Since we have democracy, we need arguments to make it work. These long-dead Athenians voted only after discussion in the assembly; Democratic theory has always maintained that good decisions emerge from intellectual struggle. So it’s important to ask – how’s it going? In two recent shows in New York, the theater explores the usefulness of political arguments: A deliberately astringent Broadway staging of the musical 1776 takes a lopsided look at our nation’s founding conversation and the Off-Broadway play Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge” casts suspicion on the whole confrontational mechanism of the debate. In both we see crucial issues – the same issue in a way – being obliterated and avoided through rhetoric. Persuasion seems impossible and public dialogue sounds corrupt. At least the language sings.
It’s a tricky thing to revive the 1969 musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, which originally starred a convention of white men (certainly the apt catchphrase) in breeches. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Dickinson, et al. in sweaty Philadelphia over whether to declare independence, and the climax – a victory of compromise over ideals – comes when Jefferson is persuaded to remove a condemnation of slavery from the declaration. (Dramatically, this climax is a dud; historically, it could hardly be more important.) Only two women are allowed to say anything at all: Abigail Adams, who texts her husband to cheer him up, and Martha Jefferson, who inspires her husband’s , uh, feather. There’s enough nostalgic love for the show (the 1972 film was shown in US history classes for a time) that many in cinemas wanted to “solve” it. A colour-blind, modern-dressed 2016 encore! Production sparked affection but also stumbled on conceptual problems caused, for example, by a black actress playing Martha. The topic of Sally Hemings literally can’t stop coming up.
The current version’s directors, Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page (who is also the show’s choreographer), address the musical’s odd visuals and gender inequalities by staging it with a diverse cast of female, non-binary, and transgender people Cast cast adds a few stern looks when the hypocrisy—Jefferson speaks of equality—becomes too much. Playing Adams with a rueful sense of command, Crystal Lucas-Perry sighs, “By God, I did This Congress”, with a complex expression of tiredness; With this stance, Paul says, the production intends “to view the story as a constraint versus a corroborating myth.” It is certainly a dilemma, especially since the production at the American Airlines Theater – coincidentally? – suggests that even changing the composition of our governing body will result in the same injustices, horse-trading and moral capitulation. Otherwise, the adaptations to the underlying musical appear modest: arrangements for some songs emphasize the chorale; one of the darker numbers (“The Egg”) rocks now; and the creators have added lines from a real Abigail Adams letter admonishing John to “remember the ladies.” The cast also brings about some pretty nice musical changes – for example, the duets of Abigail (Allyson Kaye Daniel) and John, reset for two female voices, are newly lush and graceful.
The creative team used a mix of strategies from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which famously cast white Founding Fathers with black and brown actors, and Daniel Fish’s realistic staging of Oklahoma!, in which the characters acknowledged the violence in the film script and slowed the show’s pace, dampening general state-founding glee. Crucially, however, the Edwards Stone musical doesn’t have the same bones as these two landmarks of musical theater. “Hamilton” applied his diversifying methods to every part of himself, including his creation and his sound; In “Oklahoma!” the source material already contained a rich vein of doubts about cowboy ethics. How do these two techniques – reshaping and ironizing – deal with “1776”? Well, when it comes to voicing criticism, our own power to undo disbelief takes over after just a few minutes. Spend just one scene with Patrena Murray as Ben Franklin and adapt, so the subversion of the actor’s identity quickly wears off. As for the stern looks, the angrier the company gets, the weirder it gets. A sour look is one thing, long looks at the audience played by the ensemble can unintentionally become funny. They seem so crazy about putting on this show they decided to do!
The directors are ready to dissect and deconstruct, but the show initially hampers them by being too limp to use in combat: “1776” has a very goofy first act that alternates between bluffs, chatty exchanges and zany songs , which should be maintained entertain us. The act ends with a post-coital Martha Jefferson (Eryn LeCroy) suggestively singing “He Plays the Violin,” which just isn’t the sort of thing to maintain a Brechtian attitude about — even with Jen Schriever doing the lighting very Stark and Scott Pask do the set with faded curtains very grumpy. It should be a free-running scene, especially as LeCroy has a huge voice built for light opera and capable of breathtaking acrobatics. However, Paul and Page cannot turn away from their persistent solemnity to address this kind of stupidity, so they crush all the jokes. Those moments in Act I are neither politically torn (it’s still a sex song about a violin!) nor funny.
In the more substantial second half, the production finds firmer ground and the musical climaxes with “Melasses to Rum,” a furious indictment of Northern hypocrisy, rousingly sung by Sara Porkalob. Hidden beneath his frock coat, the final part of the musical is very angry, and this is the fuse that brings out the ensemble’s obvious sense of mission. Stone put a lot of good analysis into the book: that slavery was the brittle board that would sink the ship, that women were forgotten because they weren’t in the Chamber, while Revolutionary soldiers could be forgotten even if they were. A courier from George Washington’s desperate front channels a dead boy: “Momma, hey, Momma, come looking for me.” The anthem is performed by Salome B. Smith, who sings the walls down while delivering the best argument of the production. Stern looks don’t get us very far, politically or artistically, but the show’s musical highlights still have power: They get the signatures; they gather the troops; they ring.
Meanwhile, at the Public Theater downtown, we find ourselves at a peak for James Baldwin’s voice in the theater: Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge is indeed one of them two Productions this season using the language of his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley, Jr. at the Cambridge Union as lyrics. (The other is by the group American Vicarious.) This spring, The Vineyard released Lessons in Survival: 1971, also a literal Baldwin experience, then an extended conversation with poet and activist Nikki Giovanni. It’s no wonder theater makers flock to Baldwin. The tenor of his speech is both rousing and operatic: his level of expression is so intoxicatingly high that it convinces you for a moment that this is what American conversation sounds like.
The sleek Elevator Repair Service production, a fast-paced 60-minute show directed by John Collins, largely sticks to the recording of the event itself. First, two Union Debate Society students (Gavin Price and Christopher-Rashee Stevenson) beat the motion “The American Dream comes at the expense of the American Negro” and reject it. Then, standing at a simple lectern, Baldwin (Greig Sargeant, who conceived the production) argues in the affirmative, pointing to the destruction of both black and white America at the hands of white supremacy. Speaking in the days after the Alabama riots, he said, “It takes a terrible thing to happen to a human being, like a cattle prod to a woman’s breasts. What happened to the woman is cruel. What happens to the man who does it is, in some ways, much, much worse. . . . Their moral life was destroyed by the plague called color.”