WHAT: Rivertown Theaters presents the Tony Award-winning musical about the backstory of the Declaration of Independence. A.J. Allegra directs Sherman Edwards music (book by Peter Stone); starring Gary Rucker, David Hoover, Louis Dudoussat and others.
WHEN: Nov. 4-5, 8 p.m.; Nov. 6, 2 p.m.; through Nov. 20
WHERE: Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St.
TICKETS: $44 adults, $41.90 seniors, $39.80 students
MORE INFO: www.rivertowntheaters.com
When Rivertown Theaters’ Gary Rucker and Kelly Fouchi announced they would include “1776” as part of their 2016-17 season, they cleverly timed it to coincide with the Nov. 8 presidential election. Well played! But did they really know what they were getting into, given how crazy this election season has become? Some are lamenting the death of a republic in this toxic campaign, so now more than ever it’s crucial to witness the birth of a nation in this Tony Award-winning 1969 musical from Sherman Edwards (working from Peter Stone’s book). A.J. Allegra, artistic director of The NOLA Project, slides over to direct a cast that includes Rucker in the lead role of co-founding father John Adams, with David Hoover as Benjamin Franklin, Nori Pritchard as Abigail Adams and Louis Dudoussat as John Hancock.
Allegra, who I tapped to offer insights into a NOLA Project production a couple years ago, offered up his favorite musicals with a political theme — including this production, which opens this week at Rivertown Theaters in Kenner.
In anticipation of the opening of “1776” and our impending election, here are my picks for my favorite political musicals. I use the term “political” a little loosely, but all of them are very political at heart. Also, it is important to note that these are simply my favorite and not an objective “best of” list in any way.
I think comparing most pieces of theater is comparing apples and oranges. But all of these shows have moved or affected me in some way. It should not be surprising that many are shows I’ve worked on. You tend to develop an affinity for those ones.
“ASSASSINS” — This show is one of the most uncomfortable pieces of art ever created for musical theater. At a very surface-level interpretation, it can be viewed as a glorification of the men and women who have attempted to take the lives of Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, F.D.R., Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Ronald Geagan, and John F. Kennedy. But in reality, this pastiche and bizarre Stephen Sondheim musical review set in a vague carnival purgatory setting is an acidic indictment of the American culture of “Me” that drives individuals with sociopathic tendencies towards seeking the greatest form of infamy. I love the darkness of the piece and the intentional discomfort that it aims squarely at the audience, forcing us all as viewers to come to terms with our own jaded views of the American Dreams that were promised to us but did not come true. This was the first professional musical I ever directed back in November of 2008 on the eve of our election of Barack Obama. While that was certainly a historic and (for me, wonderful) time, I honestly feel that the musical might be even more appropriate during this year’s absolutely toxic and vile election campaign, where one candidate’s large and vocal support base is made up in very large part of furious and (sometimes) violent Americans who feel that the American Dream promised to them has been deceitfully stolen from them by others. And yet, sometimes I think it is best to combat reality with art rather than reflect it. Perhaps a production of Assassins this year might just be too much to handle. I’m glad we are opening “1776,” in that case!
“CABARET” — Like “Assassins,” “Cabaret” is a dark concept musical (the first “concept musical,” in fact!) with many, many layers that really was revolutionary in its 1969 inception. If Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized the American musical with “Oklahoma!” in 1943 by creating the first fully integrated story using music, dialogue and dance, then Kander and Ebb and director Harold Prince re-revolutionized the form with “Cabaret” by blowing that straightforward storytelling concept to smithereens. “Cabaret” is a show within a show within the head of a central character who is far more passive bystander than objective-oriented story hero. The entire thing is controlled and run by a seedy and somewhat creepy, nameless emcee. And the central female hero of the story is a cabaret performer in 1930s Berlin whose final dilemma revolves around whether she receives an abortion. So I think you could say things have come a damn long way since Nellie Forbush sang about being corny in Kansas! Now, you might be curious as to what makes “Cabaret” a political musical, but that is because the piece is so multi-layered. The most interesting layer of “Cabaret,” for me, has always been about the political circumstances of 1930s Berlin (a highly liberal city) that allowed for the unprecedented rise of Naziism. The city is intentionally presented as a very familiar depiction of an urban liberal bastion where, despite the reigning “It could never happen here” mentality, Naziism eventually takes a sudden and unprecedented hold. The musical ends with the knowledge that those same carefree figures enjoying the good life in the first scene are very likely the first ones to be sent to die in the concentration camps of Hitler. It’s chilling. Perhaps another apropos musical to our 2016 election, but best left untouched for now… As a fun personal note, I have never worked on any production of “Cabaret,” though I have seen several. Every year, when The NOLA Project sends out our year-end audience surveys, we ask for suggestions on future shows people would like to see. Year after year, one patron sends back the request that we produce “Cabaret” with myself as the Emcee. The egotist in me always thinks “What a fine idea!” but the more prudent artistic director always wins out.
“BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON” — Now here is a controversial musical. In fact, I would venture to guess that this musical may never be performed professionally again, despite premiering at the Public Theatre (home of “Hamilton” and “Fun Home,” recently) less than a decade ago. The difficulty and controversy, of course, revolves around the supremely controversial titular character, President Andrew Jackson. Jackson was America’s first populist president, rising to power on the supportive backs of several million Americans who were tired of the elite Washington class ruling everything in government. After losing his first presidential bid to John Quincy Adams (son of the central character in “1776”), Jackson claimed that the election was essentially rigged. (Dear God, the terrifying parallels!) He regrouped, re-energized his base, and defeated Adams four years later in a landslide. And then things got tricky, because, as Jackson tried to please all parties, he ended up directionless, clueless and totally lost. And so the musical represents him as such a man: a childish Emo rockstar. But what makes the musical controversial and essentially unperformable today is in its depiction of indigenous people. Jackson famously maligned several thousand Native Americans, forcing them off of their lands and onto the infamous Trail of Tears. And while the musical certainly depicts these acts and never puts Jackson in anything close to an admirable light for doing so, the Native Americans in the show were played by non-Native performers, both off and on Broadway. In my own local production of the show that I directed during the re-election of Obama in October/November 2012, I admit to practicing the same. But the American Theatre has progressed in many ways since just four years ago, and agency in storytelling has become a major and necessary sticking point for indigenous people. And they have deemed the portrayals in this musical as mostly offensive. So we owe it to them to follow suit. Look, by no means am I ashamed of my work on this show, nor does its present un-performability make me appreciate it any less. I still consider it to be a scathing and hilarious satire of a fascinatingly complicated American figure dealing with a lot of his own neurotic demons. It also features some of the best pop-rock music in the last decade on Broadway. By no means does it glorify Andrew Jackson or his actions. In fact it plainly mocks them and holds presidential incompetence sternly to the fire. But by denying those Americans who have already been denied so much the right to speak for themselves and tell their own version of the story, it oversteps its boundaries. So do yourself a favor and give the cast recording a listen. Because I doubt you’ll see it again.
“PACIFIC OVERTURES” — This is one of those musicals that theater fans mostly know of, but don’t actually know. And I was completely in this camp myself until Jefferson Turner, my good friend and former NOCCA colleague suggested that I direct it with the students at NOCCA in 2013. I was terrified. Wasn’t this Stephen Sondheim’s Kabuki-inspired musical about something in Japan that flopped in the 1970s? Well, the answer is yes! But that is far too ignorant and simplistic of a definition. So I dove in and discovered it to be a rich and complicated examination of the forceful opening of Japan to Western trade by American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 as told from the Japanese perspective. The music and book, by Sondheim and James Weidman (the same pair behind Assassins) are a detailed depiction of Japanese society as they slowly become Westernized following the visit by Perry and his ships. It has a “Rashomon”-like effect, telling the same story from multiple points of view, leaving the final say so with the audience. Would Japan have been better off left alone, or did America do a great thing by bringing the insular country into great commerce with the rest of the industrializing world? These are questions that we do not ask enough in America, because, to us, if we did it, then of course it was right and good. This musical does not beg to differ, but rather just begs the question. I would encourage everyone reading this to discover it for yourself, as I did three years ago. It is greatly rewarding and intellectually stimulation for those of you that do.
“1776” — Of course. “1776” is, to my mind, the finest book of a musical ever written. Now for those with less of a theater-nerd vocabulary, the “book” of a musical is another way to say the scripted dialogue of the show. In this masterfully crafted musical, there are a mere 11 songs. Today, most two-act musicals have more than 11 songs in each act alone. And yet, the musical is not short of music for any reason. The dialogue, written by Peter Stone, is so sharply crafted, that the show would quite honestly work as a taught and thrilling play on its own terms. The music only adds to the sheer American delight of it all. I discovered the power of this show in a high school U.S. history class in 2001 when my teacher popped the “1776” VHS in for a very skeptical class of jaded and eye-rolling teenagers. Certain that I would be the sole theater-loving student in the room enjoying myself, I remembered watching as every singly student grew uniformly transfixed to the happenings on screen. A singing and dancing Benjamin Franklin was suddenly not a subject for mockery, but a fully formed, randy and hysterical old man who the kids all uniformly loved. The truest mark of its success was the second day of class when we found ourselves half-way through the film and one boy raised his hand to ask “Are we gonna finish the “1776” musical today? I want to know how it ends.” There is the success of this show — you actually sit there in fearful anticipation of how it will end.
Lastly, I would be remiss to leave out mention of the phenomenon that is “Hamilton.” But in all honesty, I do not yet have the knowledge or expertise of any kind to write anything worthwhile about it. I very badly want to experience it in person for myself, and will do so this May in Chicago! Lord, those tickets were hard to get! If the mountains of recommendations I have heard are correct, if all of my good friends are to be trusted, and if the truckload of phenomenal press and awards heaped upon it thus far are to be deemed worthy, then it goes without saying that the political musical list has now been topped by this. And for that I am very excited. To be living in a time when a piece of new theater has such a profound affect on the American public is something to be cherished for an artist like me. So by the time election 2020 rolls around, I hope to have a lot more to say about “Hamilton.”
Until May, I wait in hopeful anticipation.