ABOVE PHOTO: Tiffani Barbour. (Photo courtesy Tiffani Barbour)
By Kharisma McIlwaine
In 1776, our nation’s forefathers met in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence. In 1969, the story of our independence was reimagined for the Broadway adaptation of “1776 The Musical.” With music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, the production is back for a limited Broadway revival tour.
The tour kicks off in Philadelphia, making history with a multiracial cast of women, transgender, and non-binary actors. Actress and performer Tiffani Barbour, whose work can be seen in TV, film and on stage joins the cast as historical figure Andrew McNair. Barbour spoke with The SUN about playing McNair and the importance of telling a portion of our nation’s story with one of the most diverse casts in Broadway history.
Barbour’s connection to Philadelphia began during her studies at the University of The Arts. Returning to Philadelphia with “1776 The Musical” brings The UArts graduate’s history with Philadelphia full circle.
“It feels great — I still have a lot of friends in Philly,” Barbour said. “I’m from Baltimore originally. I have a cousin that lives in Philly and he works a lot at Walnut Street Theatre, so I’ve been up and down, here and there. Then before the pandemic, I did a new play at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. That was the first time that I really spent some time there in a very long time and it was like a month in a half. But coming back with this particular show in Philadelphia and going to school there is very special.”
The Tony Award-winning production “1776 The Musical” is based on the events that proceeded and led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“We do know how it ends, obviously –we are here,” Barbour said. “It’s not all of the Congressional Congress — the show basically takes 15 or so congressmen, when in all actuality it was 100 or so there. It takes the four weeks as they get to July 4 in 1776 to declare their independence from Britain. How they get to that point is the meat of the show. It’s about what certain colonies want, because we weren’t states at that point. Everybody is debating on their ideas. It’s about what the northern colonies want and what the southern colonies want to keep. Most of them agree that they do want to break away from British rule. They set out to be in a super rebellious situation, putting themselves in great peril during wartime, which is pretty astounding. They all do have provisions. What ends up happening is that they all debate about it and we come up with this document that we all call the Declaration of Independence.”
Barbour takes on the role of Andrew McNair, a custodian for the Congressional Congress for the better part of two decades.
“There isn’t a whole lot of information on him because he wasn’t a founding father — he’s not a John Adams or Ben Franklin, a known name, but he was a real person,” she said. “He worked in the Congressional Congress in two different terms, but for a total of 18 years which is pretty long. We know he had a wife, but we’re not sure how many kids he had. He lived in Philly, he was a Free Mason and he died in Philly, though we don’t know where he’s buried. It is on record that he was the custodian. He did ring the bell at different points for laws and different things that they had solidified. There is a little ambiguity around him actually ringing The Liberty Bell when they signed the Declaration, but in our show, that’s what I do.”
“It’s been kind of fun to play him, because there’s not a lot of information,” Barbour added. “It’s also fun to take that information and the research that I found, build upon it and make him who I think he should be which is a really fun intermediary. He knows everyone’s business. He’s the peanut gallery and I appreciate it.”
“1776” is taking the representation of marginalized groups on Broadway to new heights with a cast of all female, non-binary and transgendered actors — a first in Broadway history.
“I think we all feel the weight of responsibility, but are excited about that weight,” Barbour said. “Seeing it for the first time, I knew it as just an old white man show from way back. I saw it once and I fell asleep as a kid. With our production, with these bodies and these voices, nothing of the script has changed. It’s the same words coming out of this diverse bunch of people. There’s a Black woman playing John Adams and a Black woman playing Ben Franklin — these historical figures that we grew up learning about. The words coming out, those same words really do take on a different meaning. We don’t make a point of it — we just do the show. People coming to the show don’t really know what to expect, but they’re getting the same “1776” from 1969 and they’re getting this diverse group of BIPOC, non-binary and trans persons. They’re getting America as it is now, and not the America they thought they were signing onto back in [the actual year of] 1776.”
History and representation converge in “1776” with a fresh take on our country’s history. Barbour shares her hopes for what audiences will take away.
“Philly is where it all started,” she said. “They came from all their colonies, and we convened there to actually create this document to break us away from British rule. There are people that are going to come that are going to love the show. There will be naysayers as well, because of this particular fantastic group of humans that have come to give you this show that people know. It’s important to know that those words were actually meant for all of us. They didn’t necessarily mean for it to be all of us. [There are] some people that did and a lot of people that didn’t — but what they did write really can apply to everything that we’re doing now. I really hope that the naysayers do come see it, because it is definitely to open your mind about the history of our country.”
To continue following and supporting Tiffani Barbour’s journey, be sure to visit her website at: www.tiffanibarbour.com. “1776 The Musical” will be at the Forrest Theatre from February 14- February 26. For more information on tickets and showtimes, visit: www.kimmelculturalcampus.org.
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