1776, produced by Paul Garman for Musical Theatre West, opens July 10; plays Thurs.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2 & 8 pm; Sun., 2 & 7 pm; through July 25. Tickets: $30-$80. Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach; 562.856.1999, ext. 4 or musical.org.
In the journey toward the Declaration of Independence, Davis Gaines (Phantom of the Opera, Broadway, Ahmanson; Parade, Mark Taper Forum) has a small but personal role. “I’m descended from Edmund Pendleton,” Gaines says. “Pendleton was from Virginia and wrote the declaration that my character, Richard Henry Lee, retrieved and took back to the Founding Fathers, showing Virginia’s support for breaking away from Britain. My dad’s a big genealogy buff. He’s thrilled that I have this role in the show.”
As if to lay further claim, Gaines shares his full name: Davis Pendleton Gaines. While Gaines is not from Gainesville, Florida, he is a southern boy from Orlando where he attended Florida State University and majored in theatre. “My parents were terrific about taking my sisters and me on trips to New York where they exposed us to the city and theatre. They knew I was interested in acting, even at an early age, and they helped foster that.”
One of his first childhood trips to New York included the Broadway production of 1776 (music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and book by Peter Stone. The show opened in 1969 and ran for over 1,200 performances. A movie followed in 1972.) “I vividly remember the set – all the chairs and desks,” Gaines says. “I remember the lighting, the cast of almost all men and a little boy who played a courier and who has a lovely song [‘Mama Look Sharp’]. I told my parents, ‘I want to do that!’ Then I mostly forgot about the show until this opportunity came up. Boy, did it bring back a flood of memories.”
Gaines left Florida State, where he since has founded a scholarship program, and landed an ensemble role in the Broadway revival of Camelot with an aging Richard Burton. It left an indelible mark. “The director said one night that since I was standing closest to Richard during a blackout, I would be the one who would remove his cape and crown and carry them off. Every night Richard would break character and ask how I was, how my day had been, what I was planning. He was so gracious.
‘We had this moment every night for half a year. I got to watch him from the wings and I learned so much, especially in the economy of acting and pulling audiences in to me, rather than having too much physicality and moving out toward them. I realized when I began doing Phantom I was a bit over the top. I pared away a lot of that extraneous movement, in large part because of Richard.” Gaines played the role over 2,000 times.
Ancient history, as they say.
Perhaps even more ancient are the images we carry from childhood history books of staid men in white wigs, long coats and shiny black shoes with square buckles. Very static, grim images. “But this show is really funny at times,” notes Gaines. “It has to be. Most of these guys drank and were bawdy. Of course, they had serious business to tend to but this show brings them alive.
“I think we usually look at pictures of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and think ‘boring!’ But they really are human with faults and quirks and senses of humor. The show pulls from their moments of sadness and moments of joy. It remains, to me anyway, one of our best shows ever on Broadway.”
In those pre-cable news network patriotic days, reporters weren’t exactly embedded in Constitution Hall so it’s hard to know precisely who murmured what to whom. “But we know John Adams was the brunt of all the jokes [‘Sit Down, John’],” Gaines points out. “We know that from many accounts. Even by his own admission he was obnoxious and disliked – so much so that my character, Richard Henry Lee, a Virginia statesman, delivered the documents that Adams should have delivered. If Adams had done it, they probably would’ve been rejected and we might not have broken away from England.”
Who is Richard Henry Lee? “Well, first of all,” Gaines says, “he was a Virginian and he never let you forget that. He was a statesman in the House of Burgesses. He became the first Senator elected from Virginia, a great orator, aristocratic, very European. Now, I do think the writers took some dramatic license and made him a bit more of a good ol’ boy, full of himself and a little naÃ¯ve and not terribly bright. But he sings a wonderful song, ‘The Lees of Old Virginia’.”
“The thing about Richard Henry Lee,” notes director Nick DeGruccio [MTW’s Rent, The Andrews Brothers], “is that he’s arrogant but has a whole lot of Southern charm. He was the royalty of the time, the Kennedys of his day, from the first colony. They were warm blooded people,” he adds with affection.
Some of that warm blood spilled over the issue of slavery. It nearly became the chasm that today might have us all holding British passports. “Slavery’s a big deal in this show,” Gaines says. “I believe it is Edward Rutledge from South Carolina who opposes independence. He’s so insistent on the slavery issue that Thomas Jefferson winds up scratching out the part of the Declaration that would have ended it. In fact, John Adams said once – and this is something that’s not in the show because nobody would believe he was that prescient – ‘in a hundred years, we’re going to have a problem with this.’
“The whole thing,” Gaines adds, “is very moving. By the end of the show, when everyone’s signing the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell tolls, I’m in tears. It’s so poignant. The sacrifices these men made are astounding.”
Gaines shares the stage with Steve Glaudini who reprises his role as John Adams from the Performance Riverside production in 2004 in which he won an Ovation Award. “We know how this story ends but the writing is so exquisite we’re on the edge of our seats wondering whether the South will say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ and this document will be passed. And the men we play are not just faces on dollar bills or statues. We’re men. And Nick directs us as men. He doesn’t want us to play deities. He wants us to play honest, yet compromised, men.”
John Adams, Glaudini says, is a wholly frustrated man. “As he says to his wife Abigail, ‘I want to knock heads together!’ He’s from Massachusetts and Massachusetts bore the brunt of a lot of heartache from King George in England. It frustrates him the men around him cannot see that, and he’s left to wonder what it will take to inspire them to get behind the idea of independence.”
After winning the Ovation Award, Glaudini was on the fence about reprising the role. “The awards were icing on the cake,” he says, “an incredible perk. The more I thought about it, I realized I am exactly the same age – 41 – John Adams was in 1776 My wife had spent a year away doing The Marvelous Wonderettes off Broadway so I can relate to the separation John and Abigail endured. Thankfully we have Skype now.”
DeGruccio points to a much richer, layered performance Glaudini turns in today compared to six years ago. “He’s matured as an actor and as a person. We all have,” he says. “And those six years help me to better understand what’s needed from the characters. Peter Stone’s book is so brilliantly written. It’s undeniable who these men are. And we need to honor that.”
Glaudini interrupts. “And Nick guides us toward developing the emotional texture of each of them so expertly.”
“Of course there’s still the research of who was a farmer, who was a lawyer, who was a merchant,” adds DeGruccio, “and what was at stake for them. But this is a play about men. You have to approach it from a human point of view. You learn, for example, about who suffered from asthma and then consider his posture, his voice and such.”
But it’s not just men. “Abby Adams really was the first CNN reporter,” Glaudini adds, “because she could see the fight at Bunker Hill and would write to John about what was happening. She was so close to small pox and death. And Tami Damiano really brings her to life.”
Bringing to life icons of American history takes a backseat to the results these forefathers and foremothers achieved. “I’m frankly surprised they did it,” says DeGruccio. “When you look at the seemingly insurmountable odds, I’m actually shocked they did it. And no matter how many times I see the show, I’m moved by comments about slaves; comments like “Sir, those are not people – they’re property!’ Today, an African American is the leader of the free world. To think we actually got to this point.”
DeGruccio hopes this: “That people will see the show, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans and see who we were before these parties were established. And if you can’t be moved by that, then we’ve done something wrong – or,” he says with a laugh, “there’s something wrong with you.”
The cast also includes Steve Vinovich (Lost in Yonkers on Broadway) as Benjamin Franklin; John Bisom (MTW’s The Wizard of Oz, The Full Monty) as Thomas Jefferson; Andy Umberger (Guys and Dolls, National Tour) as John Dickinson; Tami Tappan Damiano (MTW’s The Full Monty, Never Gonna Dance) as Abigail Adams; and Robert J. Townsend (Ovation Award-winner, Best Actor in a Musical for Jekyll and Hyde, Cabrillo Music Theatre, National Tours Mamma Mia!, Camelot) as Edward Rutledge. Featured in the cast are Tom Shelton (An Italian Straw Hat, South Coast Repertory) as John Hancock, Todd Nielsen (MTW’s The Wizard of Oz) as Charles Thomson, Jessica Bernard (MTW’s Sweeney Todd, Guys and Dolls, Cabrillo Music Theatre), Richard Gould (MTW’s Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera, San Francisco cast) as Stephen Hopkins, Damon Kirsche (Little Shop of Horrors, Cabrillo Music Theatre) as Dr. Lyman Hall, Robert Towers (National Tours, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, 1776) and Michael Kean (Rent, Zombie Prom, AMDA) as The Courier. Also cast are Tony Teofilo, Jack Messenger, Chris D. Thomas, Daniel Thomas, Bradley Miller, Jon Powell, James May, Jason Webb, John Richard Petersen, Nicholas J. Leinbach, Brad Fitzgerald and Blake Sterling. The musical director is Matthew Smedal (Little Shop of Horrors, Cabrillo).
Feature image of Davis Gaines by Ken Jacques.
Article by Steve Julian.