THEATER REVIEW: 1776 at Encores Is History Made Unresurrectable

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Christiane Noll and Santino Fontana in 1776 at Encores.

Oh, well. The first five minutes were promising.

Encores’ revival of 1776 began with Santino Fontana (playing John Adams) standing at the edge of the stage, joking about lawyers and politicians. The audience, clearly primed in this crazy election year, cheered (and continued to through the show). Fontana is a delightful, charismatic actor with superb timing; his natural charm shines through the character’ irascibility, which makes him a perfect musical comedy Adams. Director Garry Hynes’ spare production featured a mixed race cast in modern dress – clearly a nod to Hamilton, but it felt appropriate and refreshing here, too. As the stage filled with members of the Second Continental Congress, there was some liveliness, and a glimmer of positive expectation.

And then — freefall. Despite the best efforts of Hynes, Fontana, and a strong ensemble that notably included Andre De Shields, John Larroquette, Christiane Noll, and Alexander Gemignani — 1776 proved unresurrectable. Frankly, I can’t remember two hours and forty minutes in a theater that passed more slowly.

The production isn’t the problem — it’s the show. Just a few of its many inadequacies, any one of which could kill it — there’s not a single memorable song (not the music, not the lyrics). More strangely, these songs seem inserted almost at random; there’s hardly ever a sense that the creators have found the right pulse beat to punctuate with a number. Then there’s the infamous stretch, early in the first act, of nearly 30 minutes without any music at all. It’s a busy scene that establishes a number of characters, and sets up the voting procedures; the inescapable conclusion is that it was simply too complicated for this team to find a way to score — but the show loses momentum and never recovers.

You might well imagine that 1776 is the product of a group of neophyte writers, and you’d be half-right. Music and lyrics are by Sherman Edwards, whose previous experience is almost entirely as a songwriter of a few minor hits (“Johnny Got Angry” for Joanie Sommers). But nothing can explain how the estimable Peter Stone could deliver such a sodden book. Stone’s screenplay for Charade is a model of effervescent wit — in 1776, a few moldy jokes are repeated ad nauseam.

1776 proved a greater tribute to Hamilton than Encores could have anticipated. In scene after scene, the comparison was inescapable, and one could only marvel at the differences — how Lin-Manuel Miranda launches both book and score with clarity, wit and forward momentum that continues throughout; that his lyrics are a model of cleverness but also heart; and how no scene, no matter how detailed and wide-ranging, is beyond his musical abilities.

But at Encores, it was, alas, a different story. Here, in the original Room Where It Happens, nothing interesting happened.

Categories: Criticism, New York, Theater

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3 replies »

  1. I have to disagree with you about the show itself. I can’t vouch for this production, or perhaps lack of production – which I imagine was the real crux of the matter. Actually, I adore the score, and the lyrics, which I find very clever, no not hip, this was composed in the late 60s after all. I was lucky enough to see this show on Broadway during the bicentennial. Yes, some of it is a little “dumb,” after all they were trying to bring some very dry issues to the fore without boring the audience to death. What happens in that show, and whether we care about it at all, centers on the portrayal of Adams. Either you get with him, or you don’t. And if you don’t, I imagine it is awful. Also this was a magical show in terms of its theatricality, some of which was very innovative at the time. Abigail appearing literally out of nowhere, (which they achieved by placing her on black velvet that no one was ever allowed to walk on without clean socks – I was at Carnegie at the time in stage design, so we were let in on all the secrets.) And the show’s final number when the actors, after signing the declaration of independence, take their place to re-create the famous painting depicting that moment, was perhaps hockey, but also somehow chilling. This is a period show that cannot be done without the period, (it’s like Gone with the Wind in modern dress.) it’s not fair to compare 1776 to Hamilton, it is not Hamilton. Somehow “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” doesn’t work without the period costume. (Even Hamilton uses its own version of period costume.) And you don’t like “Momma Look Sharp”? (Maybe I am more of a sap than you,) However, as stated above, this show only works if you care about Adams. I cannot see how this show could work without William Daniels who played Adams in all its incarnations, mostly because the character was Daniels more than Adams (if you’ve seen the John Adams mini-series with Paul Giamatti you know the casting alone reveals the difference in interpretation. Apparently, the Giamatti version was very, very historically accurate.) Be that as it may, the Daniels’ version, on stage anyway, was something to behold. He kept you riveted. Sorry you had a bad experience with the show. I note that it is being revived as we speak in NYC, and was revived on Broadway only once in 1997 with Brent Spiner (hard to take seriously in this role.) At the time the show was hailed, again, for its book and music, though criticized for being a less “revolutionary” theatrical production. I think what you saw got lost in generational translation.

  2. I saw the original B’way show late in the run– maybe my third B’way musical after CABARET and FIDDLER, and I can’t have been more than 12. I found the two songs mentioned above – “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” and “Momma Look Sharp”- quite effective, but I have to say, Betty Buckley or no. the ghastly “He plays the violin” put me off musicals for a few years: (“They couldn’t do better than THAT?”) John Cunningham was very good as Adams; not having seen William Daniels, I couldn’t compare them. When I first heard Bernie Sanders speak, he reminded me of Howard da Silva as Franklin.

  3. Glad you liked Santino Fontana. I didn’t really get him at first, but over the past year or so I’ve become a huge fan.

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