JCompany to Put an All-Female Spin on “1776”by Alex Wehrung May 11, 2019
In the unlikely case you’ve never strived to hear Benjamin Franklin sing a vehement “Hell no!” to the offer of being able to draft the Declaration of Independence—and Franklin also happens to be female, in this case—JCompany Youth Theatre has you covered.
“What JCompany is, what it’s founded on, is that we’re an inclusive theatre company,” said Joey Landwehr, director of JCompany’s rendition of “1776.” “We try to run by the rules of Judaism, meaning that children that are observant of Shabbat…we don’t ever have rehearsal on Shabbat, at any times. One of the reasons that JCompany was founded is because kids from Jewish faith were going to Christian theatre, and they were having to pray before the show and stuff, and it didn’t make them feel good. And so they wanted a place they could call their own, but that wasn’t exclusively for them.”
At the time of this article’s drafting, the cast and crew were on break for Passover, but resumed rehearsals upon its conclusion. According to Caroline, the play has already been blocked in rehearsals (meaning the actors have decided where and how they are going to move on-stage). After that comes the tech stage, when the show adds lights, sounds and other effects before running through a rehearsal performance to ensure the actual live performances go as smoothly as possible.
“1776” recounts the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Founding Fathers in musical fashion. The play was originally developed by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone for Broadway in 1969, and was developed as a Jack L. Warner-directed film three years later. Starting May 11, JCompany’s own production will run for four days with a total of six shows.
Taking on the play, Joey said, is a significantly more difficult undertaking as opposed to an ordinary stage play. “You have to be incredibly organized, which I strive for all the time. When you do a musical, it’s really about surrounding yourself with the best possible people and then working as a team, even though it finally lands on your shoulders at the finished product. And so I have to coordinate with many, many different people that I wouldn’t in a play. Like a music director, or an arranger, our pianist, our orchestra.”
“I have to work with three different playwrights, because I have a composer, and I have the book and the lyrics and lots of different things that are part of it, and it’s really about—my mentor told me this when I was at Ohio State—he said, ‘The first rule of directing is to surround yourself with really incredibly talented people.’ And I’ve done that from day one at JCompany, I’ve never been surrounded by anything less. I’m very proud about that.”
This production is a challenge not just for Joey; “1776” has also put Caroline to the test. “There’s just a lot of book,” she said, “which can become challenging, because a lot of characters in this show are using their deep masculine voices, so it becomes harder to sing later on. But I think even though the music is made for men, our task is finding great ways to bring their vocal power to it without making it feel totally out of place.
What differentiates JCompany’s version of “1776” from other productions is that the cast is completely female. As a result, the play’s costume designer had to modify male costumes to fit the cast members, who were also taught to move in different fashions by the play’s music director Morgan Carberry, herself an actress.
“Playing a man is very different from playing a woman,” said Caroline Egler, who plays John Adams. “[Adams is] so different from how a lot of female characters are written. It opens so many more doors for your ability to act, because… we’re not really playing a gender, so I’m not really playing a man. I’m just playing someone who is powerful and passionate and angry. The phrase used to describe him a lot in the show is ‘obnoxious and disliked,’ which is not something that is typically used for a woman in power. So it’s really, really interesting to be able to portray someone like that.”
“[The play] still has this mystical, old-timey feel, but we’re also bringing in the fact that we’re all women, and that’s what kind of connects it with the modern day, of like, this new age of female empowerment, being able to have powerful men played as women is what I think will propel this play into being a little bit less about just a history lesson into more being an exciting, thrilling thing that we’re able to bring all this comedy in to. And the play is funny by itself, but I think bringing women into it makes it more modern.”
That is not the only connection the play has with the present day. Joey noted that while in the rehearsal process, he began to notice similarities between what is going on in Congress today and what occurred within the Continental Congress as they argued over the Declaration of Independence. “…People voting party lines, no matter what the issue; such as people not wanting to reach over to the other side and try to work on things, because [everything is] polarizing.”
“What I think  tells us is that the storybook idea of what the United States was based on is not reality. And it’s really helpful to paint a picture that we’re not necessarily this perfect democracy, but we’re a democracy that’s sure trying. You know, we’re trying to do our best, we just don’t always reach the point that we need to.
JCompany’s “1776” will be playing at the David & Dorothea Theatre at the LFJCC on May 11, 12, 18 and 19, with tickets ranging in price from $17 to $25.