Pittsburgh Public Theater prepares for its biggest musical -- '1776'
Members of Congress on stage, part of the 26-member cast of "1776" at Pittsburgh Public Theater
John Scherer plays Richard Henry Lee in "1776," at Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Keith Hines plays Thomas Jefferson in the Pittsburgh Public Theater production of the musical "1776."
In Pittsburgh Public Theater's "1776," George Merrick, left, portrays John Adams, Keith Hines is Thomas Jefferson and Steve Vinovich plays Benjamin Franklin.
George Merrick plays John Adams in Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of "1776."
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Ted Pappas can't sit still. He's pacing and talking about preparing for Pittsburgh Public Theater's version of climbing Mount Everest, the musical "1776," while just a few long strides away, two dozen staff members are standing in a circle atop the O'Reilly Theater's turntable stage.
Mr. Pappas describes the exercise as "a stress test," something he should be well-acquainted with as the show's director.
The turntable has to balance and move a cast of 26, with an orchestra positioned underneath. The director has to wrangle a divided Continental Congress as they debate, negotiate, compromise and sing their way toward a vote for independence from England.
As he paced an O'Reilly conference room recently, the indicator on the Pappas stress meter was pointing toward "excited," with opening night looming next Thursday (previews begin tonight).
The Tony-winning musical "1776," the headliner in the Public's Made in America season, made its Broadway debut in 1969 and inspired a movie version in 1972. With a book by Peter Stone and music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, "1776" invited audiences to the birth of the nation with a mix of re-enactment and Broadway-style bravado. It also has provided headaches for stage directors ever since, with its large cast and one 40-minute stretch without songs that had it billed originally as "a musical play."
To pull off "1776," cast and crew are coping with dressing rooms and backstage space with little wiggle room for all of those bodies and all of those wigs. In front of the house, a row of seats has been added to the already tight quarters.
"I've always thought the O'Reilly was the ideal space for '1776' because of that feeling of being in the midst of the delegates as opposed to just watching them," Mr. Pappas says. "It's almost like you take sides with them, and you're signing with them. You feel that, hopefully."
For the director, there's a smaller hill to climb, the matter of who's who among the alliterative actors and their historical counterparts.
"I have an actor named McCune playing the role of McNair who's standing next to McKean. It's pretty amazing if I can keep them all straight," he said. (That's Jason McCune playing Andrew McNair and Tim Hartman as Col. McKean.)
He also has Broadway veterans in key roles: His John Adams is George Merrick, and he gets a break from the "M's" with Steve Vinovich as the wily Benjamin Franklin.
"I chose the show with George Merrick in mind as John Adams," Mr. Pappas says, adding John Scherer (who plays Richard Henry Lee) and his Arthur and Lancelot from last season's "Camelot" -- Hayden Tee (Edward Rutledge) and Keith Hines (Thomas Jefferson) -- as actors he's welcoming back.
"George Merrick and Steve Vinovich have been leading men in other productions of mine around the country, not just at the Public Theater. Plus there are a lot of terrific actors in Pittsburgh. So I was able to spread my net and welcome both veterans of Public Theater and brand new people, like Jeffrey Carpenter."
Mr. Carpenter, who portrays penmanship icon John Hancock, usually works a few blocks from the O'Reilly, as the head of the Bricolage Theater Company. In his online bio for the show, he cites "1776" as his favorite musical.
To be sure, it is a rarity of the genre. For example, there are but two female roles: Abigail Adams (Trista Moldovan, who played Christine in the last national tour of "The Phantom of the Opera") and Martha Jefferson (Libby Servais).
The action, such as it is, comes from verbal sparring or exchanges between John and Abigail Adams. Much of the couple's interaction is derived from letters they exchanged while John was away for months or years.
"They invented the modern marriage, where they were equal in the house," Mr. Pappas states. "He went to her for advice; she had her own agenda. She ran that farm when he was away ... and in her letters, she says, don't forget about the women and don't forget about the blacks. She was very much about women's rights and freedom for all Americans."
As John Adams' frustration over the haggling heads of state reaches a fever pitch, "1776" may put you in mind of the high-stakes negotiations portrayed in the Oscar-nominated "Lincoln" -- or in 21st-century news of divided Houses and congressional stalemates.
Public Theater patrons, educators and sponsors have displayed excitement at the box office for a show that features an epic compromise. The company had added two performances well in advance of opening: a second student matinee and an evening show on the final Sunday of the run.
"This show has become a very magnetic project for sponsorships, individuals and companies -- they are adopting actors: someone sponsoring Ben Franklin, someone sponsoring John Adams, Jefferson, the costumes, the set ...."
Ah, the set. Mr. Pappas had long wanted to tackle "1776" but hadn't solved the problem of quick scene changes from inside the Philadelphia statehouse to outdoor scenes until another recent show gave him an idea.
"We built the turntable for [the comedy of manners] 'Private Lives' to change from the hotel to the apartment. Once I had the turntable, the light bulb went off, and I knew I could do it."
While discussing "1776," Mr. Pappas frequently interjects thoughts on the next show on tap for the Public, "Thurgood," the solo play about the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
The director returns to pacing after watching the progress of the stress test on the O'Reilly stage, all the while coming back to comparisons between the shows that will carry the Made in America season into April.
"Can you imagine the audacity to picture what both John Adams and Thurgood Marshall pictured?" Mr. Pappas asks. "To say that anything is possible. To be a lawyer and to make the case that it's wrong to slam the door in people's faces, and then to have the voice to actually make it happen. To be a British subject and say, we need to invent a new country -- and when England is the most magnificent and powerful country in the world, to say we're going to leave that and invent something, and we have no idea what it is ... Come on. Our problems are so small compared to that."
First Published January 24, 2013 12:00 am