I had two shows and a peace march on my calendar for this past week, and damned if they didn’t all bleed into each other by the weekend. The march was passionate and predictably pointless, dismissed even by the media as little more than static in a drama playing itself out on the world stage. The shows felt a trifle more tuned-in, largely because of serendipitous timing. Theaters could hardly have picked a more apt week to open a musical about a divided America preparing for war, or a play dealing with angry French and British leaders jockeying for influence in a recently reinvented Europe.
Not that either show is new. 1776, the America-goes-to-war musical, had its debut in 1969; Henry V, the fractious-Europe opus, hails from 1599. Still, the reverberations felt fresh enough.
The lights dimmed for the premiere of 1776 on Monday night just a few minutes before the White House issued its 48-hour ultimatum to Iraq. By my watch, the president’s address concluded at about the moment a dispatch arrived on stage from General Washington, who was gamely facing down the army of a despot even as Congress and the public debated whether he should be on the battlefield at all. Subsequent missives from the general spoke of a new kind of war, of rough terrain, of homesick soldiers.
There were plenty of other parallels. The show’s left-leaning rabblepassionately full-voiced John Adams (Lewis Cleale), randily avuncular Ben Franklin (David Huddleston), idealistically misty-eyed Thomas Jefferson (James Ludwig), and their pals in the Continental Congressare dismissively referred to as agitators. The rightprosperous John Dickinson (Michael L. Forrest) and his mostly Southern followersplaces property rights and business concerns above such esoteric values as liberty and social equity. I could go on, but you get the drift.
All of this is amusingly handled in Peter Stone’s light-footed libretto and Sherman Edwards’ clever lyrics. Edwards’ music sounds a tad tinny as it emerges from the smallish pit band (the program credits David Siegel for “orchestral reductions”), but once the vocal harmonies kick in, the show is pretty transporting aurally. Few musicals have found so many colors in the sound of a massed male chorus, from hymn to aria, barbershop to Tin Pan Alley. That said, first-nighters took a while to realize they were at a musical comedy rather than a patriotic pageant. But once they understood it was OK to laugh, David H. Bell’s staging gave them plenty of opportunity to do so.
Scenarist James Leonard Joy’s sliding slatted screens, Mariann Verheyen’s persuasively authentic waistcoats and wigs, and Diane Ferry Williams’ evocative twilights and dawns all contribute to the look of a show that seems so at home amid the historic architectural gingerbread of Ford’s Theater, it’s hard to see why it should close anytime soon. Especially when events outside the theater are so distressingly in sync withand mirrored byevents inside, from Adams’ complaints about congressional dawdling to Benjamin Franklin’s pomposity-puncturing quips (“You don’t see any of them rushing out to get killed, do you? But they’re great ones for sending others”) to one-liners about the importance of coalition-building with “powerful nations, like Spain or France.”
The very next night, the Washington Shakespeare Company premiered Henry V, which centers, as I didn’t quite remember until I was sitting there watching it, on a young, eloquent, war-embracing British leader facing down an older French chief of state who tries to resist being hounded into battle.
Director David Bryan Jackson has tweaked a few moments at the Clark Street Playhouse. When war is first declared, a shout of “Now all the youth of England are on fire!” is the cue for a youthful performer to hand out blood-red fliers calling Henry a “war criminal.” Later in the evening, a contemporary reference for Elizabethan audiences has undergone a minor adjustment to make it comprehensible for today’s theatergoer, who’d otherwise need a footnote. The line originally suggested parallels between a battle-tested Henry’s triumphant return to London and the hero’s welcome Shakespeare’s audiences would have been expecting to give the Earl of Essex, sent off in 1599 to quell a rebellion in Ireland. (He failed miserably, as it turned out.) In the WSC production, “Ireland” has become “Iraq.”
As it happens, Karl Miller, the charismatic actor playing Henry, already looks from some angles like a younger Tony Blair, and he has elected to portray the crusading 15th-century Brit leader as a similarly confident, well-spoken, take-charge kind of guy, so we’d get the point without the pointing. Still, it’s the sort of connection that art is supposed to make.
The production is less sure around the edges. An opening gambit that feels cribbed from Shenandoah Shakespeare Expressthe cast erects a mini-Stonehenge out of oddly shaped storage chestsis visually arresting but turns out not to have much to do with what follows. A welter of intentionally comic but unpersuasive French accents makes whole passages harder to follow than they should be. Still, Miller’s authoritative Henry is commanding enough that when he’s on stage, which is most of the evening, background issues seem to evaporate, in much the same way the music stops sounding tinny when 1776’s chorus sends it soaring.
For what it’s worth, audiences of all political persuasions will find things to likeand to dislikein both shows. Shakespeare may have intended Henry V to glorify a warrior king, but as Kenneth Branagh established in his movie version, the Bard also depicted the horrors of battle, so a director can make a less hawkish case if he wants. And though 1776 has always functioned as a buoyant history lesson, on opening night at least, it seemed every bit as much an object lessonabout what can happen when a hugely powerful country hellbent on empire-building tries to impose its will on a less powerful nation from afar.
In any event, it would be hard to watch either show at this particular moment in history without hearing reverberations in speeches about war and heroism, victory and sacrifice. They may have been written long ago, but they resonate freshly in the chilly air outside the theater, as audiences tune in newscasts and rejoin a drama still unfolding. CP