"1776" in 2021. Courtesy of Poplar Forest.
"1776" in 2021. Courtesy of Poplar Forest.

Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest is bringing back what has become a community staple leading up to the Fourth of July: a production of “1776: the Musical” on the author of the Declaration of Independence’s lawn.

The “1776” tradition started as a brainstorm in 2013, with the first production in 2014. The show would become an annual affair at Thomas Jefferson’s retreat home, Poplar Forest. Despite being interrupted twice during that time — once in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and again last year when Poplar Forest was denied the rights to produce the musical because of a Broadway revival — the classic musical about the struggle for independence from England and the birth of the United States as we know it today is back.

This year’s cast features women playing the roles of some leading male characters, and a few new faces.   

While it is a comedy, the musical balances humor with the serious business that America’s founding fathers and early congressmen were tackling, and the implications of their actions for the future of a budding nation.   

Mary Massie, director of programming and education at Poplar Forest, and Poplar Forest as an organization never expected the show to become a beloved local tradition.

When Massie and Poplar Forest’s then-president and CEO talked about doing a movie night on the property, she half-jokingly told him, “You know, the first movie we have to show is ‘1776.’” There seemed no more appropriate film to show on Jefferson’s property than one that starred, among others, the author of the Declaration of Independence himself.

Being a history buff and musical theater lover, Massie said this show “checked all of her boxes.” However, she knew not everyone was a fan of musicals, and did not really think screening the film version of “1776” would be a go. The next year, however, the then-president and CEO’s wife got in touch with some mutual theater friends and said they should not just show the movie — they should put on a live performance of the musical at Poplar Forest. 

In 2014, Poplar Forest hosted a one-night performance the week leading up to the Fourth of July, and capped ticket sales at an audience of 300. At the time, they had no idea what to expect and no clue if the event would draw interest or be successful, Massie explained.

“[We] really quickly learned that, A, the yard could hold way more than 300 people, and that the demand was huge. We sold out before the show opened. We had people on a waiting list upset that they couldn’t get tickets. We really quickly expanded it, and so now obviously we do the show still just one weekend, but we do three nights, and we know now that we really don’t have to limit the amount of tickets we sell,” she said.

The production and audience has grown over the last almost-10 years. Over the three-day run, “1776” draws about 1,200 people, according to Massie.

"1776" in 2021. Courtesy of Poplar Forest.
“1776” in 2021. Courtesy of Poplar Forest.

This year, for the first time in a while, two roles in the show came open: those of Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson. This opportunity, Massie believes, spurred the large number of women who came to audition.

“We did have a lot of women turn out to audition this year, but this was the first year we had either of the female roles in the show open. The way this show has traditionally been cast is, if you were in a role last year, you were automatically offered that role again the next year, and so we have people sort of grandfathered into the cast,” Massie said.

Poplar Forest’s “1776” production will feature some new faces this year.

“We didn’t cast women in ‘1776’ playing the Founding Fathers to make any sort of statement,” Massie said. “In terms of casting women in these male congressional members, it’s really not a new thing for our production of ‘1776.’ We’ve almost always had at least a few women playing some of the congressmen. This is the first year we have had female actors playing principal roles of male characters.”

The production is not gender-bending the characters, Massie added. Women are stepping into the roles of males and are portraying them as such.

“If we refused to cast women in male roles, we’d never be able to do the show. We wouldn’t have enough people to be able to do it,” Massie said.

According to John Holt, director of “1776” for the third time now, the theater talent pool in the Lynchburg area is roughly 60% women and 40% men.

“To put it simply, there is a higher percentage of talent out there who just happen to be female,” Holt said in an email. “Since then, the number of women in this show has grown. More so, they are not women pretending to be men. … They are women playing a role with a male name. Kudos to the Broadway revival, but we did it first.”

Among the men played by women this year are John Dickinson of Pennsylvania (by Libby Gatzke) and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (by Erin Geiersbach).

“They’re kind of the two big antagonists of the show. They’ve always been played by men in the past with us,” Massie said.

John Hancock is also played by a woman. 

“Shakespeare had men playing women way back. People were playing different genders basically the whole time, because women weren’t allowed in theater, so men were playing women, and that’s just how it went. It’s really not that outside of the norm,” said Jennifer Cossman, who is playing Hancock this year.

This is Cossman’s second year in “1776” at Poplar Forest. She found herself going from a character with six lines to a character with “significantly more.” The president of the Continental Congress is one of the show’s major roles. To prepare, Cossman did some historical research into the affluent businessman and politician who is perhaps best known in the public mind for his flamboyant signature on the Declaration of Independence.

“This show makes it a little easier, because this is a real person. I was able to do some research into John Hancock and figure out who he was, how he was raised, who he became after this whole thing, and just kind of figure out the kind of person he was, and try to portray that with my own personal spin,” she said.   

Alexa Rodgers, who plays Andrew McNair, the congressional custodian — or “doorkeeper,” as historical records put the job title — is joining “1776” for the first time. She was familiar with the musical, having watched it in high school. Growing up in a family with deep interest in history — her father is a Civil War reenactor — this production was a natural fit.

“I feel like his character, in this production, kind of serves as a little bit of comedic relief for some of the heavier bits in the show, as well as, he kind of keeps things going, because he’s the custodian. He’s going around doing what they need, getting water, or all these other things,” Rodgers said.

Finding the character of McNair was unique, because there is little historical record about him. Rodgers had to rely primarily on the script.

“With him, specifically, it’s been a little interesting, because there isn’t a lot of historical information about McNair. We know that he was a real person, and that he served the Continental Congress,” she said.

Playing McNair in “1776” is the first time Rodgers has played a male character, she said. However, she does not view or approach the job differently from any other role.

“From the get-go, John Holt, the director, basically said, ‘We’re not hiding the fact that you all are women. You just happen to be women playing these roles.’ I never really thought much deeper than that. I was just like, ‘I’m portraying this person, and I’m just going to do it however I would do it as an actress,’” she said.

Edward Rutledge is a challenging role for many actors. In a musical number called “Molasses to Rum,” the South Carolina lawmaker seeks to strike out a part of the Declaration of Independence that blames King George III for the slave trade in America.

“[The song] basically says, ‘We’re all complicit in this, and we all benefit from slavery whether we own slaves personally or not, and the whole country, all of the colonies, benefit from this, and it doesn’t behoove us to keep this passage in the Declaration,’” Massie said.

"1776" in 2021. Courtesy of Poplar Forest.
“1776” in 2021. Courtesy of Poplar Forest.

Having to convince audiences and fellow characters that slavery was a critical, foundational institution that must be kept for the sake of the economy and way of life for white landowners — particularly in the 21st century — is not easy to swallow. In spite of this, Massie said they find an actor every year to tackle the difficult subject matter.

“I’m really excited this year, because we have a totally new actor playing that part, and she’s a woman, and I think it’s just going to add this whole extra layer to that number that we’ve never really had before,” Massie said.

Geiersbach stepped up to the plate, portraying someone very different from herself.

“I really enjoy taking on kind of meaty, challenging roles that are very different from who I am as a person. I find that they challenge me, and they help me grow as an actor,” Geiersbach said.

Following her usual method, Geiersbach said she did not do any research into who Rutledge was as a historical person, nor did she watch other performances of “1776.”

“I have chosen not to do research into who he was as an historical figure, partly because I know who he is within the context of the show, and kind of who I’ve created him to be within my mind and how I play him,” she said. “I don’t really want to taint that with the knowledge of what he was like historically.”

In 2021, Geiersbach played McNair, and she worked backstage on the tech team before that. She’s played a male role previously, in a Shakespeare play.

“I’m not really viewing this character as, ‘This is a man. You have to be a man.’ Just as, ‘This is a character. This is someone you are bringing to life,’” she said.

The musical “1776” works well with the mission of Poplar Forest, Massie said. Not only does it provide the history of the Declaration of Independence and its author, but it calls attention to the people who made Jefferson’s revolutionary work and lifestyle possible. It gives audiences an honest look at a complex history.

“There’s also that element of, most of these men owned Black people and treated them like property, and that’s a whole other level to what Jefferson was doing,” Massie said. “He wrote, ‘All men are created equal,’ but he owned people at the time he wrote those words. He owned Poplar Forest at that time, even though the house wasn’t here yet. He owned this land and the people that were here for three years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence.”

A recently unveiled exhibit tells about the daily lives of the Black people who made the plantation prosper, and shares as many names and personal stories as possible.

“Telling an accurate portrayal of history doesn’t take away from the good things Jefferson did,” Massie said. “He was human, just like the rest of us. He does really great things, he does really not great, bad things, things he knows are probably wrong, things he can’t figure out how to get out of, but that’s just, that’s human nature. It makes for a complicated story to tell, but one that’s really important, and one that we’re trying to better tell every day.”

This year’s show runs June 29 through July 1. Tickets and more information are at poplarforest.org.

Shannon Kelly is a writer and journalist based in Virginia.