First Look: ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company

The cast of ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company.

Long before Hamilton took the musical theatre stage by storm, there was “1776 The Musical.”Winner of the 1969 Tony Award for Best Musical, this retelling of how John Adams convinced our Founding Fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence returns to Western New York thanks to O’Connell & Company, and this time it  will have a special spin. This production, opening April 25, will have an all female cast.

“We’re not doing it as women playing men,” says Mary Kate O’Connell, executive director who also portrays Benjamin Franklin in the cast. “We are all actors playing characters. The gender is not as critical as the words.”

O’Connell heard about an all-female concert version of the show, and decided to take the concept one step further and create the production with a full set, original costumes, and a cast of “strong and amazing women,” she says.

The true power of the show is in the script and score and how it depicts  the history lessons we learned long ago. It was no easy feat to convince a disparate group of stakeholders that this was the right time for independence. This mindset  – in some ways – is a metaphor for more contemporary challenges, and hearing these words spoken and sung by women will make an unique impact. O’Connell says “There’s a level of moral civility and respect that you get from a staged version of a historic event. It lets you see the person behind the words. As actors, we try to give these people and their words dimension. I’m not playing a man, I’m portraying the voice of history.”

The cast fully embraces the significance of this work. Pamela Rose Mangus will portray John Adams.  “It’s daunting and humbling to play a man who was so pivotal in the creation of the United States,” she says. “He, along with the rest of the Continental Congress, sacrificed so much to ensure our liberties.” Playing this role, she says, is “a challenge and a damned good role. Plus it gives me the opportunity to come full circle from when I played Abigail Adams in summer stock in 1976.”

O’Connell has assembled a strong production team to match the gravitas of the women on stage, notably Steve Vaughan,  director and Don Jenczka, music director. There will be three members of the production team taking line notes at every performance, too, according to O’Connell.  “We’ve never had that before. This show demands it and deserves it,” she says. These notes will inform the cast and crew about nuances, reactions, and the finer points of staging a show that has more than its usual share of moving parts to it. As O’Connell says, “This show is an opportunity to give women a voice about a critical part of our history.”

“1776 The Musical” is onstage at The Park School in Amherst – where O’Connell & Company is in residence – from April 25 to May 19. Visit for ticket and details.