Theater Tulsa takes a new look at history in ‘1776’

We know them mostly as the faces.

They are engraved upon our currency, or they gaze out from ornate frames on museum walls, or from the pages of encyclopedias or history books — stern-looking fellows in powdered and pig-tailed wigs, knee-high stockings and frock coats, whose ramrod postures and unsmiling expressions speak to the extremely serious and stately business of creating a country out of chaos.

Collectively, they are known as the “Founding Fathers,” who put their lives and livelihoods on the line when they put their names at the bottom of the document now known as The Declaration of Independence.

The musical “1776,” written by Peter Stone and Sheldon Edwards, told the story of the tumultuous days leading up to that moment, as delegates from the 13 American colonies debated the merits of independence from, or capitulation to, Great Britain.

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Theater Tulsa is planning to stage a new version of this 1969 musical, and it is doing so in a way that is designed to shake the dust of history from these characters and this story.

The show will feature a female and nonbinary cast taking on the roles of such figures as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and some 20 more members of the Continental Congress of 1776.

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“When men are cast in roles that represent positions of power, we tend to take it for granted that that’s just the way it is,” said Jarrod Kopp, Theater Tulsa’s executive director. “But if you cast women in those roles, it forces you to think about the nature of that power, and how that might change the way you see these characters.”

“It will be like meeting these historical figures for the first time,” said Liz Bealko, who is directing the production that opens Jan. 13 at the Tulsa PAC. “While we are performing the script exactly as it is written, just seeing these characters embodied in this way will help the audience see them in a new light.”

The production will feature Kristen Simpson as John Adams, Amanda Nichols as Thomas Jefferson, Nan Kemp as Benjamin Franklin, Teresa Nowlin as John Hancock, Laura Skoch as Andrew McNair and Karlena Riggs as John Dickinson.

Several cast members will have multiple roles, including Kate Parker as John Witherspoon and Abigail Adams, Lydia Gray as Lyman Hall and Martha Jefferson, and Emma Morris, whose three roles include George Washington.

Bealko, a native of Henrietta who is now a New York City-based performer and director, makes her Theater Tulsa debut as the show’s director and choreographer. Holly Harper is the show’s music director, and the show’s score will be performed by musicians of the Tulsa Peoples Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Ray.

“I was not familiar with the show before this,” Bealko said. “I think I may have heard some of the songs before, but that was it. And I like that, because it allows me to be more organic in creating a show. What people are going to see is something they aren’t going to see anywhere else, because it’s the result of my working with this group of actors.

“And this is the most supportive cast I have ever worked with,” Bealko said. “Some of them are people Tulsa audiences will recognize, and some haven’t been involved in theater in decades, but something about this show grabbed them. And they’ve all really come together to create such a beautiful environment, where everyone feels at home.”

That behind-the-scenes harmony is in contrast to the action of “1776,” as John Adams, who serves as the show’s central character, works to bring together the various factions within the delegation to agree on declaring independence.

There are royalists who want to remain under British rule, as well as those who want to make certain the institution of slavery, which serves as the economic foundation for most of the Southern states, is not challenged. And there is the reluctance of Thomas Jefferson, who would rather be with his new wife than tasked with writing the declaration.

“There is a lot of comedy in the show, as the delegates bicker with each other,” Bealko said. “But there are also a lot of serious, even uncomfortable, issues that are raised, like the issue of slavery.”

Kopp added that casting the show with women helps to elevate the action, so that it does not come across as a dry history lesson.

“Instead,” Kopp said, “you have this moment in history, and how these people made the decisions they made, being presented before you in real time.” And the great thing is that it makes it so that the ending doesn’t seem like a foregone conclusion. Anything can happen.

“You want them to sign (the Declaration), you hope they will sign it,” Bealko said. But you understand what it will cost them if they do. It’s a tribute to the inspiring nature of these people.”

Theater Tulsa is not alone in taking a non-traditional approach to this musical.

“We had ‘1776’ on our radar as a show we wanted to do for several years,” Kopp said. “We just couldn’t find the right slot for it in our seasons. Then, I was at a community theater convention and heard about a company that was going to do ‘1776’ with an all-female cast, and that caught my attention.

“Then I learned that there was a revival production planned for Broadway, and I figured we would have a very narrow window to get the rights to do it,” he said. “Fortunately for Theater Tulsa, the company that controlled the rights to ‘1776’ made it available.

Kopp said one reason why doing the musical with an all-female cast appealed to him was that it would reflect the increasing presence and influence of women in American politics, beginning with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run to Kamala Harris becoming the first woman to serve as US Vice President.

“It makes you wonder what this country might be if women were in those roles (of power and authority) in the first place,” Kopp said.

Having an all-female cast would also continue a practice Theater Tulsa has of giving actors the opportunity to take on roles they ordinarily might not get the chance to play, such as in the company’s recent staging of “Little Shop of Horrors,” which had a cast made up primarily of people of color.

“There is an assumption that when you do something like this, it’s to be disrespectful,” Kopp said. “That is the opposite of what we are aiming for with this show. We’re wanting to give a different but still very respectful look at the beginning of this nation and how it was founded.”

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