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`1776' has fun with nation's founders

article: Bruce Dancis
photo: Charr Crail
Sac Bee Article 1776

Matthew Ashford, right, as Thomas Jefferson,
Conrad John Schuck as Benjamin Franklin
and James Brennan as John Adams
in this year's Music Circus production of 17


Who knew that the Founding Fathers could sing and dance?

Perhaps a more accurate question might be: Who knew before Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone's musical 1776 debuted on Broadway in 1969, that John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the rest of the signers of the Declaration of Independence could carry a tune and step lightly?

Actually, other than presenting the historical fact that Jefferson really did play the violin, 1776, the Tony Award-winning musical that will open Tuesday night and conclude the 2007 Musical Circus season, plays fast and loose with music and dance history.

But the play is quite accurate in its depiction of the Continental Congress, the group of men gathered in Philadelphia to represent America's 13 colonies as they debated their future relationship with Mother England and drafted the Declaration of Independence.

The Bee recently talked with Adams, Jefferson and Franklin -- or more accurately , the actors James Brennan, Matthew Ashford and Conrad John, Schuck, respectfully -- about 1776,  their characters and America history.

"The play was the first to resuscitate John Adams' reputation," says Brennan,  a Music Circus favorite who has starred in My Fair Lady, Camelot and Damn, Yankees, among many credits.

Adams, a major figure in Boston revolutionary  politics, a leader in the debate over independence at the Continental Congress, an ambassador to France and the second president of the United States, had become a relatively forgotten founder by the 1960s.

"It was known only to die-hard Revolutionary scholars that he was a prime mover in the Revolution," Brennan says. "Because his presidency was so unpopular, it squelched his legend."

Brennan points out the irony that "a musical comedy started the Adams resurgence," which included the PBS miniseries The Adams Chronicles and, more recently, best selling histories by David McCullough and Joseph Ellis.

Adams is usually portrayed as a cranky man to whom Franklin says, "Nobody listens to you. You're obnoxious and disliked.

So how does Brennan play him?

"Obnoxious and disliked," says Brennan, adding, "you can't be afraid of that" as an actor. "But he gets to show his terribly human side with (wife) Abigail and in his scenes with Martha Jefferson."

It's a "daunting" task to play such an illustrious historical figure as Jefferson, says Ashford, who has appeared in several productions of 1776 but is best know, since 1989 [sic] for playing Jack Deveraux in the popular daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives. (Ashford says his Days character is "in England right now" but he will be return.)

Ashford hopes to guard against portraying Jefferson as a "superman on a pedestal" or a "demigod... given the magnitude of what he and these guys did."

Like Brennan, Ashford has studied historical works about his character, citing Joseph Ellis' books as examples.

But what he really appreciates about 1776, is that the play shows personal life and feelings of Jefferson.

"He has a young wife and he just wants to go home (to be with her)," says Ashford. "He's ready to chuck it. That's a major humanizing fact."

And he recognizes what's special about acting in 1776: "We get a chance to do something most people never get a chance to do -- to step inside history."

The message of 1776 has always appealed to Schuck, who saw the musical in its original Broadway production.

"The material blew me away," Schuck says. "That someone could put all this information in theatrical form was marvelous. It defines what being an American is in a really good way."

Schuck has played Franklin onstage before, but this will be his first Sacramento appearance. Yet he will be instantly recognized by local audiences from his many performances in movies and on TV. (The actor is now using his birth name, Conrad John Schuck, instead of just John Schuck.)

He played Painless the dentist in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H and Sgt. Charles Enright on McMillan and Wife, among many roles. He's also starred in two Broadway productions of Annie (as Oliver Warbucks) and has appeared frequently in revival tours of the musical, which he calls "my working annuity."

Yet after nearly 40 years of screen and TV credits, Schuck describes musical comedy as "the inspiration for my career." He remembers wanting to become an actor ever since his parents took him to see Oklahoma! on Broadway, where, ironically, Howard Da Silva, the actor who originated the part of Benjamin Franklin in 1776,  was portraying Jud Fry.

Like has fellow 1776, actors, Schuck has researched his character in history books, and considers them "helpful in find the little moments in Franklin's life."

The amiable Schuck delights in the play's "witty and joyous nature," and readily quotes one of Franklin's best lines: "Treason is a charge invented by the winners as an excuse for hanging the losers."

He follows the lead of Franklin himself in his portrayal, noting that the great man said, "We're men, not demigods."

We asked the actors what their characters might say to today's viewers:
  • Brennan believes that the separation of church and state was very important to Adams and is "something that needs to be talked about today."

    In addition, "(Adams') whole purpose was arguing for Independence and railing against tyranny because he felt that we were being abused. There's a lot of that going on in the world today."

  • Ashford points out that while Jefferson's dream of building an "agrarian utopia" in America is not relevant today in an agricultural economy dominated by large corporate farms, he would certainly see that "America is in a constant state of revolution, always trying new ideas."

    He believes Jefferson would tell Americans today to "wake up and hold onto the freedom they worked so hard for," in particular "absolute religious freedom."

  • For Schuck, Franklin's message would be: "Don't be afraid. Freedom is such a gift. Don't muck it up with pettiness.


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