Signal Ensemble's '1776' A Remarkable Off-Loop Achievement
OK, class, it's time for a little history lesson. Question—in what year were war, sex, money, race and, above all, politics at the forefront of this nation's debates, both formal and informal? Let's see. 2008? Certainly. 1776? Ah, absolutely.
And now for those bonus points—what about 1969? Why, yes, of course! All of the above. It may be safe to say that these very subjects have formed the core of our now emotional, now intellectual national discourse every year since Europeans first descended on this continent some four hundred plus years ago. Which makes the sui generis 1969 Broadway musical 1776 a great choice for revival almost anytime, but especially during a hard-fought Presidential primary season like the one facing us now.
Chicago's Signal Ensemble Theatre has mounted a finely-wrought revival of this Tony-winning show in the main performance space at the Chopin Theatre on the near northwest side, running now through March 1. It is the company's first musical, and what a stellar, brave and bold way for it to enter the vibrant off-Loop musical theater scene!
For you see, 1776 is a musical like no other. Impressively winning the Best Musical Tony over seriously stiff competition from Hair, Zorba and Promises, Promises, and featuring such soon-to-be-better-known actors as William Daniels, Paul Hecht, Howard Da Silva and Ken Howard (not to mention marking the Broadway debut of the very young Betty Buckley), the musical is the only one ever written by Sherman Edwards, a pianist, history teacher and Broadway actor who managed to unify his talents into a score both peppy and lyrical, both kitschy and complex. The book is by Peter Stone, the highly successful bookwriter of Woman of the Year, Grand Hotel, The Will Rogers Follies and My One and Only, among others. Among the many balls that juggler Stone kept in the air with this script is the famous, long sequence in the first act (is it 45 minutes?) in which not a twitter or tap of music is heard. "What sort of musical IS this?," one wonders. Well, a confident and fun one, maybe just slightly old-fashioned at times, but still a marvel of theatrical craft.
Ostensibly about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the show is really about how that event came to be, or rather, very nearly didn't come to be. It is to the credit of bookwriter Stone and the current production's director, Ronan Marra, that there is a great deal of suspense surrounding an event that everyone knows WILL ultimately happen. (We are kept informed of the march toward independence by a prominent day-calendar, torn off to reveal the progression of time toward, now what was the date again, class?—ah, yes, July 4.)
It is the how, rather than the what, that keeps the audience engaged. For regional squabbles, personality disputes, philosophical and moral differences, constant reminders of war, and the forming and breaking of political alliances all take place during the evening, and it is no small achievement that the comings and goings are crystal clear. That legendary heat coming from Philadelphia that spring and summer were generated not only by the sun and by the debates inside Independence Hall, but by the very soul and fiber of the members of the Continental Congress, taking their lives into their hands while struggling to make sense of how their various lives could have led them to chart a course toward an unmistakably historic event.
And they are all here, our founding fathers in all their foibles and humanity, portrayed at the Chopin Theatre by the very best male talent in Chicago's current off-Loop musical theater community. One distinctive about this show is that the ratio of men to women in the cast is about two dozen to two, or just about the inverse of the gender ratio in another Tony-winning musical, Nine. Another way that 1776 is unique is that none of the male characters are conventional leading men—everyone is a character actor here. And what characters! Poets and preachers, lawyers and landowners—John Hancock and John Adams of Massachusetts, John Dickinson and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania (famously on opposite sides of the independence question), Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia—the list goes on. Even General George Washington looms large, albeit through written dispatches from the warfront.
At the risk of leaving out a deserving name amongst a really well-oiled and richly-acting male ensemble, I must mention Phillip Winston's petulant and strong John Adams, and the John Dickinson of Jon Steinhagen, every bit Winston's equal despite having no solo musical numbers assigned to his character (are you keeping score of the strangeness of the material?). Also, fine work was turned in on opening night by Vincent J. Lonergan and Ted Hoerl as the older men with famous quotes to utter (Franklin's "all hang together" quip and Stephen Hopkins' desire to behold "each man's face as he signs"). And again, excellent were Thomas M. Shea (the portly and energetic Samuel Chase), Joseph Stearns (the sprightly and magnetic Richard Henry Lee), Steve Welsh (the noble and dying Caesar Rodney) and Jeremy Trager (showy and fearless in the potential booby-trap that is the role of South Carolina's difficult Edward Rutledge).
Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to BroadwayWorld.com since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as a performer, teacher and writer is centered at Paul W. Thompson Music, located in Chicago���s historic Fine Arts Building, where he teaches the great songs of Broadway to the next generation of musical theater performers. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Paul was raised in a family of professional musicians and teachers, steeped in classical, gospel, country, pop, sacred and show music. Dubbed a ���thin, winsome lad��� at the age of 13 by a critic for the Nashville Banner, he earned two degrees in musical theater (a B.F.A. with Honors from Baylor University and an M.M. from the University of Miami, Florida), plus an M.B.A. with Distinction from DePaul University. Paul���s memberships include Actors��� Equity Association, the American Guild of Musical Artists, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (proud voter for the Grammy Awards!), the National Association of Teachers of Singing and New York���s Drama League.|
Moving easily between the worlds of classical music, religious music, classic pop and musical theater, Paul has appeared onstage or in the orchestra pit in concerts, musicals, operettas and operas in 30 states and in Europe, in a career spanning more than 35 years. His Chicagoland stage credits include ���Forever Plaid��� at the Royal George Theater and twenty mainstage productions at Light Opera Works. Paul joined the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1995 (he was Tenor I Section Leader for four years and sings on two Grammy-winning recordings), and is one of Chicago���s foremost liturgical singers, marking 20 years as a member of the choir at St. James Cathedral (Episcopal) in 2011.He has composed and arranged a number of anthems, hymns and songs for worship and concert use, and collaborates on the creation of new works of musical theater. Paul can be found on Monday nights watching showtune videos at the world-famous Sidetrack nightclub, the inspiration for his weekly column, ���The Showtune Mosh Pit.��� His proudest achievement is that he has seen the original Broadway production of every Tony Award-winning Best Musical since ���Cats.��� No, really. Since ���Cats!���