On the eve of war, the American general is anxiety-ridden. Facing an enemy army commanded by a pitiless tyrant, he is not at all sure what awaits his troops. Support at home is iffy; his countrymen are divided over whether this military campaign, a whole new kind of war, is warranted. And though his soldiers, bivouacked on harsh terrain, are spoiling for a fight, they are also young and uneasy about the deprivation, the lengthy separation from loved ones.
"Dear God," the general writes, "what brave men I will lose before this ends."
Who knew a schmaltzy Broadway musical could so spookily home in on the zeitgeist of these tense times?
The general is George Washington, the musical is "1776," and, with bull's-eye acumen, Ford's Theatre has revived the 1969 Tony winner in a pleasing production directed by David H. Bell. With the show's highly skilled and ably drilled cast of 25, Ford's is administering a dose of history-by-show-tune that goes down very easily. And if any town is primed for a healthy run of a musical about the effort by a deliberative body to achieve unanimous consent on a risky resolution, this would seem to be the one.
To see "1776" at Ford's is to realize afresh how far from a museum piece its creators, the composer Sherman Edwards and the book writer Peter Stone, sought to make it. It's chockablock with goofy numbers and winking references to matters of the flesh: Imagine, the Framers had impure thoughts! Ben Franklin, played here by the veteran character actor David Huddleston, is a gouty old skirt-chaser; Thomas Jefferson (James Ludwig) is a Byronic type moodily pining in Philadelphia for his wife, Martha (Kate Baldwin), back in ol' Virginny; and the puritanical Boston rebel John Adams (Lewis Cleale) is constantly at war with his baser urges, singing refrains like: "I'm only 41, I still have my virility / And I can romp through Cupid's grove with great agility / But life is more than sexual combustibility."
The lyrics are pure, eye-rolling Broadway corn, but what Edwards and Stone were about was the business of demystifying history, years before it became the vogue among popular biographers. Director Bell and company are worthy enlistees in their cause. Ford's production, though, is not without its demerits: It's a shame, for instance, that the theater's abominable sound system is such an obstacle to audibility. The other evening, Huddleston's voice rose and fell so often it was as if some mischief-maker was fiddling with the volume control. The microphone on Steven Crossley, portraying Stephen Hopkins, Rhode Island delegate to the Continental Congress, was scratchier than an ancient LP. And with so many actors crowding the stage -- this is a congress of the hammiest sort, with a quorum always present -- it was impossible at times to figure out who was doing the talking.
Yet "1776" has just enough zest, just enough melody, just enough historical detail, to satisfy all the likely constituencies, from tourists to war buffs. I defy any regular reader of the Almanac of American Politics not to grow misty-eyed at the closing tableau, when the roll is read one final time and each delegate is called upon to sign Jefferson's elegant Declaration of Independence, a document that could also have been their execution warrant. By this point in the proceedings, you've gotten to know just enough, too, about each man -- the cowardly Pennsylvania delegate afraid to vote his conscience; the courageous gentleman from Delaware, who rises from his deathbed to affix his signature -- to appreciate the astonishing leap of faith they all made together.
Bell, Ford's former artistic director, has taken minimal risks with a staging that seems beholden to prior Broadway productions. (Huddleston played Franklin in the Roundabout Theater Company's revival in New York several years ago.) Some numbers, like "But, Mr. Adams," in which Cleale's Adams entreats his political allies to write the Declaration, are little more than skillful recreations of routines from past versions. James Leonard Joy's simple set of sliding screens, on the other hand, is well suited to the historic theater, and Mariann Verheyen's muted costumes are handsome adornments.
And many of the performers, especially those in showy secondary roles, take advantage of their moments at center stage. Consider the sterling work of Michael L. Forrest, who, playing the tough Tory sympathizer John Dickinson, leads the conservative pack resisting independence in a splendid rendition of "Cool, Cool Considerate Men." (In "1776," written at the height of the Vietnam War, the authors' political sympathies are fairly transparent: The story's conservatives, seeking to retain slavery as the Colonies' financial engine, are portrayed as sneering foot-draggers.)
Forrest's Dickinson is a terrific creation; he seems a man of both principle and arrogance. Trent Blanton is equally potent as Edward Rutledge, the South Carolina delegate who forces Jefferson to remove from the Declaration language that condemns slavery. More important, he gets the stirring show-stopper, "Molasses to Rum," which he sings thrillingly.
Baldwin, smashing as Nellie Forbush in the recent Arena Stage "South Pacific," is a lovely presence here, doing creamy justice to "He Plays the Violin," and a University of Michigan sophomore, Chris Peluso, makes a golden-throated Ford's debut in the Act 1 closer, "Momma Look Sharp." Anne Kanengeiser's Abigail Adams and Ludwig's Jefferson are well sung and appealing, and as the congress's custodian and clerk, Christopher Bloch and Buzz Mauro make lasting impressions in roles that could under less satisfying conditions have been phoned in.
The crowd-pleaser, of course, is Huddleston's Franklin, a man of Falstaffian girth and Rabelaisian wit. It's a complete, mature performance, at peace with itself, and an excellent foil for Cleale's antiseptic Adams. Cleale, meanwhile, is good but not great as Adams; he's not quite the intense royal pain that he's meant to be. But that's a minor failing, for it's Adams's ideas, not his personality, that define the character. The portrayal gains in authority as the congress members begin to rally around the nation-building concepts that Adams espouses.
"1776" works, though, because it's not a history lesson. Stone and Edwards managed to mine the story's emotional undercurrents and in the process allow us to see how the efforts of a disparate group of men could be harmonized, for the greater good of all. What is ultimately most stirring is not the individual voices but the chorus.
1776. Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone. Directed by David H. Bell. Musical direction, Michael Rice; lighting, Diane Ferry Williams; hair design, David H. Lawrence. With Graham Rowat, Jim Beard, Christopher Bloch, Matthew R. Jones, Bill Largess, Frank Robinson Jr., Jim Scopeletis, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Franklin Tripp, John Leslie Wolfe. Approximately 2 1/2 hours. Through June 1 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Call 202-347-4833 or visit www.fordstheatre.org