Communication junior puts signature spin on Declaration of Independence musical by featuring all-female cast


Cameron Cook/The Daily Northwestern

An all-female cast rehearses for an upcoming production of “1776.” The show is sponsored by One Book One Northwestern and opens Friday.

Ryan Wangman, Copy Chief

Not one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence was a woman. But for an upcoming production of “1776,” Communication junior Kelsey Robins decided to reshape that history with one simple stroke: an all-female cast.

“They’re called the Founding Fathers,” Robins said. “There’s such male-heavy, gendered language surrounding the foundation of our country. I think it’s interesting, especially now, after we were so close to having a female president, to explore … what would it be like if politics were dominated by women instead of men, as it is?”

For Robins, this is a project she’s aspired to create for the past six years. After struggling to get directors onboard with the idea, she took matters into her own hands. The show — a traditionally male-dominated musical based on the events surrounding the signing of one of America’s founding documents —- is sponsored by One Book One Northwestern, and opens Friday in Lutkin Hall with three more free performances throughout the weekend.

Robins, the musical’s director, said the group engaged in “fascinating conversations” during rehearsals about the nature of gender and gender roles in performance art. She added seeing a “group of 21 badass women” onstage sends a strong message about the potential of women and dispels common female stereotypes.

“So many of the roles for women — especially in musical theater unfortunately — really tend to lean on these stereotypes very heavily rather than be more fully fleshed out, which can be frustrating to see,” Robins said.

One of the biggest challenges in reinventing the show was rewriting its songs for female voices, a task which Bienen sophomore Saoirse Lee took on. Lee, the show’s music director, said many songs were changed to a higher key and all were rescored to incorporate a piano and string quartet.

Lee worked on various aspects of the production for over a year, adding that each song has gone through roughly 10 different versions. Through workshops with the cast, Lee adapted each rendition to match the actors’ unique styles and approaches, she said.

“It’s definitely different than anything I’ve done before,” Lee said. “It is technically (a show) that’s been done before, but it feels like … we’re doing just a new production of it. So that’s been a journey.”

Communication junior Sam LiVigni, who plays John Adams in the musical, said Robins carved out rehearsal time for actors to both better understand each other’s characters and bond as individuals. This, she said, made a huge difference in how she interacted with others onstage.

LiVigni said each actor understands their role in a larger context, which helps make the play more authentic.

Communication junior Lena Dudley, who takes on the role of Benjamin Franklin, stressed the importance of female audiences seeing themselves represented in theater. Dudley said she is excited to see how people receive their interpretation of “1776” compared to the original production.

Dudley said in the future, she wants to experiment with “flipping the script” in more productions to shed new insight on a show’s established themes. In “1776,” this helps change the audience’s perception of the show, she said.

“The audience will leave with a critical look on theater itself as well,” she said. “There are a lot of plays that have a couple female characters and you’re like ‘Oh, that’s great, right?’ And then seeing a cast that’s entirely women … people will probably be really surprised by that like, ‘This is really different,” and it’s like, ‘But why though?’”

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