The musical blockbuster Les Misérables and the venerable Sherman Edwards-Peter Stone patriotic musical 1776 are not often spoken of the same voice. The current Cortland Repertory Theatre production of 1776 invites us to do just that.
Both feature a complex storyline with a huge cast in costume, with 26 people on the Cortland stage this time. Both deal with historical events whose outcome is known but whose depiction is nonetheless gripping. More to the moment, last summer’s Les Miz was the finest production in Cortland Rep’s history. And this summer’s 1776, with its painstaking attention to detail, the energy, the wit, and the excellence of leads and supporting players demand that the show be held to that high standard.
Musically, 1776 does not aspire to the heart-stopping passion of, say, “One Day More.” Composer Sherman Edwards, known only for the Johnny Mathis hit “Wonderful, Wonderful,” can be derivative. Often he sounds like Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe in tandem with W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, all terrific models. We may not remember different numbers, but they are wonderfully theatrical, such as the witty Loyalist minuet, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” the equal of “The Ascot Gavotte” in My Fair Lady, or the warning from the bloody Courier, “Momma Look Sharp,” reminding us there was a war going on outside congressional walls.
Peter Stone’s book for 1776 argues that all those people who signed the Declaration of Independence, starting with John Hancock (Greg Bostwick), were much more than the pastel saints of history books, but also fleshly and flawed humans. John Adams (Greg Horton), the prime mover of the action, is seen as something of an anti-hero. His impatience and abrasive personality are liabilities. Short and dark, Horton looks a bit like Paul Giamatti in the HBO miniseries John Adams, and his very public anguish lines up well with the Adams we find in David McCulloch’s celebrated biography, published years later.
A gadfly nag, this Adams is also a lover, supported by the letters John wrote to Abigail (Caitlin Diana Doyle), the basis for the touching love duet, “Till Then,” a welcome break from congressional haggling.
Adams’s opposite number, politically and personally, is the tall, handsome, redhead Thomas Jefferson (Nicholas Carroll), who does not speak for the first 45 minutes. Although one of the youngest delegates, Jefferson was recognized for his deftness with his pen and so asked to write the Declaration. A lover, not a fighter, Jefferson is the most libidinous member of Congress, giving his gorgeous wife Martha (Rachel Womble) a lusty greeting. But he is shrug-shouldered and passive when other members scuttle much of his rhetoric.
In the large cast, the member who commands the most attention simply by opening his mouth is the Mephistophelian Edward Rutledge (Daniel Wisniewski), delegate from South Carolina. In the second act Rutledge demands that this talk about “all men being equal” cannot be extended to slaves because they are fundamentally only property. This argument leads to the ultimate showstopper, “Molasses to Rum,” whose moral enormity is unanticipated in the lightness that comes before it. Wisniewski’s powerhouse baritone dramatizes that Rutledge is aware of the slaves’ suffering and sees it as a welcome component in the richly rewarding three-way trade deal.
The first act’s dramatic conflict lies between Adams and the Loyalists, who feel they have guaranteed rights under the Crown, as opposed to the untested, unknown republic. One of director Kerby Thompson’s many deft choices is to give the Loyalists an attractive spokesman in John Dickinson (Arthur Lazalde), elegant in “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.” Not only does this make the debate with Adams more interesting but also lines up with more recent historical analysis. The Loyalists weren’t such bad fellows; after all, many of them turned into Canadians.
Every cast member gets a moment in the spotlight, starting with Benjamin Franklin (Richard Daniel). Director Thompson and costumer Wendi R. Zea do a magnificent job of making sure we keep them all straight. The Rhode Island wit Stephen Hopkins (company veteran Bob Finley) is one of several hilarious older men, but the only one with a black hat. Each character speaks in a distinctive regional or British accent.
Never dismiss 1776 as a history lesson. It’s brimming with conflict, self-sacrificing heroism, petty back-biting, love, sex, death and sin.