The beloved musical ‘1776’ is coming to Denver, and its cast is as diverse as the Second Continental Congress was not

Courtesy/DCPA Joan Marcus
Liz Mikel as ‘Benjamin Franklin’ in the National Tour of “1776.”

A reimagined take on a Broadway classic is coming to Denver, and it’s challenging audiences to think about our country — who we are and why — with a new perspective. 

Liz Mikel, who appeared in the 2011 Broadway production of Lysistrata Jones, is perhaps best known for her role as "Smash" Williams' mother on the NBC series Friday Night Lights.

Mikel also played John Hancock in the reimagined production of “1776” at ART and on Broadway

Now, she is playing Ben Franklin on the national tour of the show. But this production isn’t a typical revival. 

When it premiered on Broadway in 1969, the musical “1776” won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. This iteration of the musical still depicts the Second Continental Congress meeting in the summer of 1776 to write the Declaration of Independence. But, this new production — by directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus — features a diverse cast reflecting many representations of race, gender, and ethnicity. That is to say, it’s not all white guys.

After switching roles for the tour, Mikel said she learned how wise Ben Franklin was. 

“He's a chess master, so he knows how to be strategic in getting things done. And also, he has a lot of one-liners and quips. He has a quick wit and, as Ben Franklin, unlike John Hancock, I get to dance and sing a little bit,” Mikel said. “So that's the good gravy”

When talking about Ben Franklin, Mikel uses he/him pronouns because in this reimagining of the story, Mikel says there is absolutely no change to the text of the musical. 

“The music has been enhanced, I think, for our listening ears in 2023 compared to what the score was when it was written in 1969,” Mikel said. “But your audiences will be excited to see themselves reflected on stage in the bodies of the female-identifying non-binary trans people that are portraying these traditional male characters.

Mikel says there are moments in the show that required deep and difficult work in the original rehearsal process. She said she still finds it challenging on a personal level to perform, but that doing so is essential.

“But that is the beauty of theater because inside of that, we are holding up a mirror for people to examine our history in this country. It cannot be ignored. It will not be erased. It's not going away,” Mikel said. “And if we don't examine and deal with that, I think we are doing all of ourselves a disservice.”

1776 plays at the Buell Theatre in Denver through April 2nd.

Editor's Note: The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where "1776" is being staged, is a financial supporter of CPR News, but has no influence on editorial content.