“1776” comes home, with a twist

The cast of 1776. (Credit: Joan Marcus)

The national tour of “1776” arrives on Feb. 14 at the Forrest Theatre, just blocks from where the events it depicts occurred. But little else in this new staging of the classic musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone resembles the expected narrative of the Founding Fathers.

The production — co-directed by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page, who is a resident artist of the Philadelphia Theatre Company — reimagines the Constitutional Convention with a cast of women, trans and nonbinary performers. The roles are also cast diversely, representing multiple racial and ethnic identities.

The tour launches following engagements on Broadway with the Roundabout Theatre Company and at the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, Mass., where Paulus is the artistic director. Beyond the historical connections to Philadelphia, the engagement also includes another local connection.

Sav Souza, who plays New Hampshire delegate Dr. Josiah Bartlett, began their career in Philly after graduating from the University of the Arts. A native of Northern California, Souza has performed locally with Theatre Horizon, Lantern Theater Company and Delaware Theatre Company, among others. In addition to their regular track, Souza also understudies several other parts in the ensemble.

“When I got the audition notice from my agents, I was like, what?,” said Souza, who is trans and nonbinary. “The only thing I really knew about it was the song ‘He Plays the Violin’ and that it was about a bunch of old white men. What could they possibly want with me in this show? But then I watched the movie and was told about the vision for this new revival, and I got excited and got on board.”

Sav Souza (Credit: Grace Stockdale of Songbird Studios)

Souza was initially cast in early 2020, with an expectation that performances would begin later that year. Obviously, the pandemic had other plans. But the company found ways to keep up momentum and continue the process even during the darkest days of COVID-19.

“ART and Roundabout ended up putting together the very first Zoom contract to do a Zoom workshop, so we did this two-week Zoom workshop that was absolutely incredible,” Souza said. “It was the very beginning of the shutdown, and everyone was unsure of what would happen. We had no idea if we were going to be putting this show on in three months, six months or two years, which is what it ended up being.”

The prolonged delays actually helped contribute to deepening the dramaturgical work of the show, according to Souza.

“Because we weren’t getting ready to put on a production essentially, we had time to sit with the material and get to know it,” they said. “Because ART as an institution is affiliated with Harvard, we had access to these incredible scholars who came into the workshops with us, who talked to us about the really still topical subject matter. We took a deep dive into the history, which is something you don’t always get to do when you’re putting up a show in four or five weeks. Diane Paulus had us do historical presentations with the prompt to find an ‘in’ into the time period personally — like what communities from their cultures were like back then. I ended up actually finding a trans person who existed and is one of the very few trans people documented from that time period.”

On opening night for the Broadway production, Souza wore a coat emblazoned with a simple message: “Trans people have always existed.” In response, the far right-wing publication Breitbart wrote an article that misgendered Souza and belittled their identity. Souza decided to use the experience as a teaching opportunity, working with Roundabout Theatre Company to introduce a program insert to educate audiences about the various identities and intersections among the cast members onstage.

“I wanted to figure out how to take something that sucks and turn it into an education opportunity that hopefully will help other theaters figure out how to handle things like this in the future, because this will continue to happen to trans performers, unfortunately,” Souza said. “Almost every single audience member gets a Playbill. I was like, why don’t we add a page in there for education? So many people spend time looking at their program before or after the show, so it seems like a good place to do some work. 

“Roundabout spent money on putting together this printout that myself and the rest of the gender-expansive folks of the ‘1776’ company helped to draft, based on the language the folks in the cast actually use as self-identifying language,” Souza continued. “We personalized it to ensure that everyone felt seen and included in the language that we used. I’m actually really excited to share that it’s going to be an actual, printed page in the program of every engagement of our tour.”

The experience of “1776” holds multiple personal resonances for Souza. They are touring alongside their partner, Ariella Serur, who will play the role of Judge James Wilson. (The couple began dating shortly after Souza was cast in 2020; Serur joined the company during the 2022 engagement in Cambridge.) It also represents their first time performing in Philadelphia since 2019.

“When I saw that Philly was going to be the first stop on the tour, it felt like such a homecoming,” Souza said. “I think of Philly as the place where I came into my identity, into myself and into my artistry, all over the six years I spent there in college and after graduation. I remember walking past the Forrest often, and all the gorgeous theaters in Philly, and thinking that one day I’m going to come back here and be in one of these shows that I’m going to see. Just knowing that we’re going to be singing that opening number, and the first time we say ‘It’s hot as Hell in Philadelphia’ — it will take everything in my body not to scream Go Birds!”

For more information on 1776, visit https://www.forrest-theatre.com/1776.html/.