‘1776: The Musical’ and ‘Secret Conversations’

By Sarah Spitz

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‘1776: The Musical’ and ‘Secret Conversations’
Elizabeth McGovern in Ava: The Secret Conversations at Geffen Playhouse.
‘1776: The Musical’ and ‘Secret Conversations’ 1776: The Musical, now onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center through May 7, is a revolutionary re-staging of the all-male saga of our founding fathers creating the Declaration of Independence. This revival is performed by a multiracial, all-female, and non-binary or trans cast. Watching a cast of diverse actors makes us reconsider our origin myth and the principles of an idealized nation that have yet to be fully realized. The cast opens dancing in contemporary clothes, then trading clothes for long coats and pulling up high white stockings, they step out of their footwear and into Colonial-era buckled shoes for their roles. There’s a tasty twist watching women play men sometimes behaving badly, but I had absolutely no problem accepting them in their male roles. And OMG, what singing voices! The scene is the Continental Congress as its members convene in Philadelphia on an impossibly hot day with even hotter tempers flaring. As they begin arguing whether or not to separate from King George, Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson (Joanna Glushak) leads the loyalists who stand against breaking with England. Pity poor John Adams (Gisela Adisa) of Massachusetts who is “obnoxious and disliked,” desperately missing his wife Abigail (Tieisha Thomas in a dual role as Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon) who waits at home, coming to him in visions as he struggles to put up with the less-serious minds in the room. He chairs the committee that will write up the colonies’ grievances, which includes his intellectual equals Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson (Nancy Anderson) and Pennyslvania’s Benjamin Franklin (Liz Mikel). The issue of slavery, which Thomas Jefferson vilified in the document (despite owning slaves), nearly derailed the Declaration and the eventual revolution. South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge (Kassandra Haddock) refuses to sign unless the paragraph about slavery is removed, because it puts the South’s “peculiar institution” at a disadvantage. Rutledge turns the tables on their hypocrisy not by chastising the New Englanders as slaveholders (many were) but rather as benefitting from the work of slaves, in the lyrics of “Molasses and Rum”: Who sail(s) the ships out of Boston? Laden with bibles and rum Who drinks a toast To the Ivory Coast? “Hail Africa, the slavers have come!” New England with bibles and rum The compromise was to lose the paragraph on slavery—and the rest is, as they say, history. Our history. All white men were created equal; we’re still struggling with that today. AVA: The Secret Conversations In AVA: The Secret Conversations, Elizabeth McGovern as actress Ava Gardner, once called the most beautiful woman in the world, plays the complete opposite of her cherished role as proper, soft-spoken Lady Cora in Downton Abbey. But she’s not just the star of this play: she’s also the playwright. Onstage at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood till May 14. It’s a terrific piece of theatre and beautiful to look at, and is based on a real book of the same title by Peter Evans. McGovern gives us a post-stroke diva in 1998 whose career has come to an end and is worried about paying her mortgage. “I either write the book or sell the jewels, and I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels,” she says. She hires Evans as her autobiography ghostwriter. The staging is clever: author and journalist Peter Evans (played by Aaron Costa Ganis) stands before a dark curtain to explain to the audience how the book the play is about did not come to pass in his lifetime. Next it’s 3 a.m. and we hear the dusky voiced Ava talking to Peter, who’s been startled awake by her call. She’s been drinking. We see Evans in telephone conversation with his agent Ed Victor (voiced offstage by Ryan W. Garcia), persuading him to take the gig and write about the marriages, the scandals, the size of Frank Sinatra’s member, and all the juicy bits that he’d really rather not engage in as a serious writer. He wants to finish his novel. But the money and the opportunity to work with Ava ultimately change his mind. Upon meeting, they immediately confront one another about the direction the book will take and Ava, drinking heavily and still moving and thinking slowly because of the stroke, reveals more about herself than either of them ever anticipated. As they discuss her marriages and divorces—to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, as well as her relationship with Howard Hughes—and about her love of sex, Evans seamlessly morphs into the exes, reenacting critical scenes in Ava’s life. Projected montages of her movies and of Rooney, Shaw and Sinatra, whose own career suffered because of their relationship, flesh out the story line. Evans begins to fall for Ava himself and it’s his undoing. Abruptly she shuts off contact, refusing to allow him to publish the secrets she’s been spilling out until after she dies. It wasn’t until he persuaded his publisher to let him tell his own story about how their relationship unfolded that the book came out. Sadly, it was published after he died in 2012. Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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April 28, 2023