedum Center is a visually stunning, emotionally stirring production. 1776 has its focus on John Adams (Malcolm Gets), the delegate from Massachusetts whose resolution to bring about the independence of this country from England is unyielding. We see him work through many obstacles and, with the help of Benjamin Franklin (Frank Kopyc) and other supporters, win over the opposing delegates one by one - some through reason, some through compromise - culminating in the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Adams, by personality and due to the strength of his tenacity, stands separate from many of the delegates, and the musical shows us another side of the man through scenes in which he writes to, and receives letters from, his wife Abigail (Jacquelyn Piro). He confides in her and seeks her advice, and she helps him hold steadfast in his convictions, even though many miles separate the two. Light moments are provided by Benjamin Franklin, as the show humorously exemplifies several points of Franklin's penchant for excess as well as his sharp wit. Other key characters are the colorful Richard Henry Lee (John Scherer) of Virginia, who volunteers to propose the idea of Independence, and the serious-minded Virginian Thomas Jefferson (James Moye), who labors over the writing of the Declaration and suffers through its dissection.
The first star of the show, Kevin Rupnik's set, consists of various chairs and desks on and around a raised platform. In the center of the platform is a towering V-shaped pair of walls covered in wooden louvers. The louvered walls roll back to reveal the chamber of the Second Continental Congress, with more desks, large windows, rich wooden casings and wall trim, and the ubiquitous "tally board" for registering votes. What would normally be solid wall area is transparent, so the backdrop of an outdoor scene of summer in Philadelphia in the 18th century is visible. The louvered walls return during scene changes and, for scenes set outside the chamber, a subset of louvers are opened slightly, then swing wide open to represent a window. This is a simple but creative set that complements the story well.
Another stunning visual is the sight of 19 actors or more (representing individual, named characters) on stage at one time. Though the delegation is reduced significantly from its true to life size, it is still a rare scene in theater. The actors in this production are well chosen - both for their acting abilities (showcased most apparently during the lengthy music-free scene in the first act, which holds attention due to the fine acting) and for their vocal strengths. With the large amount of dialogue in this show, there are relatively few songs, but the songs so well present the characters, they add significant depth. Individual standout performances in song are provided by Bradley Dean, as Pennsylvania's delegate John Dickinson (who ends up being the lone delegate choosing to resign instead of sign the Declaration), in "Cool, Cool Considerate Men"; Trent Blanton as slavery defender Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, in the powerful "Molasses to Rum"; and Matthew Scott, as the Courier, in the heartfelt "Mama Look Sharp." Vocal support is well provided by all other actors.
As the man who perseveres in his fight to separate from King George III's rule, Malcolm Gets gives a very natural and solid performance. He shows Adams as a man who is resolute (but not without some doubts) and unable to even consider the continuation being under the rule of England. Gets is in fine voice during his songs (including "Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve," "Till Then," "Is Anybody There?"), and well portrays Adams "coming out of his skin" a bit in humorous scenes featuring "But, Mr. Adams" and "He Plays the Violin." Thought Adams is described frequently as "obnoxious and disliked," he is through Gets likeable and admirable. Gets' proficiency is key to the success achieved in this production - it is an excellent performance.
Gets is well supported by the entire cast, but particularly by Frank Kopyc's Franklin and James Moye's Jefferson in several scenes. The performance by Jacqueline Piro as Abigail Adams also adds a lot, and her singing is stunning. Kelly McCormick provides a sweet portrayal and solid vocals as Martha Jefferson. In small roles, Edmund Lyndeck (Stephen Hopkins), Paul Palmer (Col. Thomas McKean), and Tim Hartman (Samuel Chase) earn notice.
Costumes designed by Mariann Verheyen are very well done in detail, color, and variety. With the exception of a couple of the wigs used in this production, all of the visuals are superbly provided. The final scene, with the reading of the delegates' names as they sign the Declaration, and concluding with a scrim on which is projected a replica of the document, is very moving.
1776 continues through July 3 at the Benedum Center. For schedule and ticket information, call 412.456.6666 or visit www.pittsburghclo.org.