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A century and a half after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Ford’s Theatre has murdered him again. Perhaps it’s asking too much of the District’s preeminent middle school field trip venue to attempt some interpretation of American history that’s not just pablum. But by now, we as a nation should be able to move beyond Civil War musicals like Freedom’s Song, a creaky, toothless revue that doesn’t seem to know which side of the Mason-Dixon line is right.
The show is a 90-minute compendium of bits from Frank Wildhorn’s 1999 Broadway musical The Civil War, previously staged in full at Ford’s in 2009. This new cut-and-paste version by Richard Hellesen and Mark Ramont feels like the musical theater equivalent of a secondhand costume shop. Symbols, not characters—a runaway slave, a soldier’s wife—recite not dialogue, but verbatim passages from Lincoln speeches in between the Broadway songs.
Lincoln’s words are the new hook for the anniversary; the program notes call this “a unique perspective.” But it’s not, really, when the speeches remain embalmed in the time he originally spoke them. A braver show might have discovered modern resonance in a line like, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”
Director Jeff Calhoun, who also helmed the 2009 production and has a long working relationship with Wildhorn, places more than a dozen cast members in constant rotation on a slanted set with rear-screen projection of quotes and body counts. There are the Union and Confederate soldiers performing exaggerated Broadway fight-dances with their bayonets. Trumpet marches play for the North; fiddle tunes for the South.
Separately, a chorus of slaves sing strangely upbeat hymns, thumping their chains in rhythm, alone on the stage. One of them, the closest thing Freedom’s Song has to a protagonist, escapes his invisible master and ultimately joins the Union army. He’s played magnificently by Kevin McAllister, whose dulcet bass singing is the show’s highlight.
There’s never an explicit line drawn between the fighting and the slave-owning; not by the slaves and certainly not by the Confederates, even though they sing several jaunty ditties about their loyalty to Dixie (the less said about the number “Old Grey Coat,” the better). Nameless Union and Confederate generals, privates, and wives deliver wet-blanket tunes about loss, love, and the senselessness of war. But that’s not the same thing as reckoning with the specific causes of this war, and the absence of context is a downright irresponsible dramatic decision.
Following the trend of popular American history dramas that simply ignore Reconstruction, Freedom’s Song recites the Emancipation Proclamation as though the document ended racism. In one of the concluding scenes, a Confederate general—who previously sang about his desire to fight for the South from beyond the grave—solemnly surrenders to McAllister’s black Union soldier. All is forgiven?
Ah, but then a shot rings out on the soundtrack as a spotlight trains on the roped-off Ford’s balcony that floats ghost-like over all. The cast turn their heads in deference, and we remember why we’re really here: to pretend everything he fought for was in the past.