“Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?”
The lyrics were earworming through my brain as I waited on the phone to speak with anarchic stage director Diane Paulus, whose latest theatrical Tea Party is a revolutionary new version of the Denver-bound Revolutionary War musical “1776.”
I sang those very same words a few decades ago in a post-college production of “1776,” which is set in the months leading up to the unlikely adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Playing Congressional Secretary Charles Thomson, I was reading off the latest largely ignored dispatch from Gen. George Washington as his Continental Army was falling to pieces in the battlefield.
“Does anybody see what I see?”
Believe me, I’ve been singing that tune a lot these past seven years.
Paulus joined the call. It was not lost on either of us that this interview was taking place on Jan. 6 – two years to the day after the greatest threat to our idealistic yet flawed system of government since World War II.
What a fragile experiment, this thing we call democracy.
On this somber, specific day, Paulus’ thoughts turned to the Founding Fathers and what finally incited them to break away from Mother England all those years ago. “They were radicals,” Paulus said. “They were attempting to found a country on an idea. That had never been done before. They wrote themselves into existence through this document.”
Their Declaration of Independence, in addition to being a very thorough divorce decree from England, “was also a deeply aspirational document,” she added. “And the men who wrote it and signed it were risking their lives.”
But on this day – Jan. 6, 2023 – two years after the insurrection, Paulus can’t help but also look at where we are in America today. More pointedly, she asks: Whose America are we even talking about? Who was America founded for and by? And who defines America today?
“I think you can look at our American history as an affirming myth – or you can look at it as a predicament,” she said.
Paulus, who was included in Time Magazine’s 2014 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, freely admits that she was never taught in school that the Declaration of Independence is a deeply compromised document that, its original draft, would have abolished slavery but in the end relegated Black people to nearly another century of legally enforced servitude.
Paulus did not know that until she was asked to helm a new Broadway revival of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s dusty old Broadway musical that first opened on Broadway 54 years ago Thursday and is now touring the country to cities like Denver, where it will open at the Buell Theatre on Tuesday and run through April 2. She had never seen a stage production of “1776” or the 1972 movie version. So when she picked up the script and read it for the first time, “it kind of leapt off the page to me in terms of the resonance to where we are today,” she said.
“Part of the study for me was to understand both the stakes for these historical figures, as well as to understand who was occluded, who was omitted, and how do we reckon with the compromises that were made in the very founding of this aspirational creation of America?”
Well, I can tell you who was occluded and omitted from the first 50 years of “1776” stagings: Anyone who didn’t look pretty much just like me.
In my long-ago production of “1776,” our program listed 24 of young men who played various members of the Continental Congress. Followed by, under a header that read “Additional Cast Members,” the names of four young women: Two who played wives Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson – and two more who played, I swear to John Hancock: “Women.”
Last October, Paulus and co-director Jeffrey L. Page introduced Broadway audiences to a very different take on “1776.” All of the familiar historical characters were there, from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams to Ben Franklin. But they were played by a multiracial cast of 21 non-binary, trans and female-identifying actors.
“None of whom,” Paulus pointed out, “would have been allowed to step into Independence Hall with any power in 1776.” None of whom, for that matter, would have been allowed to audition for the show’s Broadway premiere 54 years ago. And, most meaningfully, none of whom were given the slightest consideration by the crafters of the Declaration of Independence 247 years ago.
“You're talking about a cast of humans alive today who would have had no voice in the history-making that this musical depicts,” Paulus said.
Just as “Hamilton” revisits early American history with a remix built for performers of color, Paulus is putting all of those excluded people in the room where it happened. And not by changing the script or by revising any of the history. The original musical is essentially intact.
Paulus is essentially drawing two stage pictures at the same time here: One imagining the change we are aspiring to in America … the other imagining the change we are aspiring to in the American theater. And not by simply sticking these new, nontraditional actors into traditional white-men roles and leaving it at that. Paulus’ revival opens in a Brechtian way, with these contemporary actors literally stepping into the shoes of the Founding Fathers.
“We're really inviting the audience to hold two realities at the same time as they watch the show,” Paulus said. “The first invites them to look at the stage and see a cast that is reflecting the diversity that is at the heart of America today. And at the same moment, those same actors speak the very words that depict this historical moment of the founding of America. But we are never asking the audience to forget who these performers are. And that's very deliberate in how we've staged the show.”
In the same way “The Lion King” allows audiences to see both the stage puppets and the actors maneuvering them, “our actors are always visible in their real-world identities,” Paulus said. “They still have the earrings they want to wear and their hairstyle how they want it to be. But for the audience, you're actually having to think about both identities – and I think it makes you hear the language in a fresh, new way.”
Paulus’ personal mantra as an artist is to always expand the boundaries of theater – or why even bother? She did that when she previously reimagined the classic Broadway musicals “Hair,” “Pippin,” “Porgy & Bess” and even Alanis Morrissette’s platinum-selling album “Jagged Little Pill.” And she’s done it again with “1776.”
Theater is an inherently collaborative art, and this massive revival of “1776,” Paulus believes, could serve as a modest metaphor for countering the greatest ongoing threat to our democracy: Division from within.
“I think what's helpful about this show is that it gives you a historical understanding of why we are where we are today – and I think the very beginning of finding a collective path forward is to look back, honestly, at our past,” said Paulus, who is a huge fan of “Just Mercy” author Brian Stevenson. “He had a quote about how people are so afraid of looking back at the flaws in American history because people expect only punishment. But he’s not interested in punishing anyone. He said, ‘I want to look back at the flaws in American history not to punish America – but to liberate America.’
“This musical, for me, is one way we can come together in a theater, as an audience, in a community and look back at our history and maybe help us understand the rough compromises that were made. But if we acknowledge them and reckon with them and look honestly at that history, that is the first step toward bridging the divide.”