When art and history collide, it's spectacular, and the timing is just right with Asolo Rep's production of "1776" and Stephen Spielberg's "Lincoln" playing in movie theaters now.
(Almost perfect timing, in fact, given how Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday.)
In "1776" we're left to explore the mind of John Adams and the words of Thomas Jefferson and in Abraham Lincoln we explore the 16th president's handling of a nation in crises.
At the end of both, I'm left with the words of Frank Galati, who directs the Asolo Rep production of "1776.
"Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation," Galati said. "That's how the 'I Have A Dream Speech' begins, echoing and quoting the Gettysburg Address. Now in 2012 as Americans commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, a black American is the president of the United States. And the Asolo Rep is presenting '1776.' That is history."
When Galati spoke about the 1969 Tony-award winning play during a press conference earlier this month, he mentioned two main topics: not many people have seen the play despite its success and how American history is a constant state of moving forward while looking back.
The first issue he brought up can be fixed easily: Go see the play.
The second statement makes sense, but what of it in the context of "1776?"
Well, you'd figure that the play will move along with song about how the country started, but it's so much more than that and yet its plot is refined and focused to discuss the creation of the Declaration of Independence.
And that creation took compromise, sacrifice and patience in the desire of the Delegates of the Continental Congress, their wives, families, and rights of their fellow man, told not through Thomas Jefferson, but instead focusing on John Adams.
In Spielberg's "Lincoln," it's not a war movie like "Gettysburg" or a mini-series drama like "North and South." The movie revolves around Lincoln's compromise, sacrifice and patience of his wife, family, his Congress, to ensure the rights of black Americans, ending slavery, through the creation and passage of the 13th Amendment.
Both Adams and Lincoln had their critics, even within their own party, or Lincoln's cabinet, but "Lincoln" couldn't have happened without what's contained in "1776."
"Much of the drama of this remarkable musical is conciliated in the debate of our Founding Fathers over these revisions," Galati said. "The crises of the action is reached with thrilling efficiency, I think when Edward Rutledge, Delegate of South Carolina demanded the removal of one of Jefferson's most eloquent passages— the final trope of the Declaration's list of offenses by the British king, firmly denouncing the institution of slavery."
Before the curtain rises, we see Adams, played by Bernie Yvon, play a confident, at times hilariously arrogant forefather, sending the play into the opening song, "Sit Down, John" where Congress pleads Adams to well, open up a window, to relieve Congress of Adams' hot air.
Galati was right when he said the play serves up some corny moments but without being campy, and it helps lighten up the mood in a play that could easily be overly serious. That wasn't lost on the cast as they did a tremendous job balancing sadness with satire, from Abigail Adams standing by her man to the moving "Momma Look Sharp" where a courier shares a tell of a young soldier dying while his mother looks for his body on the battlefield.
The play really gets moving when Jarrod Zimmerman as Senator Rutledge demands that the states should have their own rights and laws and do what they shall, and without allowing slavery, states like South Carolina would rather become its own country.
I of course, was not born in 1969, nor have I seen the movie adaption of "1776" but thanks to Spotify, I was able to hear the original Broadway recording, and I'm glad I didn't see it or hear it because I much prefer the Asolo production. Look, singing styles have changed in 43 years, and that could be it, but the fire in Zimmerman's voice while maintaining a southern draw in "Molasses To Rum" and Yvon's keying in on capitalizing Adam's "Good God" lines are great choices by these actors that might appear minor, but when everyone does their part in a play like "1776" it adds up to a great show.
Sometimes we go to shows to be purely entertained, but at Asolo it's about a conversation or at least, to get you thinking.
Indeed, I thought, how amazing that the abolition of slavery could have torn this United States apart and instead, we could be living in the Country of Florida and have to get our papers signed to head up to Georgia.
"In order to preserve the union of new states, that passage was struck from the Declaration of Independence," Galati said of Jefferson's work. "Four scores and seven years later, Abraham Lincoln became the narrator of our American story."
And with the handiwork of Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, parts of Doris Kearns Goodwin's novel "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" narrates the story of this man.
Unlike a lot of "Civil War" movies, "Lincoln" doesn't build up to the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation because the proclamation only freed slaves, and didn't recognize them as American citizens nor did it outlaw slavery. The movie instead builds to the inner workings of Congress and his battles with his cabinet.
As I watched Daniel Day-Lewis portray the best version of Lincoln I've seen (and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, too), the story moves along with Lincoln's strategy to preserve the Union, bring back the Confederate states back into the fold, all with legally abolishing slavery without ending the war first.
"One presidential scholar writes, 'I'm left then with Lincoln who like no man before or since understood the deliberative function of our democracy and the limits of such deliberation. We remembered for him the firmness and depth of his conviction— his unyielding opposition to slavery and his determination that a house divided could not stand,'" Galati said, quoting President Barack Obama in his novel "Audacity of Hope."
"Lincoln advanced his principles through the framework of his democracy through speeches and debate," Galati continuing to paraphrase Obama. "Through the reasoned arguments that appeal to the better angles of our nature, it was his humility that allowed him to resist the temptation to demonize the fathers and sons who did battle on the other side. Or to diminish the horror of war."
It's almost like he's the one giving a review of "Lincoln." In it, we see Lincoln reason with his cabinet, his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) enlisting despite his father's demands, and Lincoln pardoning Confederate teenagers.
The movie itself is beautifully shot, full of convincing acting and also has plenty of moments of levity and comedy to break up the drama and heaviness of the situation. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens is almost like Jones is being himself.
Throughout "Lincoln" I mused how parallel the approach of "1776" and the movie are, but how our country is full of compromise and baby steps. That's even addressed in "Lincoln" where the Confederates wonder if Lincoln was automatically going to give black men voting rights, and what would become of slaves in a free world.
It turns out that that would have to wait until the 20th Century for voting and segregation to be addressed. And wait for the 21st Century to see the first black man become president of the United States of America, who this month just was elected to a second term. You can argue with President Barack Obama's politics, but it says a lot about the country to not only finally elect a black man once, but to elect him twice, considering what the country had to do just to be created.
Given where the country is at in history, it's great to see two very different pieces of work explore the compromise and small steps it takes for this nation to continue despite how easily divided we can become.
So take advantage of both "1776" while it runs at the Asolo and "Lincoln" as it shows in area theaters—it's the greatest American history lesson entertainment can buy.
Lincoln is in area theaters now. Visit Moviefone.com for a listing of showtimes.
The play runs through Dec. 22. Tickets cost:
- Previews range from $26-$45
- Opening Night ranges from $35-$75
- Tues/Weds range is $31-$69
- Thurs-Sat eve shows go for $34-$73
- Matinees are $29-$66
Make your art pairing even better with one of these special performances of "1776"
Inside Asolo Rep — 11 a.m. Nov. 28
Get a glimpse of what goes on behind the curtain in this special event featuring director Frank Galati and musical director Michael Rice leading a panel discussion with audience interaction. Lunch on the mezzanine will follow at noon to 1:30 p.m. Maintee begins at 2 p.m. ($5 for panel discussion only; $25 for panel discussion and lunch; $75 for show, lunch, discussion)
The American Family Day — 1 p.m. Dec. 1
Before the show, families in attendance will enjoy live music, food, photos and a few special suprises. Following the 2 p.m. performance, everyone in the audinece is invited for a post-show discussion with the cast. Discounted tickets are availble for familes for this performance.
Meet The Actors — 1 p.m. Dec. 9
Interact with the cast during a moderated talk-back during the performance.