Thursday, May 15, 2014

"1776": Revival Remembrances

I am a total geek about things I love, and "1776" is one of those things.  Now that I will be doing the show I am eagerly immersing myself in every conceivable kind of research, both about John Adams and historical events and about the production history of the show itself. I am fortunate to be friends with David Lowenstein, an actor I have known for twenty years (he was in the first show I ever did in New York), who was in the Broadway revival of "1776" in 1997.  I asked him to share his memories about that amazing adventure, and here they are!  Thank you, David, for sharing your piece of Broadway history.

David Lowenstein
"It was the character actor’s dream job that season.  The great Paul Gemingani, with whom I did Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and A Christmas Carol, assured me I was on his list to be seen.  And yet I received no call for an audition.  I hadn’t worked with Scott Ellis or The Roundabout before.  Nor had I been cast by Jim Carnahan.  Finally Gemingani told me he schooled the Carnahan office, “If I put a name on a list you call them, period!”  And so I sang and was cast as Joseph Hewes from North Carolina. 

The cast included Tom Aldredge, Pat Hingle, Jerry Lanning, Brent Spiner, Macintyre Dixon, Michael McCormick, and the list goes on.  It was, imho, the greatest collection of character actors on Broadway, including some leading men like Gregg Edelman, Paul  Michael Valley, Michael Cumpsty, and Merwin Foard.  It was unlike any rehearsal period I had experienced to date.  We were instructed as to where our seat in Congress was and then given free rein to move about as we saw fit; filing papers, conferring with our fellow congressmen, getting on with the business of government, all the while trying to avoid the discussion of this ridiculous and radical notion of “independence.”  I learned a valuable lesson from Scott that I carry with me today: casting is 90% of a director’s job.

We spent days working with, and learning from, a revolutionary scholar... Her knowledge and insight were extremely valuable in understanding the reality of this mythic and iconic situation, putting a real face on these historical figures.  Having the best book ever written for a musical, we relished the details of the scene work.  It also has the longest book scene without a song in any musical.  The genius of the writing became evident as each audience sat on the edge of their seats in suspense, waiting for the outcome they all knew, from elementary school American History, was inevitable.

Broadway Revival Cast.  David is in the right of the frame in white wig.
One anecdote:  Joseph Hewes is written to constantly “yield” to South Carolina whenever a vote is taken.  It’s a running gag in the show.  I created a vivid back story based on research and played each “yield” with growing frustration.  When it came to the final vote for independence my subtext was “yeah” but I was bound by our agreement with SC and had to “yield.”  One night my subtext got the better of me and I popped up and voted “Yeah!”  The entire Congress sat up, necks snapping in my direction.  Changing the course of history, the show, and tipping the scales, making it unnecessary to continue the vote, I instantly realized my mistake.  I quickly followed with “Yields!  Mr. Secretary, I….uh…..I beg your pardon.  North Carolina respectfully yields to South Carolina.”  Sitting down in a flop sweat, the show went on.  There were countless hilarious moments with that group of actors,  forcing many of us to face upstage trying to control ourselves.  It was the most joyous 10 months-- proven by the fact that on both of our closing nights, first at The Roundabout, and then at The Gershwin, the entire company--every one of those seasoned character actors--bawled like babies on stage during the signing and through curtain calls."

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