What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Keith Edwards on 1776
Interview by Beth Herstein
Broadway has long striven to break down racial barriers in the theater with racially blind casting. Though theater has a long way to go, regular New York theatergoers have come to accept such casting choices and natural. Meanwhile, in the county's regional theaters, the classic musical 1776, centered on the events leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence by white men, has broken another set of boundaries. Since 2010, there have been a number of not only racial blind but gender blind casting, with all female productions taking place in Kansas City, Portland, and elsewhere. And a few weeks ago, the New York Encores! series featured 1776 with a diverse cast.
All-female Cast of MTH 1776
Keith Edwards, son of 1776 composer and lyricist Sherman Edwards, has embraced the idea of blind casting from the start and has become one of its vocal advocates. Edwards' history with the show, of course, goes way back. He was twelve years old when the original production of his father's musical (with a book by Peter Stone) debuted on Broadway in 1969. He remembers his father creating the numbers and playing them for his motherwho, Edwards says, was his father's sounding board and a "taskmaster" who kept him going. He recalls the auditions, with his dynamic father at the piano, and the hunt for the best producer. At the end of the opening night performance, which ran without an intermission, he says, "the whole place went crazy. It was just incredible."
The television reviews on the midnight news were mixed, but the rave review in The New York Times helped guarantee its success. 1776 ran for an impressive 1217 performances and garnered Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Direction of a Musical, among several others. A revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company won 1998 Tony Awards for Best Revival, Best Direction of a Musical, and Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
Edwards, who has worked as a pilot and a flight instructor among other things, also has protected and honored the legacy of his late father's music. He first heard of the idea of blind casting the show due to the efforts of Sarah Crawford, who proposed an all female cast of the show at Musical Theater Heritage in Kansas City, where she is artistic director. Crawford said that, as a young performer, she had wished she could play the part of John Adams. In her role at MTH, inspired by the "fantastic female talent" in Kansas City, she said, she proposed the idea for an all-female production of 1776 to MTH Executive Director and Founder George Harter and Chief Operating Officer Chad Gerit. They sought permission to mount the production from Musical Theatre International (MTI), the licensing agency responsible for 1776. Initially, MTI stated it was unlikely that the license would be granted, but when they contacted Keith Edwards, Crawford says, he came "to the rescue!"
Edwards believed that his father would have embraced the idea and supported the production fullyand hoped, too, that the production would inspire other theater companies to do the same. According to Edwards, the show is "bullet-proof" and flourishes with any kind of casting. Allowing females to play male parts, he feels, does not harm the show's meaning or import and, in addition, makes it more contemporary as it is reflective of women's evolving role and increased importance in politics and government.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has cited 1776 as an influence on his juggernaut Hamilton, which has also brought historically based musicals back in vogue. Reflecting these renewed interests as well as its timeliness during the 2016 presidential campaigns, City Center produced their Encores! version of 1776 with a multiracial cast in modern dress, including Santino Fontana, Andre De Shields, Nikki Renee Daniels, and John Larroquette, among many others. While Edwards had no involvement with this production, he supported it fully and hopes that it too will open the door for new ways to see, and perform, 1776.
About the recent Encores! version, Edwards said: "I came to the beautiful City Center for the opening night ... and by the time the 'Sit down, John!' line was over I knew Mr. Viertel, Ms. (Gary) Hines, and the cast had done itcracked it. I had seen the show enough times in every conceivable setting that I was sure ... Something about removing all those trappings, not requiring the audience to mentally filter the show backwards in time, just let the dialog and the songs tell the tale, it was more transparent, more effortless to get the audience to, as Peter Stone would say, 'suspend disbelief' "