Democracy Has Prevailed.

January 24, 2013

1776 - The Musical

That this is a political blog should be of confusion to no one.  Heck just look at the title of the blog and you'll get it.

While I'll occasionally post something about a musician or writer, I'm not one who can say that he's at all near to the theater and as such I'll usually just stick to what I mangle best: Politics.

But every now and then I think it's important to branch out to other things and so imagine my surprise when I learned only last week that one of my favorite musicals, 1776, will be performed here in Pittsburgh.  Great show - if you don't know the story, here's the blurb from the Pittsburgh Public Theater's website:
The founding of our nation comes to star-spangled life in this grand Tony Award-winning Best Musical. In 1776 you'll see the heroes of the American revolution like you've never seen them before -- in rousing songs and dances, comic encounters, and impassioned politics. The stakes have never been higher as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin wrangle to get everyone on the same page -- namely the Declaration of Independence. Directed by Ted Pappas, theatrical fireworks will fill the O'Reilly Theater in this thrilling story of how we went from 13 colonies to the United States of America.
SPOILER ALERT: The Declaration gets signed.

While the show definitely patriotic and political, it's not at all partisan.  And by that I mean that it's safe to say that no one will leave a performance of 1776 thinking they'll have to make sure they vote Liberal or Conservative next election.  Happy and proud that you got a chance to vote, perhaps, but that's about it.

Tuesday, I was lucky enough to catch a few minutes with a couple of the show's leads (George Merrick, who plays John Adams and Steve Vinovich, who plays Ben Franklin) while they were on a short break during rehearsal.

I arrived a few minutes before 3 and got a chance to look at the set.  It's a beautiful piece of work - all wood with the desks and chairs made entirely in-house at the PPT.  It had to be explained to me that the set representing Independence Hall was on a huge turntable sunk into the stage.  I had to ask because when I walked in, I wondered why all the chairs on stage were pointed away from the audience.  Oh, it's big turntable, thanks.  The set rotates.  Way cool!

When I arrived, the music director was noodling about on an upright (I was told that for the show, the musicians will be seated Bayreuth-like beneath the stage) and a scattering of stage technicians were taking care of some rehearsal details.  Within a few minutes director Ted Pappas was working over some details with a couple of the actors.  Lots of things happening.  Lots of stuff to get accomplished.  Play's opening in a few days.  It's sheer ignorance on my part, of course, but I had no idea the level of detail that could be choreographed into a scene.  The constantly moving Pappas hammered out the details between Adams and Livingston on the timing and placement Livingston's arms when singing the phrase "pop the cork."

A few minutes later, in a dressing room cluttered with the daily stuff of thuh thea-tuh (cotton balls for makeup on the counter to my left and a rack full of costumes for the actors to my right and so on) I got to meet George Merrick and we sat down and chatted about about the politics of the play.  He was wearing a Mets t-shirt but I figured as they had an even worse year (.457) than the Pirates (.488) I wouldn't make too too much of it.  Given that 1776 was premiered in the late 60s (March 16, 1969, to be exact), barely 11 months after the assassination of Martin Luther King and a year to the day after My Lai, I was curious if he had any insight into why or how the play was constructed the way it was in that age and then what, if any resonance the play had now.

He said that the play definitely reflects some of the turbulence of that decade but it also shows how the system, with all its flaws eventually works.  He pointed out something I'd never really thought of before: there are no villains in the play - only people with sincerely held opposing viewpoints.  Dickinson may have been one of the obstacles for Adams and Franklin on the question of Independence, but he wasn't necessarily a bad guy.   Merrick added that the "dramatic engine" of the play involves the efforts needed to get all of these completing viewpoints close enough so that the Declaration can be signed.  It's about the necessity of compromise, too.  That same "dramatic engine" required some, uh, fudging of the historical accuracy.  Martha Jefferson never visited her husband in the summer of 1776, for example.

By this point a Steve Vinovich had joined us - no baseball t-shirt but I did notice he wasn't wearing shoes.  Nice socks, though - but hey, my inner Trekker was just happy to be the same in a room with a guy who'd been on Deep Space Nine.  Anyway, he plays Franklin and he had no end of praise about how good the musicals' book was.  It could stand alone as a play and so well written that you're not sure the Adams will actually be able to pull it off - you're wondering if the Declaration will ever get signed.

A few minutes later, I got to see more of the cast (and only a little under half of them are from out of town) rehearsing - they were tweaking the details of the transition from the last scene to the curtain call to the bows.

Afterwards Pappas spoke to the cast about the import of the ending of the play.  "It's the most important event in the nation's history," he said.  The fact that it was originally produced during Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement is interwoven into the fabric of the play.  Vietnam is the reason the courier is in the play.  He reports back the very real events of the battlefield to the Congress that sent them there.  Slavery is address and set aside in order to establish Independence of the colonies - and even that part's still playing itself out. "Can you imagine what [South Carolina delegate and slave owner] Edward Rutledge would say about the Obama inauguration?" he asked.

The musical opens today and runs until February 24.