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FOUNDING AMERICA: ‘1776’ sings through the signing of the Declaration of Independence

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Opera House opens musical about our founding fathers.

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Aside from the fact it’s an election year, American politics have been hoarding a lot of attention lately—and not just from finger-pointing campaign ads or news suits spouting discordance of opinions on bias cable channels. Even Broadway is abuzz with America’s leaders, as seen in Lin Manuel’s Tony-winning “Hamilton,” based on the life of the nation’s first secretary of state. Musical theatre wields a powerful tool in political enlightenment: It manages a simultaneous engagement of art, education and entertainment to help remind audiences the human experience and its foundations are elevated by a multitude of back stories, rich with relatability and history.

GOVERNING FACTORS: Sam Robison plays John Adams in the political musical “1776,” about the founding of America. Photo by Erik Maasch

GOVERNING FACTORS: Sam Robison plays John Adams in the political musical “1776,” about the founding of America. Photo by Erik Maasch

In 1969 Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone debuted “1776,” a story based on the Second Continental Congress signing the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. The plot follows a group of men, who, with contention, passion and patriotic intent, want to lead a nation into freedom and away from the old rule of Great Britain. John Adams, a delegate from Massachusetts, attempts to convince his colleagues, representing 13 colonies, to vote on and sign off on the mandate of America’s independence.

Opera House Theatre Company will open “1776” at Thalian Hall on Wednesday with a heavy-hitting cast of actors, led by Ray Kennedy, who last directed the show for Opera House a decade ago. Also returning for the third time performing the play will be Tony Rivenbark, who in 1975 played Caesar Rodney and in 1996 was John Dickinson. In this production, he will take on diplomat Ben Franklin.

“Franklin is a voice of reason in room full of conflict,” Rivenbark says. “He is a manipulator but does it with charm and he also provides more of the humor in the show.”

In modern-day relation to our political landscape, “1776” showcases a normality of divergent opinions and ideals being rationalized and instituted. However, according to Rivenbark, the script shows a sense of compromise that helped move the nation forward rather than divide it. More so, it illuminates the founding fathers as distinguished, even in the midst of dissonance.

“They were not all-wise or demigods, but intelligent and learned men who developed a new form of government for an entirely new nation,” Rivenbark says. “Currently, those kind of leaders are few and far between in this state and in Washington.”

“They also loved and understood that serious, substantive, fact-filled debate helped to find middle ground and move things forward,” says Jeff Phillips, who plays Edward Rutledge of SC. “They were scheming. They were ambitious. But I truly think that they put the interest of the country first.”

It’s something Sam Robison—who is playing the lead character in the show, John Adams—notes as evident in the way American politics was once treated. In 1776, as Adams is trying to convince his peers to sign off on the declaration, his rival, John Dickinson, played by Jason Hatfield, is against it. But he isn’t blocking Adams out of spite or for a political party. It’s from a true, firm concern of protecting lives against the American Revolution.

“Dickinson honestly believes a revolution would needlessly get tens of thousands of people killed,” Robison tells. “Every character on that stage has their own specific reasons for doing what they have chosen to do. I truly wish our representatives today did as much.”

Though set in Independence Hall, and with period costumes, the play takes creative liberties on what may have happened a few centuries ago. (Ed. note: Critics of the play have disputed the factual representation of Stone’s text.) It also depicts Adams as disliked by his counterparts; though, he was actually respected. Just as well, Hatfield points out how research reveals Dickinson as someone other than what audiences see.

“His motivations in the play are not entirely fleshed out,” Hatfield says, “but Dickinson opposes a break with England. However, doing some digging has shown that he . . . was a Quaker, and was very much in support of non-violent solutions to the issue between the U.S. and England. So, he opposes war but doesn’t necessarily support slavery, so there is a strange set of bedfellows at various points of debate in the show.”

Character studies come through in song, with Lorene Walsh leading a 12-piece orchestra. Themes of slavery and triangular trade are exposed in the text, not only with Jefferson’s promise to free his slaves (which history shows he did not do), but in Rutledge’s “Molasses to Rum,” sung by Phillips.

“Upon first read, I was a little concerned about accepting the role,” Phillips tells. “But the book and lyrics are so brilliantly written and really expose the hypocrisy on both sides of the issue, which we can see on the political spectrum today on many issues.”

Ideas of fear mongering naturally emanate between the words of “1776,” but not because that’s what our founding fathers utilized for their own power. It just happens to be a stark reminder to how politicians have evolved.

“A distressing truth about society in America today, is that we seem to only be united when we have a common enemy,” Hatfield continues. “You don’t see a lot of positivity or constructive press in the various news outlets, regardless of political leaning. . . . the show can take some artistic licenses. There were no lobbyists or special interest groups in this time. No Super Pacs, as it were. You had people who were experiencing injustices at the hands of the people who ruled them, and they played a game of political chess to make sincere changes to the country.”

July 6-10, 15-17, and 22-24.
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
(910) 632-2285 •
Tickets: $32

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