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ART’s ‘1776’ aims to give history a shake

"1776" co-directors Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page consult during a recent rehearsal.Nile Scott Studios

Diane Paulus has a confession. As artistic director of Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, she’s steeped in the history of the American musical, teaching a class on the genre at Harvard and directing shows like “Porgy and Bess” and “Pippin” on Broadway. But she knew little, she says, about Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s “1776,” which depicts the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, beyond the fact that it beat out “Hair” for best musical at the Tony Awards in 1969 and that some people refer to it as “their generation’s ‘Hamilton.’ ”

But when Paulus sat down to read the “1776″ script — after a producer inquired about her interest in directing a revival — she was “riveted” by the story in which John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and the other founders debate whether to declare independence from England. It captures Adams’s relentless efforts to coax the others out of their dithering and the devastating compromises that were struck to make their vote unanimous.

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However, it was during the last quarter of the show when Paulus’s eyes were really opened. “You get to this dramatic moment at the end when the unanimous vote breaks down around the anti-slavery clause that was penned by Jefferson into the original draft of the Declaration, where the slave trade is called ‘an execrable commerce’ and an ‘assemblage of horrors,’ ” Paulus says. “And then it gets crossed out in an effort to make a compromise and for this decision for revolution to be unanimous among the Colonies. I read this and thought, ‘Why did I never learn about this clause?’ ”

Those questions had Paulus looking anew “at my own personal understanding of American history and reckoning with the myths that I felt I was taught,” she says. “So I got very passionate about how a [new] production could contribute to a reckoning and an examination of our history and where we are in America today.”

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That’s the foundation for Paulus and co-director Jeffrey L. Page’s new production of “1776,” co-presented by the American Repertory Theater and the Roundabout Theatre Company in a world premiere at the Loeb Drama Center from May 17 to July 24. In the fall, the show will transfer to Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre before embarking on a 16-city national tour in 2023.

As Paulus read the script, she’d already been imagining the characters being played by actors whose faces didn’t resemble those on marble statues or American currency, a concept that “Hamilton” had helped pioneer with its cast of Black and Hispanic performers playing the Founding Fathers. Indeed, this “1776″ features a racially diverse group of actors who identify as female, nonbinary and trans, including Crystal Lucas-Perry as John Adams, Patrena Murray as Benjamin Franklin, Elizabeth A. Davis as Thomas Jefferson, Liz Mikel as John Hancock, and Sara Porkalob as South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge.

Crystal Lucas-Perry, who plays John Adams, is shown in a rehearsal for "1776."Nile Scott Studios

“I believe there’s something to be gained when we reexamine history in this way, by putting faces and bodies onstage that were not a part of the traditional makeup of this show,” Lucas-Perry says. “When we shift the gaze so you see a different perspective, we start to hear things that we didn’t hear before and see things that maybe we didn’t want to see but that have always been in the story from the beginning.”

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When Page hears Lucas-Perry, as Adams, say, “And when we dared stand up like men,” it’s a reminder of all the people who were denied the freedoms and liberties that were promised in America’s founding documents — and how women, people of color, and those from other marginalized communities continue to fight for these freedoms today.

“Every time I hear these words, I get goosebumps,” says Page, who is also the show’s choreographer. “Poetically, to hear a Black woman speak those words, it’s powerful to me. It gives it new life. And it’s empowering when you can turn your head and see something new about history that you’ve never seen before.”

The costumes draw inspiration from both the Revolutionary era and each actor’s personal style. The set design isn’t a literal replica of Independence Hall, but “gestures” toward the time period. New song arrangements and orchestrations lean into the rock and folk roots of Sherman Edwards, who got his start as a Brill Building songwriter (”1776″ was his only musical). Because direct address is a hallmark of the musical’s book, Paulus says, “We’re embracing a frame that this is a cast of artists alive today in 2022 that are stepping into the shoes of the Founding Fathers and telling us this story.”

For the movement and choreography, Page says he’s thinking: “How can I re-imagine gestures to enliven the text with the present moment?”

When the pandemic shut down theaters in 2020, rehearsals for the planned ART production of “1776″ that spring were scrapped for a two-week Zoom workshop. That gave the cast and creative team the opportunity to hear from teachers and professors, some from Harvard. One of them, Vincent Brown, spoke to the cast about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and commented that “history is a predicament,” a phrase that stuck with Paulus and Page. “This idea of history not being something that’s clear or linear or that we just get from a textbook or that relies on affirming myths,” she says. “And we shouldn’t run away from the predicament but instead embrace it because it will fortify you if you can take it on.”

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While much of the dialogue between John Adams and his wife, Abigail, is drawn from their real-life letters to each other, Abigail’s famous words “Remember the ladies” — urging her husband not to forget about women in creating a framework for a new nation — didn’t appear in the show.

So the team got permission from the Edwards and Stone estates to integrate her quotation into “1776″ for the first time. “Abigail Adams said in March 1776, ‘All men would be tyrants if they could’ unless you ‘remember the ladies,’ ” Paulus says. “And I just thought, oh my God, that’s staggering given what’s going on right now with the Supreme Court.”

As for that other musical about the Founding Fathers set during the Revolutionary period, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has acknowledged the debt “Hamilton” owes to “1776″ by making the founders “accessible” and “human.” And “Hamilton” no doubt blazed a trail for shows like “1776″ to cast people who don’t look like the founders and to “hold a mirror up to what the world is today,” Lucas-Perry says.

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In the lead-up to the blistering second-act song “Molasses to Rum,” Adams argues slavery is “an offense against man and God,” Jefferson says it must be abolished, and Rutledge defends it as “a cherished way of life” while calling out Jefferson’s hypocrisy as a slave owner and the North’s in perpetuating slavery for economic gain.

When Rutledge scoffs at the assertion that enslaved Blacks are Americans, Lucas-Perry as John Adams responds, “They are! They’re people and they’re here — if there’s any other requirement I’ve never heard of it.”

“In that moment, I’m speaking as John Adams for those Africans, but I’m also speaking for myself as Crystal. Every night I say those lines, I’m going to be reaffirming my place not only as a character fighting for the rights of other humans to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but I’m also going to be cementing my own existence and that of my ancestors into the fabric of this nation.”

1776

Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, May 17-July 24. Tickets from $25. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.