No fireworks for me this year (except for the illegal ones in the back alley at 3:17 a.m.); no pageants or pomp or parade. I decided long ago to boycott all displays of nationalism this Independence Day. With a con artist occupying the White House and my opinion of the people and system that put him there at a record low, what’s to celebrate?
“Bah! Humbug,” I answered mentally when anyone asked about my plans for the Fourth. For unrepentant liberals, this holiday has felt much like the run-up to the holiday season after 9/11, when New Yorkers didn’t know what we were supposed to do. Out loud, I said I hoped to spend the day quietly at home, writing. Maybe, if I were very lucky, I’d be offered a shift ushering “Oslo” at Lincoln Center Theater in the evening, making fireworks out of the question.
But New York is “an island off the coast of America,” as Spalding Gray said, and we here think and act in our own ways. Once again, a New York institution – theater – saved the day.
There’s saying in the theater: “Keep the drama onstage.” But the drama spilled over into the house at Sunday’s matinee of “Oslo” when it became known that Hillary and Bill Clinton were sitting in G309 and G310. I’m no longer dazzled by celebrities and VIPs. From my years at The New York Times, when visiting dignitaries (including, once, Hillary Clinton) were a fact of everyday life, I can spot Secret Service agents by the curly cords behind their ears, even in blazers and khakis instead of black suits with white shirts and ties. But on Sunday I couldn’t help wondering what might be running through the minds of two audience members who had personally lived at least a piece of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Army. When I took the stage at intermission, my view of the Clintons wasn’t quite as good as the chief usher had promised, but no matter. I had already taken in a late-arriving patron and had no trouble picking out Bill’s white crown from an aisle away.
After closing my doors after intermission, I heard a roar from the house and simply had to go back in. As the Clintons returned to their seats, the audience was on its feet, clapping and cheering. Hillary (who looks great, now that she’s had some rest) smiled, waved and sat down. When a second wave of applause began, Bill stood again; he knows how to work a crowd. Near the end of the play, when he appears with Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat in a video that fills the upstage wall, I could hear yet another round of applause from outside. I remembered a time when the United States had a budget surplus, no elective wars and a government we didn’t have to be ashamed of, and thought of what might have been.
The matinee buoyed me enough that on Monday I ordered Elizabeth Warren T-shirts and was actually looking forward to my one concession to the holiday: “54 Sings ‘1776’ ” at Feinstein’s/54 Below that evening. For four years the supper club has been staging an abbreviated concert version – just the songs, ma’am – that clocked in at 50 minutes. Having seen the original 1969 Broadway production twice and adored its John Adams, William Daniels, ever since, I had always wanted to go. I checked the ethics of relaxing my boycott with my musical theater friend Carol, resident of “a blue corner of a red state,” who gave her blessing: “I think it would be a supremely ethical thing to do. The solemnity and gravity of the ending is the opposite of Trumpian populist madness.”
In one peculiar way, “1776” reminds me of “Gypsy”: every time I plan to see it, I think, “Do I really need to see this again?” and every time I come out, I think, “What a good show!” (The last time I recall seeing it staged was with Carol in 2003 at Ford’s Theater in Washington, which brings to mind the Bush-era joke about how that president could best serve the country: “Go to the theater!”) The moment the opening drumbeat takes on a bit of swing, I’m hooked. The memories flood back, and immediately I start to lip-sync.
This time the text was especially resonant. Adams’s remark about useless men – that “three or more are called a Congress. And by God, I have had this Congress!” – drew a round of enthusiastic applause. And Adams’s description of himself as “obnoxious and disliked” didn’t stop him, or at least one of his successors, from winning the presidency. Adams was no saint of political correctness, what with the Alien and Sedition Acts, but he is the revolutionary firebrand star of this show. The Tories in “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” are as smug as any modern-day Republican, though nowadays it’s liberals who are wondering if the British crown might be willing to take us back.
The cast blew a few lines, but it was only their second performance. John Adams (Kyle Scatliffe) was tall and black rather than short, rotund and white; what was he thinking as he listened to Wade McCollum’s impassioned “Molasses to Rum to Slaves”? The rest of the cast was all-white, young and, of course, all but two male. I might have wished for a more multicultural cast in 2017, but maybe the “young” was more important. From my seat at the bar rail, about one-third of the audience looked old enough to have seen the original production; the rest were young, and I wondered what had drawn them to this show.
If this “1776” had been staged like “Oslo,” I could fantasize the actors standing like columns at the end, facing the audience and telling what happened to the original cast. (“Howard da Silva, having survived blacklisting in the McCarthy era, died in 1986.” “Virginia Vestoff died of cancer in 1982, at 43.” “Ken Howard, after a long career as an actor and Screen Actors Guild president, died in 2016.” “Betty Buckley lives on and is still going strong.” “Williams Daniels lives on and has just published a memoir, at 90.”) But it wasn’t. Nor did it end with the signing of the Declaration and the Liberty Bell tolling freedom. Instead, the concert version concluded with Adams’s 11 o’clock number, ending in a plaintive “Does anybody see what I see?”
Maybe those 1,000 people who gave that standing ovation at “Oslo.” Come to think of it, Adams’s line is not far off Jefferson Mays’s curtain speech in “Oslo,” a play about diplomacy and making peace: “There! On the horizon. The Possibility. Do you see it? Do you?” It’s a start.
I’m not wearing red, white and blue today. In a couple of hours, I’ll be proudly back in usher black. That gig at “Oslo” came through.