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The Power of Putting New Faces on Our Founding Fathers in '1776'

By: Sarah Rebell
Date: Oct 06, 2022


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Carolee Carmello and Allyson Kaye Daniel on starring in the reimagined Broadway revival


In Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of 1776 at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre, a 246-year-old letter stops the show. In the middle of "Till Then," a duet between John Adams and his wife Abigail, she urges him to "remember the ladies," warning that "if particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

Although Abigail Adams wrote those words in 1776, they garner wild applause in today's post-Roe v. Wade climate. The letter wasn't quoted in Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone's original musical. It's a powerful addition by co-directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, whose gender-expansive production features a diverse cast of women, trans and nonbinary performers playing all the parts, including our nation's Founding Fathers. By reexamining gender constructs as well as racial ones, this revival, first seen at American Repertory Theatre earlier this year, reconsiders how we view the figures who shaped our political past and present.

1776 depicts the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, exploring the humanity and fallibility of the Founding Fathers as they grapple with war, political differences and what freedom means in a country built on slavery. The show premiered in 1969, winning the Tony Award for best musical, was adapted into a 1972 film and was last revived on Broadway 25 years ago.

Ever since Hamilton debuted in 2015 featuring actors of color playing our Founding Fathers, comparisons to 1776 are ubiquitous. In an interview last summer, Lin-Manuel Miranda acknowledged that "1776 certainly paved the way for Hamilton." At this point, the musicals seem to have a symbiotic relationship of sorts, with one show's innovations inspiring the other's. Hamilton undoubtedly influenced this reimagining of 1776.

The radical casting is particularly compelling in the case of Abigail Adams, who's played by Allyson Kaye Daniel, a Black performer making her Broadway debut. "The awesome thing about being so different from Abigail is that no one is expecting me to be much like her anyway," says Daniel. "I can create Abigail as I want her to be," as a "very intellectual and poised woman, but a badass!"

For Daniel, reciting Abigail Adams' fiery missive helps her bring her own modern-day perspective to the role. "When I speak those words, they are not only for the women Abigail was speaking of in 1776. The words are for Black women, women of color, queer women, queer men, nonbinary and trans folks and everyone whose voice is still stifled today… Abigail was brave and revolutionary to include those thoughts in a letter to her husband at that time. I want to be just as brave and revolutionary in my interpretation."

"Theatre is artwork of its time," says Carolee Carmello, who plays delegate John Dickinson in the current production, but portrayed Abigail Adams in the 1997 Broadway revival. She believes the addition of the letter "speaks to the audience of today. It's also coming from a Black woman, and it feels even more important that it's coming out of her voice."

When Carmello played Abigail Adams a quarter century ago, she prepared for the role by reading the couple's letters to one another. "It was an incredible relationship that, I think, might have been pretty rare at the time," she says. "Honestly, it's probably still pretty rare!" The opportunity to portray a Founding Father this time around has been enlightening. "I hear lines that I said on stage or listened to on stage years ago, and they sound completely different now," Carmello says.

She points to a declaration she makes as Dickinson in the song "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men." In stark contrast to Abigail Adams' progressive plea for inclusion, the conservative Dickinson states: "Most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor. And that is why they will follow us to the right."

The number has been controversial since the original production. Then President Richard Nixon infamously and successfully pressured the producers to cut the song from the film. (It has since been restored.) Still, it never jumped out at Carmello when she listened to the lyrics from her dressing room during the last revival. Post-Trump presidency, she hears the words differently.

"The fact that all these people from low-income, struggling communities were following this rich, elite New Yorker who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, I just didn't understand it. Now that line really hits home for me," she says. "They think if he can get there, so can I."

In reality, Dickinson was not as extreme as his character in 1776. Like his nemesis John Adams, Dickinson viewed his own wife, Polly, as his partner and intellectual equal. In fact, he was the first individual to use gender-inclusive language—"person" instead of "man"—in an official American document. So, while John Adams dismissed his wife's plea for recognition (his official response was "I cannot help but laugh ," ouch), Dickinson actually did remember the ladies when it came time to craft the Articles of Confederation, the precursor to the Constitution, even though his version wasn't ratified.

That makes Carmello's portrayal all the more poignant. "One of the great things about this version of the show is that we start to see things from a different perspective," Carmello explains. "You see people of color talking about slavery and you see women speaking from a man's perspective. You see me, a liberal-minded woman, speaking from a conservative man's point of view."

Both Daniel and Carmello hope this revival will feel welcoming to those excluded from the traditional narrative about our country's birth. "The whole point of this show is to be inclusive and to lift the identities of the people who were not represented in the founding myth," says Daniel. "There is so much more that can and needs to be done. This 1776 revival cannot possibly cover all that work, but it's a start."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for 1776Go here to browse our latest discounts for dance, theatre and concerts.

Sarah Rebell (she/her) is an arts journalist and musical theatre writer. Bylines include American Theatre, Hey Alma, Howlround, The Interval and TheaterMania. She is a National Critics Institute Fellow. Follow her at @SarahRebell. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: The cast of Roundabout Theatre's Company's revival of 1776 on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sarah Rebell (she/her) is an arts journalist and musical theatre writer. Bylines include American Theatre, Hey Alma, Howlround, The Interval and TheaterMania. She is a National Critics Institute Fellow. Follow her at @SarahRebell. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.