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Broadway Musical ‘1776’ Uses Non-Traditional Casting: NPR


The undertaking of this production of 1776 is multiracial and trans, feminine and non-binary.

Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theater Company


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Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theater Company

Broadway Musical '1776' Uses Non-Traditional Casting: NPR

The undertaking of this production of 1776 is multiracial and trans, feminine and non-binary.

Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theater Company

The classic musical 1776 received a groundbreaking new production on Broadway. Instead of telling the story of America’s founding as this musical is typically performed, with a cast of mostly white men, this version uses multiracial actors who are female, non-binary, and trans — people who were not even considered in the declaration of independence.

When 1776 premiered on Broadway in 1969, America was entangled in the Vietnam War and the anti-war musical Hair was a great success. So a musical featuring singing and dancing founding fathers seemed like a long shot. Instead, he became a popular Tony Award winner.

Co-director Diane Paulus had never seen or read 1776, when she was approached to work on a new production. She said she found the storyline extremely relevant, but wanted to give the show a new setting.

We’re here, we’re in 2022,” she said. “Now you’re going to watch this cast, literally and metaphorically, step into the shoes of the Founding Fathers and . . . make this story.”

The script remains the same, but this production reinvents many aspects of the show – from the musical arrangements to the choreography to a kind of Brechtian presentation staging.

“Bertolt Brecht would say [it’s] make the familiar feel strange,” said co-director and choreographer Jeffrey L. Page. I use my aerial quotes – in the typical way text would be said.”

The production received mixed reviews – some critics find the approach refreshing and illuminating, others not so much: one reviewer called it “terminally waking”. Patrena Murray, who plays Benjamin Franklin, said that even before it opened, she heard grunts from purists on social media.

“Sometimes I look at Facebook posts,” she said, “and I see people who I think need to see the play but won’t because they call it ‘theatre. revisionist”.”

But for the actors, many of whom, like Murray, are black or of color, it’s powerful to take on these traditionally male and white roles as the characters debate the place slavery should have in the country.

“It’s incredibly empowering to literally step into something that feels like you’re stepping into a story where you weren’t meant to be,” said Crystal Lucas-Perry, the black actor who plays John Adams. .

Broadway Musical '1776' Uses Non-Traditional Casting: NPR

Elizabeth A. Davis as Thomas Jefferson, Patrena Murray as Benjamin Franklin and Crystal Lucas-Perry as John Adams in 1776.

Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theater Company


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Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theater Company

Broadway Musical '1776' Uses Non-Traditional Casting: NPR

Elizabeth A. Davis as Thomas Jefferson, Patrena Murray as Benjamin Franklin and Crystal Lucas-Perry as John Adams in 1776.

Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theater Company

Some stagings radically revise the musical numbers. For example, “The Egg” was originally just a sweet song sung by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as they contemplated the birth of a new nation.

In this new version, video of 246 years of American history – good, bad and ugly – flashes on a curtain behind the actors.

“We’ve always been interested in those founding fathers of this show being radical,” co-director Paulus said. “And there was something about ‘The Egg’ that made us think, could we live this number not as some kind of cute musical theater number, but can we really blow it up in this radical act , almost some kind of punk in his mind?”

So, as this video plays on a screen behind the cast, visibly pregnant Elizabeth A. Davis, who plays Jefferson, rocks on an electric violin.

“I’m playing the national anthem, Jimi Hendrix style,” Davis said, “but I could just scratch chicken and we’ll get the same message: that this is about revolution, this is about changing things head.”

Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves, wrote a clause in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence abolishing slavery. And the culmination of 1776 is the fight on this paragraph. Southern delegates want it cut; the delegates from the North want to keep it.

Diane Paulus said the words they were arguing over were “calling out slavery as an excuse for trade. I didn’t realize that in my American history background I wasn’t aware of it,” she said . “It was this musical that taught me that…the institution of slavery was under discussion in 1776. And there was an opportunity for it to enter into that founding document of the Declaration of Independence . But for the sake of unanimity, it was crossed out.”

Broadway Musical '1776' Uses Non-Traditional Casting: NPR

Roundabout Theater Company’s 1776.

Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theater Company


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Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theater Company

Broadway Musical '1776' Uses Non-Traditional Casting: NPR

Roundabout Theater Company’s 1776.

Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theater Company

A song, “Molasses to Rum”, sung in the show by a delegate from South Carolina, highlights the North’s complicity in the slave trade. In the original, it’s a scary solo. Here, it’s an ensemble act and the black actors are seen as slaves.

“You see the performers in their identities, whether black or non-black in color in our cast, collaborating on this staging to show the audience that this is not something we watch from the past, but it has a resonance and continues to have a resonance.”

The staging doesn’t just shake the audience; it shakes the actors.

“It’s heavy and it’s not easy,” Crystal Lucas-Perry said. “And what it costs us as performers, you know, as people of color, as people of different ethnicities and genders, there’s a cost associated with that.”

And, in this rendition of the musical, the signing of the Declaration of Independence at the end is not a triumph, but a warning of the magnitude of these costs to the country.

“Independence is just another word for freedom,” said actress Patrena Murray. “And so, one of the things I think about this piece is, ‘Well, freedom for whom, really?’ As Frederick Douglass wrote of the 4th of July, ‘What does your 4th of July mean to me?'”

Audiences across the country can ponder this question. After 1776 closes on Broadway on January 9, it goes on a national tour in 16 cities.

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