The year 1776 is one of notable history when it comes to the United States of America.
So much so, that the story has been made into a book, a film (which came out in 1972) and of course, into a stage show with ‘1776: The Musical’. Now the classic tale has been re-imagined with different actors taking on the role of our founding fathers, new musical arrangements, new looks for the stage in terms of lighting, but, the same old words and text that made the show famous in the first place.
‘1776’ takes place over a three week period leading up to July 4th where members of congress debate on how to break away from the British Empire, with topics ranging from slavery to religion to prosperity. We see figures such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and the Continental Congress’ custodian, Andrew McNair, played by University of Arts graduate Tiffani Barbour taking part in the action over the course of the show. And with the revamp, it takes on a new meaning.
And for Barbour, bringing the show back to Philly—where it takes place—is meaningful as well. The Baltimore native and University of the Arts grad is looking forward to showcasing the show (and to getting an Ishkabibble’s cheesesteak), and she delved a little deeper into why this show’s revival will make waves.
What perked your ears about this show in particular and made you want to audition?
Well, I had seen it, I think when I was a kid at a dinner theater in Baltimore… and I fell asleep. It’s the kinda show where you definitely have people that love it from when it came out, but as a little Black girl from Baltimore, this show about the founding fathers was not an interesting tale for me.
When I got the call to audition, I said, ‘1776’? What does he need out of me for ‘1776’? [But] they were calling for female-identifying, non-binary persons, trans persons and BIPOC persons…. I said to myself, this is definitely interesting. And without knowing how it was going, the idea that they had around it, what their concept was going to be, that perked my interest enough with that casting call that they asked for that I said I definitely have to see what’s going on with this.
And what can you tell me about your character, Andrew McNair?
There’s actually not a lot about him, which is interesting and unfortunate, but he is a real character. He worked in the first and second Congressional Congress, and I think in total he worked for about 18 years. As far as the research I had done on him, he is from Philly and he was a part of the Freemasons. We know he had a wife and some children and a house in Philadelphia, and part of his duties was to ring the bell when the opening of Congress, and it’s said that he might have rang the bell once they had written the Declaration of Independence.
But yeah, he’s quirky and I think of him as just the seeing eye of the Congress and he definitely keeps them in line while also getting them rum and swatting flies and opening windows. He is the janitor, but he’s also, you know, the secretary and a voice of reason. He sees the real world, uh, the way it is because he’s a working man. He really sees how it all really comes down and it’s really fun to play.
What does the revamp of the show bring to the audience experience?
You know, there are people who don’t like this change, this re-imagining of our founding fathers. And we’ve had critics talk about it on message boards and on Twitter who aren’t comfortable with that—and hopefully they will come and see it. And hopefully people will come see it without knowing that just because it is ‘1776’ and it does have a huge following of people that love this particular show.
So, what I hope and what we all hope is that we can change the minds [of people] and that they can enjoy it the same way they did before but [now] even better because the words coming out of our mouths. That makes such a different impact and a different statement when you see a Black woman playing John Adams and Ben Franklin and all of these historical figures that people know.
Any moments that stand out to you from the show?
There’s a duet between John Adams and Abigail Adams called ‘Yours, Yours, Yours’ where the orchestration arrangements have been reworked, and it sounds incredible. Then there’s a scene, it’s famous for being the longest scene in musical theater history without a song, so when we first started to tackle it, it was this beast of a scene. Everybody kind of dreaded it when we rehearsed it. But what ended up happening is we shortened it a little bit, and now it’s become a lot of our favorite scene because it definitely is getting the language out and shows how these characters relate to each other and it puts their ideas on the table.
And how does it feel to now bring this show to Philly?
Bringing the show to Philly, and especially starting the tour there, it means a lot to all of us. This show takes place there and to have audiences that we know are going to come see it is really getting us jazzed up…And hopefully we’ll be able to take some pictures in costume at Independence Hall and really get into some meat of the history of the town and be able to incorporate it with the show being there. So that’ll be really fun.
Catch the Broadway revival of ‘1776: The Musical’ when it hits the stage at the Forrest Theatre Feb. 14-26. Tickets are available online.