Touring musical ‘1776’ puts a new spin on notion of Founding Fathers

After the runaway success of “Hamilton,” a whole lot of theaters here and elsewhere started reviving that other musical about the Founding Fathers, “1776.”

With songs by former Brill Building composer Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone (writer of the Cary Grant films “Charade” and “Father Goose”), the comedic 1969 musical details the negotiations in the Second Continental Congress leading up to the Declaration of Independence.

Now a new version of “1776” is coming to San Jose fresh from Broadway. Boasting an ethnically diverse cast entirely made up of female, transgender and nonbinary actors, directors Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page’s revival opened at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last May and moved to Broadway that September.

The tour launched in February, almost exactly a month after the show closed on Broadway. Its six-day run at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts, presented by Broadway San Jose, is the only Bay Area stop on the tour.

“I think at this point, 200-odd years into our nation, we have started to regard the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as some sort of Old Testament. Static, set in stone, dogma,” says Nancy Anderson, who plays Thomas Jefferson. “The whole reason the show was even written was to show that we have been having the same conversations and having the same struggles with our founding documents that they were having in 1776.”

Usually there are only two female parts in “1776,” those of Adams’ and Jefferson’s wives, frankly underwritten roles necessarily sidelined from the congressional deliberations.

“I saw a post that somebody put on social media that said, ‘This just in. Benjamin Franklin was a dude,’ says Liz Mikel, who plays Franklin. “And I had to respond, ‘But he was also human. And a human is portraying him on stage.’”

The nontraditional casting isn’t an entirely a new idea. There have been a few all-women productions of “1776” in the past. The first production to get permission to do so was in Kansas City in 2010. Right here in the Bay Area, San Jose’s Tabard Theatre Company did one in 2014, and a concert version played New York in 2017. But this production is the most prominent example to date.

(From L) Liz Mikel as ‘Benjamin Franklin,’ Nancy Anderson as ‘Thomas Jefferson’ and Gisela Adisa as ‘John Adams’ in the National Tour of 1776. Credit: Joan Marcus.

“This is really the reason why I took this job,” says Gisela Adisa, who stars as John Adams. “I get to be an element of myself, in a very Brechtian way, where the audience right away understands we’re stepping into the shoes of these people. We are not these people, but this is our interpretation of these people and the founding of this nation. Even though it is very much honoring what the original creators made, because it’s coming out of us, it takes on different levels of meaning.”

The tour comes at a time when it might not even remain legal to perform the show in some parts of the country, due to the recent epidemic of anti-drag legislation in red states.

“Sometimes you get an audience that is maybe resisting the fact that I don’t look like John Adams, Nancy doesn’t look like Thomas Jefferson, Liz sure as hell doesn’t look like Ben Franklin,” says Adisa. “And for some people that’s hard to let go of.”

Much of the drama centers around the Original Sin of this country, the compromise of allowing slavery to get all the states on board to declare independence, and how even the delegates opposed to slavery profited from it in one way or another.

“The moment Nancy as Thomas Jefferson whips that pen across the clause in question, the clause that’s like, are we going to be on the right side of history? It feels like a whip on my back,” says Adisa. “I’m Gisela in this moment.”

All three actors were in the Broadway production playing different roles, while also understudying the parts they’re now playing. Adisa was Robert Livingston of New York, appointed to the five-man committee to draft the Declaration. Anderson portrayed George Read, the conservative delegate from Delaware considered a safe vote against independence. Mikel played John Hancock, who presides over the proceedings.

As Hancock, in that moment all I could think about were my ancestors, and how the building of the country was happening on the backs of these people,” says Mikel. “As Franklin, when Jefferson takes that out, I was like, ‘He gets the bigger picture. We’re going to have a country. Even though that’s a horrible compromise, we’ll take care of that later.”

For these performers, the show is all about refusing to sweep the ugly aspects of American history under the rug.

“Our show is not questioning whether or not America deserves patriotism, but whether America can actually look itself in the mirror and say, I want to heal properly,” Adisa says. “I want to process this great generational shame. I need to go through the thicket of this so that we can come out better.”

Contact Sam Hurwitt at, and follow him at


Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone, presented by Broadway San Jose

When: May 16-21

Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd., San Jose

Tickets: $38-$103; 800-982-2787,

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𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝘀, 𝗖𝗼𝗽𝘆𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 & 𝗖𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘆:
𝗙𝗼𝗿 𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗶𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗴𝗮𝗿𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗗𝗠𝗖𝗔,
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