I’ve always been a history dork. 1776 is the perfect meld for me of profession and avocation, which is good because I’m about to embark on my sixth production of the show! Each time I have played Samuel Chase, from Maryland. The first time, I was cast was in the 1990 production at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera. Gordon Hunt was the director, brother of Peter Hunt, the original 1776 Broadway and film director. Gordon had directed the first tour after the Broadway production. Onna White, the original choreographer, did the Long Beach production as well, and Peter Howard, the original musical director, stopped by from time to time too. It was nice to have some direct connections with the Broadway production. Dean Jones played Adams.
Seven years later, I got a call from my friend Scott Ellis who was about to direct the Broadway revival. At the time I was living in LA. Scott knew how much I loved the show, and asked if I’d be interested in doing the revival. Of course I was. But the problem remained that I no longer had my apartment in NYC, and the Roundabout Theatre paid much less than a standard Broadway contract in those days. I had no idea if I could afford to do it. I asked Scott if anyone had signed on yet to do the show. He told me only one person, Tom Aldredge, was signed to do Stephen Hopkins. I responded, “You got Tom Aldredge to play Stephen Hopkins?? I’ll do it. I don’t know how, but I’ll do it!”. Tom Aldredge is one of the greats who ever walked a Broadway stage and I became his close friend until his passing a few years ago. I was also lucky to do another Broadway show with him a few years later.
So I moved back to New York. Our first day of rehearsal was extraordinary. Looking around at the talent that was assembled in that room was overwhelming. Everyone was grinning at each other, because we already could tell it was going to be a great show. And it was. We had a staff historian from Hunter College to answer any questions about the revolutionary period, and also to historically vet every prop and set piece in the show. Wedding rings on men? Never. Removing coats in the oppressive heat? No gentleman would do that in public. Why couldn’t they open the windows? British spies were everywhere in Philadelphia, attempting to eavesdrop on the Continental Congress. We had a library in one of the rehearsal studios of books written about the Declaration, the signers, and the period. We were encouraged to check them out and read them. We also received an enormous amount of historical reference material. Our first musical rehearsal began with the great Paul Gemignani telling us, “You all can sing or you wouldn’t be here. Don’t feel like you have to prove anything. Mark if you want to and save it for performance.” The pressure was off!
The rehearsal period was luxuriously long, being a Broadway production. Scott Ellis believed that the Continental Congress would have based their behavior on that of Parliament, their only role model. We watched video of Parliament, and were amazed at how much shouting down and cheering went on during sessions. We adapted that to 1776. We were encouraged to move around throughout the congressional scenes, and to be very vocal with our reactions to what was said by others. As we progressed, Scott fine tuned all the action so that the focus of the audience always remained in the right place. But the final result was the book scenes were always fluid, exciting, passionate, and never stagnant. Peter Stone was at rehearsal often. I got a chance to grill him a lot about the show. Even he was in awe of the power of 1776. He once told me, “Ric, of the 12 or so Broadway shows I’ve written, this is the only one that after I see it I ask ‘Who wrote that show?’"
The 1776 revival opened in August of 1997 to stellar reviews. The audiences loved it too, and we quickly sold out our Roundabout run and its extensions. We were so blessed to have the best designers and support team in the business. William Ivy Long designed the costumes, Tony Walton the set, Brian Nason the lights, Brian Ronan the sound, and David Brian Brown the wigs. The cast bonded like no other cast I’ve been a part of. We loved each other, were there for each other, and competed with each other. Going into it, I thought a close to year run in a show would bore me to tears, but the energy was so fresh and slightly different for every performance, I couldn’t wait to get to work. Sharing a stage with terrific actors at the top of their game keeps you sharp. The way Brent Spiner, as Adams, drove that show always with his agenda present, and the way Pat Hingle, as Franklin, transfixed me with his piercing blue eyes filled with wisdom, kindness, and truth, will never leave me.
Many politicians, celebrities, and countless students came to see us. Watching Bob Dole giving us a standing ovation with tears rolling down his cheeks was a sight. Probably our biggest fans were Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and their family. They came to see the show five times. When we closed at the Roundabout, the Newmans sent the cast a gift basket the size of Cleveland to thank us for helping to preserve history in such an exciting way. When Pat Hingle decided to leave the show, Paul Newman seriously considered taking over the role of Franklin. Wouldn’t THAT have been interesting?
Every production of 1776 I’ve done has been a unique and rewarding experience, which is the sole reason why I continue do the show. It’s a history/musical theatre dork’s dream!