New York City Center appeared to be taking a page out of Hamilton’s book when it announced that the revival of 1776 would be a “completely multi-ethnic production.” The musical about America’s Founding Fathers is receiving a concert staging this month as part of the Encores! series.
Who better to take on this task than Tony-winning director Garry Hynes, the woman behind the gender-bending DruidShakespeare? In that acclaimed production, Shakespeare’s famous kings were played by women.
“I don’t think you can do a musical or any other piece of theatre now and simply have an all-white company of actors simply because they were all white 400 years ago,” says Hynes. “We are performing in the present, and the present doesn’t look remotely like a bunch of white people. Therefore, I think theatre is at the point where it has become impossible not to take this into account—and rightly so.”
The Broadway original, which debuted in 1969, was cast entirely with Caucasian actors, reflecting the actual ethnic make-up of its characters, historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, Edward Rutledge and John Adams. Last September, Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel told Playbill that he wasn’t interested in going down that path.
“To do justice to the first,” said Viertel, “it only seemed logical to celebrate one of the things that has finally taken Broadway by storm, thanks in great part to Hamilton—making the event on stage as diverse as the America we live in.”
But Hynes points out that 1776, which features a book by Peter Stone and music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, is a very different musical from Hamilton. “It was a complex decision,” explains the director. “It required an enormous amount of debate. Hamilton isn’t a direct equivalent because the music [reflects] the way it looks. Whereas that’s not the case here.”
Yet Hynes has relished the challenge at hand. She also points out that “audiences are ahead of us.” The director recalls that with DruidShakespeare, the gender-neutral casting turned out to be one of the least-commented-on aspects of the show. Ultimately, it comes down to talent and casting whoever is best for the part.
“Any play that’s classical-themed can completely welcome ‘color-blind’ casting,” agrees Santino Fontana, who plays John Adams in the revival. “The essence of the character can be played by anybody. That’s smart.”
Nikki Renée Daniels, who plays Martha Jefferson, says she never imagined she’d be performing a lead role in 1776. “I imagine I must be the first African-American Martha Jefferson to play this anywhere,” says the actress. “It’s really cool.”
Daniels points out that casting actors of color as white historical figures adds another dimension to our understanding of the show and America’s history. “In some ways it also makes it a little more uncomfortable to watch,” she says. “When you’re watching someone sing ‘Molasses to Rum’ or there’s a slave auction and the actor who says, ‘That’s enough Rutledge’ is a black actor, it just resonates that much more.”
The song “Molasses to Rum” in 1776 addresses the hypocrisy of the north regarding slave trade. “Shall we dance to the sound of the profitable pound in molasses and rum and slaves,” writes lyricist Edwards.
“It makes it a little more interesting,” continues Daniels. “You see them discussing slavery and how it’s going to play in the Declaration of Independence…and to see African-American actors playing these historical figures is very cool.”
Daniels, who has also seen Hamilton and is an avowed fan, says there's no better time to re-think the way we're recounting historical stories. Her comments seem particularly poignant in light of recent controversies concerning the lack of diversity on major stages and movie screens. “On the first day of rehearsal we did a read-through, and just to see this multi-racial cast coming together to tell this iconic American story—it felt so relevant,” says Daniels.
1776 will be presented March 30-April 3 at New York City Center. Click here for ticket information.
Olivia Clement is a news and features writer at Playbill.com, specializing in the wonderful and expansive world of Off-Broadway. Follow her on Twitter @oliviaclement.