Vote for Independence! YCDS's Production of 1776
Oftentimes, history perfects its makers to the extent that they lose their humanness, weakness, humor, or emotion. We are generally presented with two-dimensional figures portrayed as stoic individuals who simply make a contribution to society and then exit the world’s grand stage. The musical production 1776 fights this perfected notion of historical personalities, humanizing its characters through humor and emotion, through depictions of both public and private life. This play speaks with a self-awareness about its own authenticity, as Benjamin Franklin remarks to John Adams, “Don’t worry, John, the history books will clean it up.” The brilliance of 1776 is its ability to glorify America’s Founding Fathers precisely by proving their vulnerability and relatable personalities.
In 1776, Congress is at a dangerous standstill in their eventual decision to vote for an official break from the British Empire and to compose a Declaration stating the facts and hopes of new American independence. Because of a complex relationship between the colonists and their British counterparts, Congress has decided that a vote for independence could only be a unanimous one. Yet the simple reality that declaring independence is a vote of treason and can warrant their hanging is enough to dissuade many senators. Yet John Adams, a man whose greatest flaw and strength is his stubbornness, insists that national independence from Britain is the only thing to do, and so he, in his own war of independence against the majority he works with, fights a winning battle for nationhood.
This year’s Yeshiva College Dramatics Society (YCDS) fall production was an adaptation of the Broadway musical 1776, a retelling of this nations’ founding and the writing of its Declaration of Independence. Directed by YC Professor of Drama Lin Snider and stage-managed by Arye Fohrman (YC ’12), YCDS did it complete justice, filling the theater with laughter, song, and sincerity. The cast unfortunately had to make use of extremely limited performance space, yet they used every bit of it: stage, aisles and all. With convincing costumes and some rather amusing accents, the actors made history come to life. Even the more minor aspects of costuming were seen to, such as having proper colonial shoes with a strap-on buckle in place, completing the pre-nationhood “look” of the eighteenth century.
Although most of the singers were strong and the songs were certainly in tune, a number of voices did not meet the register necessary to truly leave an impression; in particular, “The Lees of Old Virginia” was a bit weak. However, Adams’ performance “Is Anybody There?” resonated as a touching, on-tune, vocal number full of sincerity and emphasis. I had the privilege to speak with the star of this number and the lead of the play, and to find out about the intricacies of the characters, the production process, and acting as a whole.
Ariel Meiri (YC ’12), a super senior majoring in biology, was cast in the starring role of John Adams, the “obnoxious and disliked” congressman from Boston who motivates Congress to create and sign the Declaration. Having seen the 1972 film production of this musical “a million times,” Adams has been “a dream role” of Meiri’s for quite some time. Meiri explains, “John has motivations and goals. He’s a difficult character. He has uncertainty, yet underneath this lies a deep sense of confidence.” Yet the exigencies of portraying a character quite unlike oneself can be a challenge. This challenge in relating to one’s character is something with which each actor must grapple. Unlike Adams, Meiri is easygoing, calm, and likable. “Even if you’re playing a villain, you will read so as to better understand your character and his motivations. In ‘The Andersonville Trial’ (last year’s YCDS production), I studied the issues.” Meiri had been cast as a defense lawyer for a Confederate soldier being charged with war crimes. “I wanted to believe in the defense I was giving,” said Meiri.
Another challenge the entire cast had to grapple with was the paucity of actresses to portray the female roles of Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson. Abigail Adams is particularly difficult to compensate for, as she serves the important role of putting her husband John in his place through her knowing letters and loving criticisms, as well as providing a virtual companion for Adams when Congress has abandoned him. Despite her absence, her messages were clearly envisioned and conveyed, by having John read aloud the original letters of Abigail.
Meiri comments, “Every character is there for a reason; each has his motivations behind his decisions and actions.” This holds true as much for Adams as for characters which some might see as less important, such as the courier who appears throughout the play, delivering George Washington’s dispatches from the revolutionary battlefield. However, the courier, played by freshman Moshe Wigder, provides a crucial dimension to the play’s historical narrative. As Wigder explains, “He provides a different angle for the play. The play is mainly centered around the debate in Congress, yet it is the courier who has contact with the actual war and sees the struggles people are going through.”
Wigder also explores the reason behind his character’s anonymity, explaining that it is not a sign of unimportance, but rather an indication of the courier’s embodiment of a different “constituency.” “The courier is not given a name because he represents a certain part of the people—all the kids out there fighting, the lower class.” This is made clear in the courier’s solo number, “Mama.” Wigder, who sang a powerful rendition of this song, explained the song’s purpose and its relevance to the courier role’s purpose: “In this song, the courier transforms into Willie, a young soldier who dies right off the battle green. This song relates what a soldier would see on the battlefield, and urges the parents to come search for their dying children. It portrays whole families that were sacrificed because of this war.” Thanks to characters and songs like the courier and “Mama,” a true sense of the historical climate during the signing of the Declaration is successfully communicated to the audience.
Each role truly adds something, not only to the content, but also to an actor’s repertoire. Some seasoned, others freshly initiated, the cast of 1776 came to form a sense of “camaraderie” as Meiri notes. From first-time college actor Daniel Rosenberg who portrays the similarly “first-time” senator, Dr. Lyman Hall, from Georgia, to Tani Isaac, a fourth-time YCDS performer who plays a similarly experienced and wise Benjamin Franklin, each actor and his respective character melt together to form cohesive presentations and a unified cast.
In particular, the cast’s opening number, “Sit Down, John,” is a first look at the unity of the cast and the smooth cooperation of the entire crew, ironically juxtaposed to the animosity central to the song’s very theme. Through the fragility of the members of Congress’s relationships with one another, any audience member could see the YCDS cast unify in a common goal to make 1776 the brilliant production it was meant to be. They truly have lived up to their country’s goal of “E Pluribus Unum,” “Out of many, one.”