If You Go
What: “1776,” by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, directed by Charles Jackam.
When: 7 p.m. Jan 12-13, 18-20; 1 p.m. Jan. 13.
Where: Heritage High School, 7825 N.E. 130th Ave., Vancouver.
Tickets: $10; $7 for students 13-18; $5 for 12 and under, seniors 60 and over.
One morning a few months ago, the whole Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area came to a halt as everyone piled into internet ticket queues to score seats for the traveling version of the Broadway show “Hamilton” — an ambitious American history lesson masquerading as musical theater.
The irresistible “Hamilton” is a phenomenon for the way it explores this country’s difficult birth through brilliant hip-hop lyrics and grooves. But, decades before “Hamilton” appeared, another celebrated musical — with a slightly more conventional approach — took a similar run at history as it portrayed all the messy debate, disagreement, compromise and conniving that took place as a group of argumentative men launched a grand experiment called United States of America.
Yes, nearly all the roles in “1776” are men. But Heritage High School theater teacher and director Charles Jackam solved that problem easily: “We’ve gone gender-blind,” he said. The script, by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, calls for 26 men and two women, but in Heritage’s production, nearly all the roles are evenly distributed.
Leading man John Adams, the chief agitator for independence, is portrayed on different days by two different actors, one female and one a transgender man. “I love that gender isn’t an issue. I love the inclusiveness,” said one of the two Adamses, sophomore Connor Randall.
Randall said portraying the famously “obnoxious and disliked” Yankee from Massachusetts, who spends much stage time confiding in the audience his frustrations and anxieties, is both a challenge and a hoot. “He’s always expressing so much emotion,” Randall said. “I’ve got to be big and loud and angry. It’s an important, serious role.”
Don’t let that scare you off. Adams and legendary cohorts like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock also sing, dance and zing each other mercilessly. “1776” is like a Gilbert-and-Sullivan version of America’s origin story — packed with melody, comedy and even a little romance. It certainly pulls no punches about laziness, drunkenness, hypocrisy, despair, fear and overheated irritability among our founding fathers.
“What we’re usually taught about these men, they’re almost cardboard cutouts,” said Jackam. “We know George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and never told a lie and all that stuff. But in this play we get to see fallible, passionate human beings. They don’t just politely sip tea and declare independence. They fight, figuratively and literally.”
Pulling these larger-than-life figures down off their pedestals doesn’t make them any less admirable, Jackam added, just more understandable. “You see the good and the bad,” he said. “They were such complex, fascinating human beings.”
Complex and fascinating is a good description of Heritage’s production of “1776.” It’s big operation featuring full stage set, a live orchestra of 18 students and two teachers, and that vast cast of 28. The story wrestles with difficult questions like the quest for unanimity when declaring to the world that “an illegal rebellion is actually a legal one,” as one character says, and — most crucially — the continuation of slavery in a new nation supposedly built on the principle that all people are created equal. The desperate negotiation that keeps slavery alive is a painful and ominous episode.
Jackam said he chose this ambitious play — winner of the 1969 Tony award for Best Musical — because it’s not attempted often, and certainly not by high schools. Jackam, who has played the Ben Franklin role, credits the 1972 film version with firing up his lifelong love of American history, he said. He’s not the only one.
“Hamilton” mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda “cited this show as one of his biggest inspirations,” Jackam said.