“1776” certainly wasn’t the easiest selection for Aspen Community Theatre’s annual fall musical, running Nov.4-14.
Not just because every period piece requires elaborate costumes and well designed sets (which they have), or because bringing 234-year-old history to life is a daunting task (which they successfully surmounted), or because people like familiar musicals with familiar music (which they don’t have). “1776” is a difficult musical for ACT to present simply because it’s a play that requires more than 20 singing male performers with months of free time on their hands.
“It’s hard to get that many males to audition in a good year,” says Director Pat Holloran. “There was definitely a lot of hand-wringing right up until auditions.”
And instead of panicking, Aspen Community Theatre turned to its own pool of alumni for the couple dozen leading males needed for the play based on the events leading to the writing and signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776. The troupe dug back a decade and a half to find the men to play our country’s founders. Fortunately for ACT, and the audience, they were pulling from a talented pool.
“I’ve always had an affinity for this show,” Holloran adds, now directing his third musical for ACT. He also acted the part of Tevye in 2006’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” “I’m not sure why, but it just intrigued me to have that many men on stage.”
But “1776” is also in that rare class of narratives, like “Titanic,” where knowing the end of the story doesn’t take away from the thrill and excitement of watching the details unfold.
“Everyone took a civics class in school,” says Scott MacCracken, who plays South Carolina Continental Congressman Edward Rutledge. “If you tell people the name of the musical, they’ll probably know what you’re talking about, but they probably won’t be familiar with this particular play and how it treats the history. The show isn’t quite a comedy, but it does offer a light-hearted approach. And because so much of it is factually accurate, it also serves to educate.”
While the singing and the set is undeniably top-notch, and the post-election run of the musical is decidedly well-timed, ACT, and community theater in general, offers an even loftier goal: It brings a community of people together on both sides of the stage. From simply watching friends and neighbors on the Wheeler stage (where the annual ACT musical has returned after several years at the Aspen District Theatre) to interacting with fellow thespians, both old on new, “1776” will ultimately be a success before the first curtain rise on opening night.
“I’ve been in a number of ACT musicals and done all kinds of professional performances all over the country,” MacCracken says, “and doing this volunteer work is almost as rewarding. Working with professionals, people sometimes think they’re worth more than the paycheck. But here everyone is on the same level, and there’s this universal enthusiasm because everyone is doing it for the love of it.
“And we seasoned professional get to kind of encourage the new people who don’t have as much experience and, in the case of this show, no experience whatsoever. So we bring them along and kind of show them how much fun it can be. And that’s good for me, good for the production, and good for the audience.”
Since mid-September, the cast and crew has been practicing nearly five days a week, ramping up to almost every night in the week or so leading up to opening night.
“It’s no small commitment,” Holloran says. “But we’re really happy so far with what we’ve come up with. It’s visually stunning, with the costumes and the wigs, and it was really fun for me as a director to work out having so many people on stage at the same time. It’s fun, and easily worth the price of admission.”
The Tony award-winning musical written by Peter Stone (with music by Sherman Edwards) opened last night, Thursday, Oct. 4, with Graham Northrup starring as John Adams, the widely disliked delegate from Massachusetts; Julie Maniscalchi plays his loving wife, Abigaill; the author of the declaration, Thomas Jefferson, is portrayed by Brian Keleher; with Jennica Lundin as his romantic wife, Martha; Jeff James-Schlepp is the wise and witty Ben Franklin.
Featured in the cast are Gary Daniel as John Dickinson, the leader of the cool conservative men; Mike Monroney as the flamboyant Richard Henry Lee; Scott MacCracken as the pro-slavery advocate, Edward Rutledge; Kim Nuzzo as John Hancock; Franz Alderfer as Charles Thomson; and Luke Seamans as The Courier.
Other honorable delegates to the Continental Congress are Jeff Bestic, Wayne Ethridge, Andy Godfrey, Anthony Hall, Jerome Hatem, Bill Hodges, Ken Johnson, John Keleher, Warren Klug, Oskar Okicic, Ned Sullivan, Jim True, and Tripp Watts.
‘1776’ presented by Aspen Community Theatre
At the Wheeler Opera House
Nov. 5 & 6, 7 p.m.
Nov. 11-13, 7 p.m.
Nov. 14, 2 p.m.
Cost: $18/adults, $14/children ($16/adults, $12/children for matinee)