'1776' — a new, queer take on an old classic

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday May 9, 2023
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Cast members in the touring production of '1776' (photo: Joan Marcus)
Cast members in the touring production of '1776' (photo: Joan Marcus)

It's been more than fifty years since the musical "1776" opened on Broadway. This rollicking show tells the tale of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and has traditionally featured a primarily male, cisgender cast.

But a new production coming to San Jose's Center for the Performing Arts takes this old chestnut and turns it on its ear. This touring company, which was first seen on Broadway at the American Airlines Theater, is cast entirely with female, transgender and non-binary actors.

Furthermore, the performers are multi-racial. Among the cast members are Ariella Serur, who uses the pronouns they/she and identifies as non-binary, who plays Judge James Wilson. Also featured is Sav Souza, who uses they/them pronouns and is queer and transgender, as Dr. Josiah Bartlett. Serur and Souza are a real life couple.

Ariella Serur and Sav Souza (photo: Instagram)  

"I thought it was really exciting," said Serur, when asked by the Bay Area Reporter how they felt about being part of this production. "The concept of our show is having a cast made up of folks who were not allowed in the room when the Declaration of Independence was written and created. Telling this story from more diverse and various points of view makes you really think twice about who it was that created the rules of our country in the first place and how if this country was written into existence, can't we just keep rewriting?"

"I was really excited about this reframe of the show," added Souza. "I personally have no interest in reviving old material when we could be putting money toward new, queer work, unless we are going to investigate it through lenses that made us consider the work and its context differently. I'm so grateful to be part of a show that's doing just that."

Souza finds the biggest challenge of working on stage with their partner is having to work hard not to break each other out of character. They point out that their and Serur's characters are on opposite sides in the fight for independence and that they have a great deal of fun antagonizing each other in character.

Cast members of '1776' (photo: Joan Marcus)  

Serur has their own take about being in a show with their character.

"The biggest challenge is that when one of us is sick, the other person can't be a hands-on caregiver in a way that we would if we weren't in a show together since we can't get each other sick," they said. "It just feels counterintuitive from a partnership perspective to me. But most of the time it is so rewarding and fulfilling to look across the stage and see the person I love acting their face off. We also spend a lot of the opening number next to each other and have two solo lines back to back toward the end of the show. It's a blast."

Serur sees their character as being two different people, a combination of two historical figures. They also see Judge James Wilson as someone who is thoughtful and kind, someone who doesn't like to ruffle feathers.

"We worked with an amazing dramaturg on our production, Robert Duffley, who made character packets for each of us which taught us about our character's history and how what we're reading in the script might be different from the way things played out historically," Serur said.

humble, connected
Souza notes that their character was a delegate in the Second Continental Congress for the colony of New Hampshire. They see Bartlett as a humble man who cares to stay connected to his morals around building a new nation.

"But he struggles with the question of what he is willing to sacrifice to help start a new nation," Souza said.

Souza's favorite shift in this version of the show is in the orchestrations. The songs have been reimagined but still remain faithful to the source material. The show's music team rearranged the score for voices it wasn't written for, and Souza feels that the end result is quite powerful.

"If you're someone who, like me, has never seen anyone who looks like them in the United States government, this is an incredible chance to feel seen and celebrate the gorgeously diverse bodies that make up the real America we see on the street everyday," they said.

"The talent on this stage is truly unmatched," added Serur. "If you're someone who loves the original version of '1776,' come to hear the new orchestrations. See if you interpret the show in a new way on these bodies. If you're new to the show in general, this piece is really effective in encouraging the audience to hold multiple realities at once: what happened historically and how that relates to what's happening in our country today. It's a beautiful, funny, heartbreaking piece that we're really proud of."

'1776' at Broadway San Jose, San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255. S. Almaden Blvd, San Jose, May 16-21, $38-88. www.broadwaysanjose.com
www.ariellaserur.com www.savsouza.com

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