“When you’re doing something so different, but also so familiar like this, it allows for people to experience the same story in a new way,” says Carolee Carmello of the new American Repertory Theater and Roundabout Theatre Company revival of the musical 1776.
The story is that of the founding of America. It is the “familiar.” Written in 1969 by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, the musical focuses on the two months of debates in the Continental Congress preceding the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The “different” to which Carmello is referring is the company performing—one composed entirely of women, non-binary, and trans individuals, featuring many people of color.
Crystal Lucas-Perry leads this diverse, new company as John Adams, the driving force behind the Declaration. Carmello, who appeared in Roundabout’s 1997 revival of the musical as Adams’ wife Abigail, now returns to 1776 as his foe, John Dickinson.
“That’s one of the best and most exciting parts of it…we’re able to shift this gaze, change the lens, and allow people to hear things for the first time while still respecting the history of the piece,” says Lucas-Perry. “It’s allowing America to be in the show versus the show to be about America.”
It hasn’t always been easy taking on this complicated moment in history, portraying this group of men as they commit treason against the British crown while northern and southern delegations try to compromise on a clause condemning slavery, but the performers have found ways into the material. “I can relate to people taking a risk. I can relate to people putting themselves in danger for something greater,” says Lucas-Perry.
“We are America, too, and now we’re also a part of history and you can’t take that away. It’s not about erasing the white men that were there,” says Lucas-Perry. “It’s about including the other people that also existed, too.”
Carmello adds, “Which is kind of the point of theatre…to open up your mind and your heart and let you see things new.”