Sav Souza costars in the Broadway revival of the historical musical 1776. They play Dr. Josiah Bartlett, a real-life physician whose signature is on the Declaration of Independence. Bartlett was a straight white man. Souza identifies as queer and transgender. When they were initially asked to audition for 1776, Souza was, to put it mildly, confused.

“I couldn’t begin to fathom how I was supposed to fit into the world of this show,” Souza tells Broadway Direct. “Trans and queer people have been deeply erased from most accounts of historical events. And I have no interest in subjecting myself to watching, or participating in, versions of history that perpetuate the erasure of myself and my community.”

But this revival is not like any previous production of the show. 1776 is a musical by composer and lyricist Sherman Edwards and book writer Peter Stone. It first played on Broadway in 1969 and has been a popular regional and community-theater fixture ever since. It dramatizes the story of how representatives from the 13 original American colonies decided to separate from Great Britain and sign the Declaration of Independence. Throughout the musical, they debate, argue, compromise, and, eventually, put the matter up for a vote.

Traditionally, 1776 has been performed by a cast largely made up of white men. But in this new revival, hitting Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre on September 16, it is taking a page from Hamilton. America’s Founding Fathers are now played by female, transgender, and nonbinary actors of varying ethnicities — the very people left out of that original fight for freedom. There are also new arrangements of Edwards’s songs by orchestrator John Clancy.

When Souza realized the concept for this new version of 1776, their hesitancy turned to enthusiasm. “I felt really excited to reclaim the space that was taken from LGBTQ+ people in the creation of the country — a country where we are still fighting for our rights today,” says Souza.

Souza isn’t an outlier. When asked if they were fans of 1776 before being cast in the revival, many members of the cast said no. Sushma Saha plays Judge James Wilson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, and they admit they had never seen the musical before their audition.

“I wasn’t really interested in learning about a history that didn’t include or consider people like me,” they say, before adding, “The majority of American history is whitewashed and lies on the foundation of Indigenous, Black, and POCs’ backs with credit rarely given where it was due.”

This new production isn’t trying to add a splash of diversity to older material or make the Founding Fathers look trendy. Instead, it is setting out to make history more visceral, to show that change is risky and that the fight for personal freedom is never easy. For the 13 colonies, to declare independence from England in 1776 was tantamount to treason.

Oneika Phillips plays North Carolina delegate and slave owner Joseph Hewes. For her, the new production emphasizes the ideas that America was actually founded on “protest, rebellion, lawbreaking, violence if needed,” she says. In fact, Phillips says that was a big realization she had while doing the show: The Founding Fathers “chose violence through the words of the Declaration of Independence. On all fronts. Against the king. For their liberties,” she says.

But there’s also a contradiction to that declaration of freedom. The Founding Fathers may have fought for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but only for white, male landowners. Those “inalienable rights” did not extend to women, the Black people who were enslaved, or the Native Americans who were slaughtered.

The creative team has made revisions to 1776 to address that hypocrisy. Directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus asked the creators’ estates to give them permission to include a quote from Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams.

In the show, John is the one most passionate about independence, so much so that the opening number has the irritated delegates shouting en masse, “Sit down, John!” In one new scene in the revival, Abigail tells John to “remember the ladies” who have no “voice and representation,” and to “not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.” This new version of 1776 makes sure that the audiences don’t forget the ladies.

That’s not the only scene that acknowledges the people outside the room where it happens. In another tense moment, the founders debate whether to include a paragraph in the Declaration of Independence that condemns slavery as an “assemblage of horrors.” There is even a song, called “Molasses to Rum,” which details the atrocities of the slave trade. They eventually agree to remove that passage from the document in order to get the support of the Southern states.

To Ariella Serur, a standby actor in 1776, that part of the musical shows how America was founded “on a bed of injustice,” she says. “If slavery was eradicated when this country was founded, who knows what our collective freedom and liberation might look like today. But instead, our forefathers felt compromise was needed in order to move the needle on independence — compromise that has kept whole groups of people oppressed.”

To Serur, that’s what makes 1776 “more relevant than ever,” because it brings to mind that the fight for true liberty and justice for all has continued to this day, from Black Lives Matter to abortion rights and LGBTQ+ rights.

In short, the cast considers their presence in 1776 a form of commentary in and of itself. But they also take their jobs seriously, as actors portraying real people. They read up on their respective Founding Fathers and used those biographical details to inform their performances.

Patrena Murray, who plays Benjamin Franklin, learned that Franklin was a ladies’ man, which surprised her “the most,” and that he was a chess player. In the musical, Franklin helps John Adams convince the other states to sign on to the Declaration of Independence. Murray surmises chess may have helped Franklin strategize.

“In no way am I a chess player,” Murray admits. At the same time, “I keep in mind that Dr. Franklin was a chess player, a person who thinks many moves ahead from one single move. One single move can determine your endgame. I like to think that the joy and the focus the game requires enriched Dr. Franklin as a diplomat.”

Nancy Anderson plays George Read, a conservative delegate from Delaware. She made sure to inhabit the physicality of Read, who “was known historically as a soft-spoken, slightly built, methodical man,” says Anderson. “So I spent much of rehearsal and the [pre-Broadway] run at American Repertory Theater working out the patterns of his behavior that gave him a sense of safety and order.” Playing Read also taught Anderson that he was “childish” and “craved the spotlight.”

As a Black woman, Phillips admits that playing a white slave owner feels heavy. Every night before the pre-Broadway run of the show, she developed a ritual. “I found a roster of the names of some of the people he enslaved,” she says. “I either say their names or lift a meditation to ancestors nightly.” She is also aware of the cosmic irony of the situation: “Knowing Joseph Hewes would likely suffer apoplexy knowing a Black Caribbean woman is playing his slave-owning behind: That is inspiring enough.”

Though many of the actors in 1776 weren’t familiar with the musical before performing in it, they admit that being part of the show has given them a new ownership of this classic musical and of American history.

Mehry Eslaminia plays Charles Thomson, a secretary who, in the musical, reads a pivotal message from George Washington. Eslaminia had never even seen or listened to 1776 before auditioning for the musical. Her father is from Iran and her mother is from El Salvador, so as the children of immigrants, the words in the Declaration of Independence “weren’t for my family. These words weren’t for me,” she says.

But that’s changed now that she’s part of this revival. “With these diverse humans on stage saying words that were originally said by white men, it makes you hear it in a completely different way,” she says.

The musical may be called 1776, but for this new Broadway cast, it is actually about 2022. Says Eslaminia: “It feels powerful to me in this way because it’s like a new declaration. Our declaration. A declaration that says, ‘This is America. And we still have work to do.’”

Or, as Phillips says more bluntly: “Hello, 2022? 1776 is on the line for you.”

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