‘1776’ musical about Founding Fathers puts spotlight on Adams, Franklin
By Lou Fancher
Lest we in 2018 forget that tumult if not tweets have long been features of American democracy in action, there are musicals like “1776.”
Based on the book by Peter Stone, with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and words drawn in part from historical records, “1776” tells the story of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin cajoling and convincing Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence on the path to gaining American colonies’ support for a resolution to break free from British rule.
The 2 1/2 hour musical directed by Daren AC Carollo and presented by Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre runs through Jan. 28 at Livermore’s Bankhead Theater.
Actor DC Scarpelli plays Franklin, who among the historical figures was the only Founding Father whose international celebrity Scarpelli says gave him “the freedom to be unfettered by convention in his speech and actions.” The role is a joy, with Franklin presenting the zeitgeist of the era and —unbeknownst to scientist, philosopher, diplomat and polymath Franklin —foreshadowing the country’s political climate. “He knows how to play the game, both in terms of manipulating people to his side and in terms of (sometimes devastating) compromise,” Scarpelli said.
If Franklin was astute at reading personalities and cultural undercurrents, he was also the ultimate pragmatist. Unlike Alexander Hamilton, featured in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s current, enormously successful rap musical “Hamilton,” Franklin was not a hot head. “He’s devoted to his cause, but he realizes that overly impassioned action won’t lead to any result he’s after.”
What the political leaders that summer of 1776 were after was freedom for all Americans. Ironically, because many were slave owners, that was to include the Africans torn from their native land and brought to America as slaves.
“We had a chance to begin this country by washing our hands of the stain of slavery. Why didn’t we?” asks Scarpelli. “How many Americans, how many of the Continental Congress, were directly or indirectly complicit? It’s been 240 years, and institutional racism is the issue at the forefront of The American Dilemma.”
Stone picked up Sherman’s project and began writing the book “1776” in the 1960’s: the Tony Award-winning Broadway show debuted in 1969, during the Vietnam War. Carollo said he has directed the story as if it’s being told for the first time: Eschewing updates and references to modern-day presidents and politicians.
“Theater is supposed to be an escape and a journey. I wanted people to leave 2018 and enter 1776,” he said. He has seen “Hamilton” six times and notes the parallels: Adam’s passion matches Hamilton’s; both men are largely selfless as they drive for what’s best for the country.
Even so, he can’t help but note features that please 21st century reality-show sensibilities: Two strong, independent female characters; a script based on primary source material; a set that mimics the warm, muggy room in which overworked, intelligent but flawed men labored to find agreement over issues of justice and liberty, among other examples. “We even painted the walls the actual colors and designed it the same cramped size. It’s difficult to walk around and not bump into anybody.”
Audiences may notice the emphasis on dialogue: “1776” has only about 30 minutes of music. But what music is there is period-specific: marches, waltzes, minuets and folk tunes played mostly by harpsichord, pianoforte, drums, strings, and brass.
Scarpelli said imagining a role he’d want to play in a musical based on the current administration is “beyond nauseating.” But if it were a Greek tragedy, he says, “I would want to play the deus ex machina that tells the audience they have a second chance: that the clock can be rolled back, damage undone, and amends made.”
He said he hopes in the meantime that people remember what America is truly about: “The joy and industriousness of inclusivity, unity, forward thinking, and preservation of the freedoms bestowed upon man by nature.”