Sometimes the stories of our culture are so familiar to us that we take them for granted, overlooking their inherent drama. Such may be the case with the story of how our nation was forged – a real-life historical drama being brought to theatrical life this summer through the efforts of the Rhinebeck Theatre Society (RTS) in 1776: The Musical, with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and book by Peter Stone. “This play has everything,” says Russ Austin, a member of the board of RTS and a cast member who portrays Edward Rutledge in the show. “Just pick an emotion and you’re going to feel it in this play.”
In 1969, the Broadway show 1776 was nominated for five Tony Awards and won three, including for Best Musical. The show in Rhinebeck will be essentially the same as that production, says Austin, because the contract to purchase the rights to the show stipulates that it must be performed as written, “with no adaptations of language at all,” he says. “Nothing is changed; it’s pretty much what people would have seen on Broadway. It has all the original music and dialogue, and as close as we could get to the original costumes. It’s going to be a beautiful show to watch, because the costumes are fantastic.”
The Rhinebeck Theatre Society is a community theater group, all-volunteer, “but the wonderful thing about this community,” says Austin, “is that there are a lot of retired professionals who are up here, and we have some major talents in this show. It’s going to be what you might see if we were still all in Equity down in the City,” he laughs.
The story centers around the persistent campaign of John Adams to persuade all 13 Colonies to vote for independence. The tone is set from the start, when his fellow delegates to the Second Continental Congress, exasperated by Adams’ constant badgering, join voices in “Sit Down, John.” The debate rages for two months as those favoring independence, led by Adams, a young Thomas Jefferson and an octogenarian Benjamin Franklin, cajole their recalcitrant colleagues to declare freedom from England.
With musical direction by Paul and Joanne Schubert, the show features a cast of 27, including two strong female roles. Victoria Howland as Abigail Adams “is a wonderful soprano,” says Austin, “and she has several gorgeous duets with John Adams, as well as a superb solo of her own.” In the play, she exists in John Adams’ mind, in his imagination. She is actually living at the Adamses’ home in Braintree, Massachusetts at the time, and the songs that they sing back and forth as duets in the show are based on the Adamses’ well-known correspondence with each other. “They’re very romantic songs,” says Austin, “just heart-melting.”
The actor playing John Adams is Jim Hammill, for whom it’s such a great role, says Austin, that he’s making the trek up to Rhinebeck each weekend from Paramus, New Jersey just to do it, staying over weekends. The cast is under the guidance of Ellen Honig, one of the region’s most experienced directors, whose recent accomplishments include directing the RTS productions of Kaufman and Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner (2012), Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosenzweig (2011) and George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House (2010). Additional cast members include Michael Juzwak as Benjamin Franklin, Todd Young as Thomas Jefferson, Doug Hoffman as John Dickinson and Eileen Keefe as Martha Jefferson.
In addition to the romance in the story, there is high and low comedy, as well, says Austin, “but it tells a serious story, and there are some serious sides to the play.” He portrays Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, who represents the pro-slavery movement. “It gets dark in the second act,” he says, “when the South, led by Rutledge, refuses to sign the Declaration of Independence unless the anti-slavery clause is removed.” In the end, of course, all is triumphant, and the play ends on a patriotic note.
The remaining performances for the run will take place on Fridays, July 6, 13 and 20; Saturdays, July 7, 14 and 21 and Sundays, July 8, 15 and 22 at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck, housed in a unique structure designed to resemble a barn, to complement the surrounding rural landscape and to pay tribute to the origins of summer stock. Showtime for 1776 is 8 p.m. for Friday and Saturday evening performances and 3 p.m. for Sunday matinees. Tickets cost $26 general admission, or $22 for students and seniors. For tickets, call the Center box office at (845) 876-3080 or visit www.centerforperformingarts.org. For more information about the Rhinebeck Theatre Society and 1776: The Musical, visit www.rhinebecktheatresociety.blogspot.com.