The 1776 Project

The Broadway revival of the musical means less to reanimate the nation’s founding than to talk back to it.

Illustration of the numerals "1776" on a stage
Getty; The Atlantic

“Few historic incidents seem more unlikely to spawn a Broadway musical than that solemn moment in the history of mankind, the signing of the Declaration of Independence,” Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times in 1969. The United States was coming unglued. Yet the critic, an acerbic Englishman, felt his heart set aflutter by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’s 1776. The musical had “captured the Spirit of ’76,” Barnes enthused. The editors headlined his rave “Founding Fathers’ Tale Is a Happy Musical.”

Earlier this month, as the United States was once again coming unglued, the splashiest, most provocative of many revivals of 1776 opened on Broadway. A co-production of the American Repertory Theater and the Roundabout Theatre Company, this new 1776 means less to reanimate the nation’s founding than to talk back—or even down—to it. These days, many Americans are a good deal less sure that happiness of any sort can be wrested from the pursuits of Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Framers. And so, in this latest production, the key has changed from major to minor.

For more than five decades, 1776 has set the history wars to music and danced them backwards, in high-button shoes. There’s a good chance you’ve seen some version of it, most likely the 1972 feature film. It was a family hit; advance ticket sales at Radio City Music Hall were the largest in the venue’s history. Maybe your high school staged it, with white tube socks pulled over fraying corduroys.

But in case you’ve inexplicably missed this goofy cultural touchstone, a quick synopsis: The show dramatizes the deliberations of the Second Continental Congress in the spring of 1776. Most of the action is set in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The cast consists of 20 members of Congress spread across 13 delegations, along with several functionaries and two delegates’ wives. (Abigail Adams appears via letters, and Martha Jefferson visits Philadelphia to, um, inspire her husband, who is suffering from writer’s block.) The action begins May 8 and concludes July 4.

The original 1776 was, in a broad sense, a bicentennial creation, of a piece with the tall ships and Schoolhouse Rock. The nation’s big birthday was already in the zeitgeist, to a far greater degree than our upcoming 250th, in 2026, is today. But more directly, 1776 responded to the upheavals of the ’60s. The show began casting shortly after heated anti-war protests were met with lethal police response at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, in Chicago. The Weathermen called for “Days of Rage.” Stone and Edwards wanted days of hope, and promised that 1776 offered “laughter, poignancy and, above all, a kindling of pride and inspiration.”

That may sound dewy, and even fake, but 1969’s 1776 was not an altar. The creators were committed to fact, and to evidence. Edwards had been, albeit more briefly than he let on, a history teacher. It mattered to him and Stone that the show be accurate in ways that count, even if they fudged for dramatic effect superficial details, like Martha Jefferson’s congressional booty call. Edwards read the Journals of the Continental Congress and the letters of its delegates, which was much harder to do then than it is now. In the printed libretto, which went through two trade editions, the creators acknowledged debts to five different archives. In 2017, fact-checkers at Harvard’s Declaration Resources Project assayed their truth claims and pronounced them generally sound. As Stone and Edwards made clear (quoting a friend), they meant to counter any assumption that the Founders were divine: “God writes lousy theater.”

From the very first musical number, the rollicking “Sit Down, John,” 1776 features flesh-and-blood mortals, flawed and often funny. John Adams of Massachusetts has the right diagnosis of the colonies’ predicament, and the wrong temperament to persuade his peers to independence. He is, as everyone in the cast agrees, “obnoxious and disliked.” If Adams is arrogant and thin-skinned, Rhode Island’s Stephen Hopkins is a rummy, and Benjamin Franklin a gouty lech—each, demonstrably, as in life. But crucially, those flaws with the greatest dramatic impact are not venal but mortal and even structural. Slavery is not only present but integral to the plot. Debate over the paragraph in Jefferson’s draft condemning the transatlantic slave trade as “cruel war against human nature itself” likely occupies more dramatic and moral real estate in the play 1776 than it appears to have done in the year 1776.

But if 1969’s 1776 “wasn’t reverential,” as Edwards said, neither was it glibly judgmental. Philosophically, the text, like small-r-republican politics itself, is pragmatist. Franklin stood at the show’s ethical center, the essential foil to Adams’s intransigent, ineffective perfectionism. When Adams accuses Franklin of being soft on slavery, the elder statesman who had been, in life, both an enslaver and a founder of the colonies’ first antislavery society, responds with a paean to union. The southern delegates, Franklin says, “no matter how much we disagree with them, are not ribbon clerks to be ordered about; they’re proud, accomplished men, the cream of their colonies”: no mere basket of deplorables. What’s more, “they and the people they represent will be a part of the new country you hope to create! Either start learning to live with them or pack up and go home.” For Franklin, the crux of the matter is achieving our country. “Independence! America!” he thunders. “For if we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?”

Spoiler alert: Independence is secured. “A republic … if you can keep it,” as Franklin later said. (The jury is still out.) When the curtain fell on the original production, with the actors striking the pose of Robert Edge Pine’s 1788 painting, Congress Voting the Declaration of Independence, audiences were prompted to cheer the achievement all the louder for knowing how brutally it was gained. They were called, too, to recognize the fragility of the American experiment, and the origin story we the people began to fight about before the Declaration’s ink was dry. The show’s second-corniest number, “The Egg,” makes the new nation a vulnerable hatchling: “The eagle inside / Belongs to us!” The production’s logo, in that vexed year of 1969, featured a cockeyed eaglet holding a Betsy Ross flag in its beak, a pose that appears one part surrender.

Clive Barnes predicted that 1776 would prove “the sleeper of the season.” He underestimated its popularity by several orders of magnitude. The play was a sensation on the level of Hamilton, maybe more so. Its Broadway run lasted three years, and the production toured widely. Groups across the political spectrum, from the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion to New Left activists, claimed it as their own. The undersecretary of the Navy wanted to stage it for the troops in Vietnam. The San Francisco touring company of Hair went as a group to see 1776; at the stage door, the actors playing hippies sang “America the Beautiful” to the actors playing Founders. Towns and cities, red and blue, made special proclamations about the musical. It won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical, beating out the epoch-defining Hair.

The musicologist Elissa Harbert, who has done splendid work documenting the ’70s 1776 phenomenon, links the show’s impact to its banality: a “mirror-like quality” that allowed diverse audiences to spy whatever truths they held self-evident. That’s too cynical by half. A critic for the Berkeley Daily Gazette came closer to the moral complexity of the play in his 1970 review:

If you live in America today, you should see it. If you are old, it will tell you why young people are rioting in the streets. If you are young, it will tell you what the old are treasuring and trying to preserve … If you are black, it may help you to understand how a nation conceived in liberty could condone slavery. Above all, if you are human it may help you to conceive a compassion for great men giving birth to great schemes.

Compassion: Imagine that.

Because 1776 proved unifying at a moment of fracture, politicians tried to wrap themselves in its Betsy Ross flag. On George Washington’s birthday in 1970, the cast performed the musical in the East Room of the White House. Behind the scenes, members of President Richard Nixon’s staff had asked to cut three of the show’s scant 13 musical numbers: the haunting “Momma, Look Sharp,” for its anti-war message; the scorching “Molasses to Rum,” for its frankness about slavery; and the stinging “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” for its critique of the monied classes. But Sherman and Edwards insisted 1776 be performed intact or not at all. It went forward, all two hours and 45 minutes’ worth, with the president grinning his tricky grin.

The performers, New Lefties all, likewise declined to weaponize their work, despite strong personal convictions about the momentous issues of the day. Howard da Silva, Franklin in the original cast, had been blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer by the House Un-American Activities Committee, for which he blamed Nixon, then a representative on the committee. Da Silva joined an anti–Vietnam War demonstration on Pennsylvania Avenue the morning after the performance. But he gave that vehemence scant place in his art. “Just think … of being able to sign the Declaration of Independence in the White House,” he told the reporter covering the event for the women’s page of the Washington Evening Star.

Fast-forward half a century. In May 2019, theater websites reported that Diane Paulus, the artistic director of Harvard’s American Repertory Theater (ART) and a noted Broadway hitmaker, would mount a revival of 1776, to open the following spring in Cambridge. Paulus didn’t know the musical well, but she told me she’d heard it was beloved as a patriotic artifact, something to watch with the kids on the Fourth. Sensing space to probe its tensions more deeply, she planned to foreground what she saw as the latent critique of racism in the original production.

The estates of Edwards and Stone control the rights to 1776 tightly. The book must be performed intact, as it was for Nixon. They authorized one key amendment, a quotation from Abigail Adams’s famed March 1776 “remember the ladies” letter, which might easily have fit the spirit of the original, had it launched just a bit later than 1969. But in general, the text is fixed; the director would have a free hand only with casting and staging.

I teach an undergraduate course on the American Revolution at Harvard, HIST 1776, and arranged for some of my students to fulfill their civically engaged capstone requirement by working as consultants to the ART production in the fall of 2019. While prepping for the class, I first saw the show, in a table read, that August 16—two days, as it happened, before The New York Times Magazine published the 1619 Project as a special issue.

I’d heard rumors that Paulus’s 1776 would feature a cast without men: Founders, but not fathers. It sounded gimmicky. But when the actors walked into the workshop space that summer afternoon, the gimmick walloped me in the gut. This Congress was female, trans, and nonbinary; Black, brown, and white. The actors were writing “our declaration,” as my colleague Danielle Allen puts it: theirs and yours and mine. I burst into tears. The person sitting next to me, a famous feminist playwright, also sobbed.

Queued outside the restroom at intermission, we shared why we had cried. I said I’d been moved to hear this chorus of voices, from people unimaginable to the men they portrayed, raised in a hymn of complex praise for our beautiful and difficult country. She said her tears expressed longing for a world with no countries at all, like in John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

I realized we might be in trouble.

My students were proud of their work for the production that fall. One of the 1776 apprentices, an athlete who planned to join the Navy after graduation, imagined the circles of impact her research would have as the production toured the barely-United States during the presidential-election season.

The class was slated to see the show in May 2020. But by then, the students had been sent packing. Schools shuttered. Theaters went dark. The eggshell republic cracked further, wedged apart by masks and mandates, and by a president whose favorite Founder is Andrew Jackson. On May 25, George Floyd was brutally murdered on camera in Minneapolis. Millions of Americans took to the streets in rage and agony, protesting the still-lingering afterlife of slavery in the land of liberty, the paradox that had forced the nation’s first great and terrible compromise.

The uprisings fundamentally changed Paulus’s plans for 1776. The company dug more deeply into readings that included the 1619 Project and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning. Paulus made the show’s choreographer, Jeffrey Page, her co-director. Together, they made transformative choices, embracing a Brechtian approach that eschewed illusionistic details, including the famous closing fade to the painting of the signers. When it opened, at long last, this 1776 would take place firmly in the now.

I have thought a lot, in the context of this earnest, imperfect musical, about the differences between our moment and 1969, year of wounds, when the dream of the ’60s curdled into Manson and Altamont. When Americans, still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, lurched through the Tet Offensive that escalated their war abroad, and the bombings and protests that brought the war home, as the Weathermen had urged. I comfort myself with the claim—mostly true—that the late ’60s and early ’70s were more perilous, more violent, more fractured than our angrily Roaring ’20s.

Yet we have become, far more than our parents and grandparents, a people as morally confident as we are polarized. On the right, this conviction often expresses as uncritical worship for the founding era—history contorted to cudgel a decadent cultural left. On the left, moral certainty begets condescension to the generations who lived before us, as to those who voted against us. These are but subvariants of the same debilitating virus. As the historian Robert Tracy McKenzie asks in his fascinating recent book, We the Fallen People: “Is part of the problem of American democracy that we Americans think too highly of ourselves?”

Where the sensibility that defined 1969’s 1776 was Franklin’s pragmatic unionism, the stance that dominates in the Paulus-Page revival is Adams’s unyielding righteousness, a tragic flaw turned core virtue. As in 1969, there are no gods onstage. But now there are plenty of monsters, especially South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, played by Sara Porkalob as a sneering Simon Legree. As Porkalob leads the cast in “Molasses to Rum”—the number’s length now expanded by 50 percent—curtains part to reveal, behind the proscenium arch, stacks of rum barrels looming over Independence Hall. By the end, the barrels stand 10 or 12 high, spanning the crossover space, stretching to the rafters—foul skyscrapers dwarfing Independence Hall. The delegates’ signatures are projected onto the barrels, as if showcasing the tentacular reach of slavery through every one of the newly United States.

In 1969’s 1776, moral philosophy was destiny. Once uttered, “these truths,” however incomplete, lit a beacon for the future. For the world.

In 2022’s 1776, political economy calls the shots. Instead of a promissory note for human equality, the Framers sign a deal with the devil. The stain of slavery upon a land of liberty, which enslaved people bravely decried in petitions in the 1770s, and which Edwards and Stone dramatized in 1969, becomes, in 2022, the sum and substance of American history.

Today, the gods sit in the audience: We who would, “against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed,” as Franklin says, presumably have done better. The revival’s iconography calls us to be yet more adamant Adamses. The American flag—today’s 50-star version, on a stout metal pole—is clutched not in an eaglet’s tremulous beak but in a revolutionary fist: a war club. A flag meant to fly over the independent republic of the Acela Corridor.

I’ve seen the Paulus-Page 1776 four times now. I’ve cried at every performance for the magic of sitting in a room in the dark with other Americans, listening to our history’s jarring dissonances and soaring harmonies, imagining the music we might yet write, together.

The new Broadway production, at the American Airlines Theater, is more seasoned than the run in Cambridge. Jokes land better. The blocking is tighter, and some performances stronger. The regendering gesture gets an added kick from the fact that Elizabeth A. Davis, playing Jefferson, is visibly pregnant, a “congressional incubator,” as she sings.

The New York audience seemed appreciative, yet also divided. Younger patrons—not so many in attendance—cheered Adams, the self-professed “ag-i-ta-tor,” as if encouraging him never, ever to give an inch. Much of the crowd rooted for Franklin, and for the flag. An elderly man sitting next to me sang the whole show under his breath: a superfan, a patriot. Neither the moment nor the somber production portends the outpouring of reflective patriotism that greeted 1969’s 1776.

“I continue to be surprised when I meet people who say, ‘Oh, 1776! It’s my favorite musical. It’s just what our country needs!’” Paulus told Jennifer Schuessler of the Times. Paulus cares about what the country needs: Her production’s stated goal is “an honest reckoning with our past” that can “help us move forward together.” But how the revival moves us forward remains unclear. It shouts. It shames. A content warning suggests it may trigger and traumatize. But what does it ask of “us!” to whom the eagle inside belongs?

There is plenty of work to do. Polls suggest that fewer than a third of Americans born after 1980 consider it essential to self-govern, rather than to be ruled by the military or a “strong leader.” In order to believe in American constitutional democracy, young people need knowledge of the foundation upon which our peoplehood was built, knowledge we the people manifestly do not possess. History results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are dismal and falling. And more than 30 states have lately introduced or passed laws impeding the teaching of American history, especially the histories of race or gender.

We also need knowledge of one another: about what moves our hearts and blows our minds. About what we wish for the future and carry from the past. Yet during the 2020 presidential election, some 40 percent of respondents told the Pew Research Center they “knew no one at all who supported the other candidate.” No wonder talk of “civil war” has since entered the social-media mainstream.

If we are to safeguard the flame of the Declaration, we will need to find space in our warring visions of the great and the good for curiosity and even modesty. Edwards and Stone knew this. Hamilton said as much, in “Federalist No. 6,” way back in 1787: “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?” For all our wokeness, we have yet to shake off that deceitful dream, to realize that all ages are brass. Brass, too, holds a luster; our job is to burnish that hearty alloy as best we can.

Is there room, even now, for hope? After the matinee of 1776 in New York, Crystal Lucas-Perry, who played John Adams, paused at the stage door to sign playbills for two young fans, little Black girls in braids. One wore a purple 1776-branded sweatshirt, big enough to scrape the ground. But she will grow into it, as we might still grow into the promise of this country.