Although Lin Manuel Miranda fans may argue, it turns out Alexander Hamilton did not act alone in creating our country. There were actually quite a few other people involved, and they have their own musical to prove it. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams share the spotlight as founding fathers extraordinaire in Four Seasons Theatre’s 1776, running through June 10th in the Wisconsin Union’s Shannon Hall. In stark contrast to the frenetic, break-neck speed of Hamilton, this semi-staged concert, capably directed by Jen Uphoff Gray, gives audiences a window into the painfully slow negotiations that would eventually bring the colonies’ representatives to consensus—and revolution.
There are no records of exactly what was said in 1776 as congress met in Philadelphia to decide whether the fledgling British colonies should declare their independence from Great Britain. The meetings were secret—since they were also grounds for execution for treason. Decades later the participants published bits and pieces about their recollections, but by and large, it was up to Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone to imagine who said what as they wrote the musical 1776.
And in their version John Adams is cast as the hero, arguing relentlessly for independence, to the point where he’s “obnoxious and disliked” by his fellow representatives. That assessment is sometimes hard to square with the luminous Clare Haden, who plays Adams with the enthusiasm and positivity of a camp counselor and a smile a mile wide. But it is articulated clearly in the first—and best—song of the show, as his fellow congressmen plead, “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down!” With the 20-piece orchestra onstage and the 24-members of congress seated in rows of chairs in front of them, it’s an impressive start to the production, filled with strong voices.
Although sometimes singing on the top edges of her range, Haden’s energy is the driving force in the show, which occasionally feels like it will grind to a halt under the weight of so much parliamentary procedure, roll-calling, and seconding of motions. Right behind her, propping up the action is Amy L. Welk, playing Benjamin Franklin as a wise, elderly scamp who frequently falls asleep during congressional sessions, and delights in quoting his own aphorisms back to himself. With a feisty, strong alto and a cane she uses to great effect, Welk embodies Franklin’s practicality — in contrast to Adams’s impatience and unwillingness to compromise.
Other stand-outs in the massive cast include Jace Nichols, who eloquently leads the opposition, arguing with the Southern states against separation from England. Resisting the urge to play his character as a straight-up villain, his speeches carry impressive weight. But his beautifully sung anthem to conservative values, “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” ultimately makes the dissenters look selfish and silly.
As the taciturn Thomas Jefferson, Sarah Streich is delightful to watch. Sporting a mop of bright red hair, a satin frock coat, and high-heeled black leather boots, it would be easy to mistake her for one of Grease’s Pink Ladies. But for all that flash, Jefferson has little to say until, longing for some intimate time with his wife, he expresses his displeasure with the assignment to write the Declaration of Independence. Only after he plants a long, passionate kiss on wife Martha (a sunny Lisa Mueller) and indulges in a night of merry-making can he concentrate on the task at hand. The silent anguish on Streich’s face as congress suggests dozens of edits to the country’s seminal document is priceless — it is the specific hell that every copywriter knows.
Erin McConnell also brings real heart to one of the most challenging roles in the show — the congressional secretary, who reads many desperate letters from George Washington aloud, along with each new resolution the congress proposes, and much of the final Declaration of Independence. While her frustration with the representatives is often very funny, her empathy for Washington’s soldiers in the field is palpable and heartbreaking.
Other bright spots in the show include the the duets by John and Abigail Adams—performed by Haden and her husband Scott in gender-swapped roles. Their voices blend beautifully as they each express their love, their doubts, their loneliness, and a perpetual annoyance with one another that all married couples understand.
At the end of the first act (which clocked in at a long 1:45) the entire audience was caught off guard by Maddie Uphoff, who up to that point had played a silent, walk-on role as a courier. When asked about her experience in the army, Uphoff sang the shattering “Momma Look Sharp,” about her friends’ deaths on the battlefield. With steely determination and a voice that seemed bigger than her slight frame, she stared out into a spotlight and blinked back tears. Her performance was flawless and devastating.
The other song that packed an emotional wallop was the second act’s “Molasses to Rum,” describing the horrors of the slave trade. As South Carolina’s representative Edward Rutledge, Jessica Kasinski brought her substantial operatic prowess to bear on the haunting number that implicated the North as well as the South in profiting from the sale of human beings.
As many high points as there are in this show (and there are many) on opening night it was still significantly rough around the edges. There were sound problems. Actors were skipping lines, stepping on lines, and dropping cues, which was puzzling since each performer had a book in his hand. And while the cast had many accomplished singers and actors, individual performances were noticeably uneven.
Aesthetically, the set was simple and effective (scenic design by Joseph Varga), but long flag banners that hung at the back of the stage were so badly creased they were distracting. The costumes, designed by Susan Gustaf, were a strange collection of clothing from other time periods—in a wide array of colors—layered on top of modern shirts and jeans. Some actors had convincing 18th century topcoats, some wore pieces that looked like fuzzy raincoats, and others had cast-offs from French farce. Worse, many of the coats obviously didn’t fit. In contrast, Scott Haden’s Abigail Adams simply sported a very modern apron on top of his Oxford shirt and khakis, while Clare Haden’s John Adams wore the unmistakable white pantsuit of Hillary Clinton. While superimposing Clinton into the scene as a tireless rabble-rouser is inspired—and very funny—it was completely out of step with the rest of the show.
Finally, the historically based musical has not aged well. While using gender-blind casting definitely helps, it doesn’t erase the lame, locker-room jokes that the founding fathers consistently lob at one another. And it turns out that hearing tired sexual innuendo come out of a woman’s mouth doesn’t make it any better. 1776 is also not well structured—it is notorious for the dry, 30-minute, song-less stretch in the first act. Even in the hands of a talented cast, the section feels like and endless city council meeting.
In all its exhausting debate, the musical does remind us that governing is not easy. Progress is slow, gridlock is common, and legislators can seem very detached from the harsh realities their constituents are facing. But there are moments of agreement and even brilliance. And those moments make the entire enterprise worthwhile.