Go Do This: 1776 at the Virginia Rep

This show is hot as hell (in Philadelphia) (but also here).

What it is

1776 is a musical about the Continental Congress and its dithering over declaring independence.

Man, does that sentence sound like I could be leading you down a path of boredom! Fear not, my fellow Americans. The musical adaptation of a Founding Moment and the creation of compromise can be really, really fun. Oh wait, you’re all obsessed with Hamilton, so you already know that.

Sherman Edwards wrote this musical, which opened in 1969, and he wrote it to be informative, funny, inspiring, thought-provoking, and even racy at times.

There’s a whole scene where John Adams and Ben Franklin are literally waiting outside for Tom and Martha Jefferson to finish doin’ it!

So racy, guys!

1776 is also a 1972 movie, starring many of the same people from the Broadway cast (including William Daniels, whom you may remember from Night Rider and/or Boy Meets World, depending on your age).

The film version was one of the handful of musicals I fell in love with at a young age and watched over and over—jury’s out on whether that INFORMED my love of all things Founding Generation or whether our frequent trips to Colonial Williamsburg and Philadelphia did. Who cares. Sit down, John, we’ve got one of the most fun musicals ever to discuss.

Scott Wichmann (John Adams) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Scott Wichmann (John Adams) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

The musical has John Adams as its hero—an obnoxious and disliked representative from Massachusetts with independence on his mind. He teams up with Ben Franklin and Jefferson to try to convince the rest of Congress to just declare independency so they can form a new nation already, dammit. Jefferson is whatever about helping out because he’s trying to get home to his young wife, but they convince him to stay and write something or other. Meanwhile, the rest of Congress is rolling their eyes, then taking it a little more seriously, then discussing some tricky issues, and then finally…well, I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say, we live in the country they created.

The music is beyond catchy, the lyrics are clever as all get-out, and the whole thing goes from impassioned to funny to tender to transfixing-in-a-legal-drama-way so smoothly that you wonder why Sherman Edwards didn’t go on to write a thousand more treasures.

Who’s behind it

Virginia Repertory Theatre, who has a brand new Artistic Director, Nathaniel Shaw. It’ll be interesting to see what he can do with this already top-notch company. So far, so good.

As far as the cast goes, I was thrilled to see Landon Nagel back as Jefferson—he had me at his performance in Firehouse’s Maple and Vine last year. I’ve got a major soft spot for ol’ TJ and his individualistic and enlightenment thinking, despite the best efforts of all my Hamilton-loving pals, and this show comes from a time when it was still cool to be into Jefferson.

Scott Wichmann’s performance as the little, fiery Adams was undoubtedly the casting high point. One would hope that he started his acting career planning for this role, because he was certainly made for it. Likewise Alexander Sapp was perfect for his performance of the sometime villain but actually pretty logical Edward Rutledge (representative from South Carolina who convinced everyone to keep the infamous “let’s get rid of slavery” clause out of the Declaration of Independence). Dude’s drawling confidence gave me chills.

Alexander Sapp (Edward Rutledge) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Alexander Sapp (Edward Rutledge) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

Worth noting also is Jason Marks as Ben Franklin (funny if somewhat overacted) and Sarah Kate Walston as Abigail Adams (sweet if somewhat underused).

My favorite part in the movie, though, was also my favorite part in the play—a small but heart-wrenching ballad featuring the courier who keeps bringing messages from George Washington. It’s a rare moment of 100% seriousness, when we remember that it’s not just about these men bantering in Philadelphia. There are also men dying in Washington’s Continental army. Really young men, who often weren’t even old enough to leave their mothers. And now they’re crying for them as they die, forgotten, under a tree.

Even thinking about it makes my stomach hurt. Keaton Hillman, who played the Courier and who just graduated from William and Mary, sang with the voice of an angel. I can’t believe I just said “voice of an angel,” but he made me cry, so, there it is.

And lordy, those sets (Rich Mason), those lights (BJ Wilkinson), and those dang waistcoats (Sue Griffin)—intricate, super useful for marking time, and gorgeously detailed, respectively.

Director Debra Clinton, you’ve done a wonderful job. 1776 is one of those shows that has to be directed well for it to remain fresh (it’s a lot of actors sitting and standing in one room). But from the very first drumbeat, I was like “Oh noooooo, that’s one drumbeat closer to the end. AND IT SHOULD NEVER END.”

Where it is

The November Theatre, Marjorie Arenstein Stage, aka that big place on Broad Street with the well-lit marquee. 114 W. Broad Street.

Park where you can on the street or in Jackson Ward. Or, take public transit. Or an Uber, like I did!

When it is

1776 runs through Sunday, October 23 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights as well as Sunday afternoons. Oh, and some Wednesdays. Just look at the schedule, please.

How much it costs

$36 – $60 depending on your seating requirements. I don’t really see any reason to choose extra premium seats. Get tickets here or call the box office at (804) 282-2620.

Other things to note

In an election year, we should all be made to watch this film. In an election year in which a live version of this musical is available for your eyes to see, we should all be made to go. The play is very critical of conservatives (although throws in some nice Virginia jokes that perhaps mollified the bow-tie crowd, although who knows what they went home and posted to Facebook about it. Not me!), and there’s one whole musical number devoted to calling them overly money-minded and too absorbed in their own self-interest.

Fun fact: In the film, that musical number “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” was deleted! Nixon was in office and, according to the internet, his anti-conservative regime put some pressure on the film’s producers to nix-on the scene.

Musicals pissing off presidents! I love it!

It’s really difficult to dislike 1776. Well, it’s difficult to dislike it and remain friends with me. What would we even talk about, you know?

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