Spirit of 1776
by Richard Dodds
C'mon folks, let's have a big hand for the Declaration of Independence. A Broadway musical pretty much focused on getting that darned document signed was a long shot in 1969, which happened to be the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Hair was the talk of the town, but it was 1776 that took home the Tony Award for best musical.
Maybe it was old-guard voters not ready to surrender the Great White Way, but 1776 was its own kind of radical. Traditional musical-theater conventions were not followed by a mid-level Tin Pan Alley songwriter named Sherman Edwards (remember "Dungaree Doll!" by Eddie Fisher?), who turned out to have one Broadway musical in him. Even though it ran for an impressive 1,217 performances, 1776 is rarely revived.
Frank Galati, a two-time Tony Award winner himself, saw the original production (loved it) and the subsequent movie (hated it). And there the 1776 experience lay until an artistic director in his new Florida hometown of Sarasota – Galati has been a pillar of the Chicago theater scene for decades – approached him about the Asolo Repertory Theatre's plan to focus several seasons on the "American Experience." Galati suggested staging 1776.
Asolo's Michael Donald Edwards didn't really know the show, so Galati and Peter Amster, Galati's partner of 43 years, invited Edwards over to their condo for a listen to the original cast recording. To cut to the chase, with Galati as director and Amster as choreographer, Asolo presented 1776 to great acclaim last year. In the audience at one of the performances was ACT's Carey Perloff, who had flown in just to see the show, and the curtain had barely come down when negotiations began to bring it to San Francisco as ACT's season opener. Now in previews, it officially opens on Sept. 22.
Back at Galati and Amster's condo, Asolo's artistic director may have enjoyed hearing the score, and later been impressed by the script, but it was surely Galati's bountiful enthusiasm that sealed the deal. "I think it's an extraordinary work of musical-theater art," Galati said last month from a vacation cottage in Michigan. "The more I made my way through the history books, the more impressed I became with the skill of the musical's creators."
Largely set in Philadelphia's Independence Hall, Edwards' score and Peter Stone's libretto manage to create dramatic tension, and some comedy as well, from a situation that sounds as dry as a textbook, and with an outcome known to anyone who has ever waved a sparkler on the Fourth of July. The musical follows the anguished debates among members of the Second Continental Congress that climaxes with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
"The show starts with John Adams stepping in front of the curtain," Galati said, "and declaring to the audience, 'I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and three or more become a congress. And I am fed up with this congress.' So you are immediately plunged into that world in the company of the absolutely fascinating character John Adams, and then the curtain goes up and the entire Continental Congress is singing, 'For God's sake, John, sit down.' It's brilliant in that it accomplishes what the American musical wants to accomplish, and the score satisfies a Broadway audience even as it evokes early American tunefulness."
While 1776 does count on a patriot lump in the throat by its end, the flag waving is tempered by the painful compromises made to get each of the 13 colonies to sign the declaration. "The tragedy of the summer of 1776 was the whole issue of slavery," Galati said. "The burning core of the musical is whether or not it would be mentioned, and it is finally decided that the whole issue of slavery would be erased from the Declaration of Independence."
Galati, 69, has a long history dealing with slices of Americana, having won Tony Awards for his adaptation and direction of The Grapes of Wrath and then staging the sprawling musical Ragtime for Broadway. As a longtime member of Chicago's adventurous Steppenwolf Theatre, he has been asked if this is a "revisionist" staging of 1776. His answer is no, with a little bit of yes in it.
"You'll see that it resembles the original Broadway production, but if anything, perhaps our tastes in acting have changed and our demands on a musical theater piece are for it to be more than just a diversion," Galati said. "I do think every production is a sort of reinvention, and even the shift from Sarasota to San Francisco is a kind of reinvention, because every artist is going to bring something new to it."
ACT is using sets, costumes, and props from the Florida production, while about half of the 26 roles have been recast. Although Sarasota is heavily populated with retirees, Galati doesn't think the different demographics of San Francisco will result in a different audience experience.
"My guess is that San Francisco audiences will embrace it because the show is very smart, historically it's dead-on, and it's rich in language and ideas. I think audiences will recognize the timeliness in looking again at the founding fathers and mothers, and thinking about where we as a people are at this moment in time."
1776 will run through Oct. 6 at ACT. There is an OUT with ACT reception for LGBT audiences following the Sept. 25 evening performance. More info at 749-2228 or act-sf.org.