LCP BLOG: History blazes back to life, led by two fearless women.
When in the course of human events — and musical-theater history, too — an idea gets repeated, it can still be revolutionary. At present, Broadway audiences are flipping their powdered wigs for Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about the resourceful and rowdy men and women who steered the United States through its formative days as a nation. But it’s not the first time that theatergoers have swooned for founding fathers who sing, dance and argue in rhyme: Before Hamilton, there was 1776, Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s Tony Award-winning musical that dramatized the efforts of the Second Continental Congress to ratify the Declaration of Independence. (Spoiler alert: It passes.)
Like “Hamilton” before it, “1776” (which had its Broadway debut in 1969) was a cultural phenomenon with fans across the country and in the Oval Office. Many of these super-fans of 1776 are featured in the Lake Country Playhouse production, now playing through July 23. We recently sat down with two of the women behind the production of 1776 - director Rebecca Schilling and music director Cathy Pfeiler. Read what they had to say on 1776, its importance, and its relevance.
How did you discover 1776?
Becky: This musical was first presented to me by Production Manager, Sharon Jahneke, as an opportunity to direct a show that is rarely done, and which involves a very large chorus of men. As she had already done quite a lot of homework in contacting many of the men we had both worked with in the past to get a sense of their interest, it was evident that this was a “bucket list” show for many of them. Upon watching the 1972 movie version of the musical, I could quickly understand why, and I became very interested in the opportunity to recreate it on the Playhouse stage.
Cathy: I first discovered the musical 1776 as a college student. I found the music to be witty and provocative, like Hamilton, but for the 70's. And in the era of Hair, it was certainly different. I continued to love the show but finding a cast of 22 middle-aged men and only two women was a challenge most theaters passed on. Finally my dream is coming true!
Today we think of 1776 as being in the pantheon of great musicals, but in the 1960s, the show was so unconventional that Sherman Edwards had a hard time getting it produced. “Some of the biggest [names] in the theater,” he recalled, “looked at me and said, ‘What, a costume musical? A costume, historical musical?’” Do you remember your initial reaction to 1776 and the idea of a period, costume musical?
Becky: I love a period, costume musical! So, upon being given notice that I would, in fact, be directing this production, I immediately began working with our costume mistress, Heather Patterson, and hair and wig mistress, Nancy Hurd, regarding the required costumes of the late 18th century and enough variety of wigs to cover all 22 men’s roles, as well as 2 women’s roles. Knowing that LCP did not have such costumes in stock, I feared that this was not going to be an easy undertaking. Heather did her best to look at many options, and sent me information on a regular basis regarding vests and the frock coats of the era. Unfortunately, the cost involved in purchasing or renting such costumes is exorbitant, and well beyond the budget with which I was presented. Fortunately, being a costume designer myself, I decided to go about creating the costumes from scratch to fit each gentleman in the cast according to his character. After spending an evening with Nancy going through LCP’s wig collection, I was relieved to find that we already possessed most of what we needed, and we required the purchase of only a few, in particular that of Benjamin Franklin, who is, of course, the most recognized character in the show. I began purchasing fabrics even before we held auditions, and, in fact, most of the men are wearing coats and vests created from re-purposed drapery and tablecloth fabric purchased at Goodwill.
Tell us about your background research for 1776 and how it pertains to your role in the production.
Becky: As director, I felt that I really needed to get a good sense of the flow of the show from the movie version, as I had never seen the production on stage and had no other knowledge of the production. Throughout the winter months, I watched the movie several times, often pausing the television to take pictures with my tablet directly from the TV screen to study. I studied the costumes, the wigs, the faces, the scenery and the props over and over, until I felt that I really knew the “look” I was hoping to achieve. I also studied the way the actors portrayed each of the characters to prepare myself for the auditions, and I chose to have the actors read for several of the more interesting and pivotal of those characters. Another great resource I used was the movie, John Adams, which was presented as a 7-part miniseries on HBO and dove much deeper into the entire first 50 years of the United States as a new nation and John Adams’ role in it.
Did you consult with anyone – historians, librarians, etc. about U.S. history in preparation for 1776?
Becky: No, but I found it extremely interesting that each of the men and women cast in the production did extensive research into each of their own characters, and I was presented, almost nightly, with a new story by at least one of them of the legacy their character left behind as a founding father.
When you direct, do you usually steep yourself in as many materials as possible, including watching videos, interviews, etc., or do you prefer to rely on the script and your own imagination?
Becky: I prefer to watch videos of the most professional and memorable version of the production so that I can gain as much information about their successful rendition as possible. Then, as I am hearing the script being presented by the cast in rehearsals, I prefer to add my own insights into how some of the dialogue should be presented to strengthen what the actor already brings to it.
Cathy: I have always been fascinated with American history and the humanizing of these men we can only imagine from our history has been so fulfilling!
1776 became something of a lightning rod for politicians. Vice President Hubert Humphrey said, “This is how history ought to be taught,” and in February 1970, President Nixon invited the show to play the White House—making it the first full-scale Broadway musical ever to do so. What do you think musicals like 1776 and Hamilton have in common that we can learn from?
Becky: Unfortunately, I haven’t had an opportunity to see Hamilton, but clearly both of these productions have been points of discussion regarding our First Amendment rights to free speech. After winning a Tony for best musical in 1969, staffers brought the Broadway cast in for the White House presentation, and President Nixon actually pressured the producer of the 1972 film version, Jack L. Warner, to remove the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” from the film and to shred the original copy, as he didn’t care for the portrayal of conservatives as wealthy, power-hungry gentlemen. Fortunately, the films editor secretly kept the cut song’s film intact for many years, and, in 2002, a newly edited version of the movie was released with the original number restored.
One last question: Stephen Sondheim has said, “Know where musical theater comes from, and care about where it comes from.” Why do you feel that sense of history is important? What do you feel we lose if we stop performing, and listening to, great musicals from the past?
Becky: Music and storytelling are a natural part of history, no matter what part of the world you come from, and no matter where you go. Throughout our lives, music and stories teach us of what came before, of what great accomplishments have been made and of what tragedies have taken place, and we use that knowledge to give us direction into the future so that we can build on those accomplishments, and so that we don’t repeat those same tragedies. Musicals from the past ARE a part of that history, and it’s important to keep those stories going into the future. Musical theater is such a brilliant means of presenting history within a beautifully scripted 2-and-a-half-hour presentation that leaves a mark on our brains when we leave the theater. When we hear and see a musical presentation that causes us to feel incredible emotion, it inspires us, and that’s something that stays with us for a very long time, and it’s also something we want to share with others.
Cathy: A sense of history is so important, and drawing parallels to our volatile present gives me a degree of hope. America has been through difficult times before and knowing that statesmen from the 1700's went through difficult times too, gives me added faith that we will survive this too!
1776 runs through July 23, 2017. For more information or tickets to the production, click HERE.