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1776

New Repertory Theatre production gives the Founding Fathers a diverse makeover

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
1776
The cast of “1776.” PHOTOS: ANDY BRILLIANT/BRILLIANT PHOTOGRAPHY

When John Adams, played by Benjamin Evett, appears on stage in New Repertory Theatre’s production of “1776,” he’s trying to convince the Continental Congress to secede from the British – and he’s wearing leather pants. The 1960s musical about the creation of the United States gets a “Hamilton”-era makeover, with diverse and gender-bending casting, avant-garde costumes and contemporary undertones.

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Carolyn Saxon, who plays both Abigail Adams and Roger Sherman, says the casting makes the musical more accessible to a modern audience. “We’re diverse and inclusive in all ways,” she says. “Our costumes are not entirely period, some steampunk is going on, we have modern toys that we’re goofing off with, but the heart of the story, the history, is still there.”

Benjamin Evett (as John Adams), KP Powell (as Thomas Jefferson), and Bobbie Steinbach (as Benjamin Franklin). PHOTOS: ANDY BRILLIANT/BRILLIANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Benjamin Evett (as John Adams), KP Powell (as Thomas Jefferson), and Bobbie Steinbach (as Benjamin Franklin). PHOTOS: ANDY BRILLIANT/BRILLIANT PHOTOGRAPHY

In her portrayal of Abigail, Saxon says, she sings the way she as a black woman has been raised to sing, with gospel and R&B influences. “I’ve always enjoyed history and Abigail has been a hero of mine,” Saxon says. “I am a New England woman and I think we have something in common in terms of strength.”

The all-white, mostly male cast of the original production (and our original Founding Fathers) no longer applies, and New Rep replaces that model with one that represents the U.S. today. Dan Prior plays both Martha Jefferson and Robert Livingston, dually sharing an impassioned kiss with Thomas Jefferson (KP Powell) and representing New York in Congress.

Saxon says the play rings relevant today because our country is still going through the negotiations of 1776. “I think right now our country is in the midst of trying to find our identity,” she says. “We’re asking questions that we were asking in the 1700s — ‘Who is an American? ‘How do we relate to each other?’”

The three-hour romp into U.S. history is engaging and humorous, especially in hindsight, and the cast gives a dynamic, energetic performance. The setting at New Rep’s home base, the former Watertown Arsenal, is a pleasant reminder that some of the history mentioned in the play happened right there. Perhaps in another half-century, a musical will be written about what Boston did today.

Saxon hopes the musical sparks an interest in American history and contemporary politics, but most of all she hopes to make the audience laugh. She says, “It’s a 50-year-old musical, and it’s not ‘Hamilton.’ But it says so much about America.” 

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