1776: Musical Reimagines the Writing of the Declaration of Independence by Giving the Power to Those Unheard During Its Conception

Actress Shelby Acosta takes us behind the scenes of the reimagining of a historical moment played by an entirely multiracial cast of female, transgender and nonbinary actors
Photo Caption: Shelby Acosta plays Secretary Charles Thomson in the diverse musical 1776. Photo Credit: 1776

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

1776 has been recontextualized for the modern day, bringing in a new vision of what American means by those that were in the background and whose input and consideration were not taken into account when drafting the document that led to the creation of the United States of America.

The new production of the Tony Award-winning Best Musical will make its only Bay Area stop from May 16-21, 2023 at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts. This is a chance to see a very incredible and thought-provoking take on what it means to be American, and what it means to have a voice in shaping the future for a country that has always been diverse but not equal.

Shelby Acosta, a lead role with 1776, recently talked about her experience in taking on the role of Secretary Charles Thomson, a founding father who took notes on everything that happened within the walls of some of the most important decision making in history.

Acosta is a Mexican-American actress from El Paso, Texas who also had the opportunity to participate in the original Broadway presentation of the show, giving her the unique insight into the initial creation and being a key part of the touring version.

Continue reading to find out how Acosta got her start in the performing arts, what she did to prepare for this historical role with a twist, and why its important to her as a Latina to stand proud on stage and show others that they too can reach the stage.

Shelby, thanks so much for taking the time for an interview. I wanted to start off asking how got your start in performing arts? What were your inspirations?

Yeah, so basically, I’ve been doing theater since I was in middle school. I’m from El Paso, Texas, which borders Juarez, Mexico, and there’s not a lot of theater culture there. So me and my best friend were obsessed with theater, and his mom loved theater, so she was like, why don’t we just start our own theater company here in El Paso?

And I started it, and I was doing it until high school, and I loved it. I knew I wanted to do theater for the rest of my life. So I talked to my mom, and she was like, “okay, so you’re so serious about this. Let’s send you to a school for it.” So in high school, I went to a boarding school in Michigan for performing arts called Interlochen Center for the Arts and that was a little crazy because I’d never been anywhere outside of El Paso, and then suddenly I was living alone at 15 years old at a boarding school in Michigan. I learned so much there. Decided, yeah, this was absolutely for me. And I auditioned for a bunch of colleges for musical theater, and I got into Texas State in San Marcos, Texas and studied there, learned so much.

The head of the department, her name is Kaitlin Hopkins. She was on Broadway, and her mom, Shirley, was an academy award nominated actress. So, I really focused and studied there a ton, and then I graduated and was a singer on a cruise ship for about a year, got to travel over the world, it was amazing. And then I moved to New York and was auditioning, got a few great things, and then COVID hit. So that put a pause on theater, that was really disheartening.

And then once everything started to come back, I started auditioning again and got a call for 1776, and I sent in all my stuff and then didn’t hear anything, so I was like, “okay, I didn’t get it.” And then a month later, I was working as a bartender, that’s my job when I’m not an actor, I was working, and I got a call from my agent, who’s like, “hey, can you put this audition on tape by the end of the day? They want to see you.” And I did it. Sent it the next day. They’re like, “okay, they’re really interested in you. Can you start rehearsals tomorrow?” And I was like, “yes, absolutely.”

So I quit my job right then and there and started rehearsals the next day with 1776 on Broadway. And then I did it on Broadway until the end of the run. And then they offered me an onstage role for the tour. So, yeah, now I’m touring with it, and it’s been so great.

Now, could you fill us in on the role that you play, Charles Thomson?

Yeah, so he’s the Secretary of Congress. My interpretation of him is he’s there to do his job. He loves to work. No messing around. He has the most important job in Congress, taking down everything that’s said so that everything can be documented, and we can look back on it and make sure everything is true to what happened.

Except in real life Charles Thomson, at the end of his life, he burned all the documents that he ever wrote about in Congress. So a lot of this stuff has been lost because he decided that he wanted to give the world a break from what actually happened in the nonsense of Congress and to let America be remembered as this great thing that everyone fought for. So, he burns all the documents.

In my interpretation of him, he’s very no nonsense. Loves his job so much. And in the progression of the show, he comes to terms with the fact that he’s who you hear George Washington’s words through because he reads all the dispatches from George Washington while he’s out fighting in the war. And so, the only time you ever hear George Washington is through Charles’ mouth and reading his words.

And so at the end of the show he really decides that he doesn’t care about anyone’s opinion on the Declaration. All he cares about is the people who are out there actually fighting in this war. And the only side he will ever be on is George Washington’s, who’s actually out there in the middle of the battles and in the middle of fighting for liberty and stuff.

So how much research went into this? How does creating your character work when portraying a historical figure?

Yes, so we had a lot of meetings about it. They provided us with a dramaturg who was from Harvard. They researched and like any questions we had, they were available for us when I started on Broadway and for this tour, they gave us a script that had on the side, it had factual evidence. So if they said something in the script that was like history on the side, you could read about what that meant and during that time, what was happening and kind of correlate your story with what was actually happening.

There is definitely a lot of podcasts that we listen to about these men. And I know that some of my stuff was from the dramaturg, but also just very interesting stuff that I researched on my own and found online. They actually helped us quite a bit with our history and did PowerPoints and stuff to educate us. And then from there, we got to shape our character however we wanted. All in all, it’s a musical about the Founding Fathers and some of it is embellished. So we could just take little snippets of what we wanted from history and then make it our own, which I think is great.

How would you describe how this reimagined version of the musical differs from the original 1969 version? What is important to highlight on the changes for the 2023 version?

I think it hits a little bit more deeply than a lot of the other versions that I’ve seen and that I’ve heard about, because it’s all women, trans, non-binary people and mainly people of color. So we have Black folks, we have Indigenous folks, we have Mexican etc.

We just have so many different types of bodies and cultures on stage. And so a lot of these people were not, and by a lot I mean all of them, were not considered when this was actually happening in 1776, it was obviously all white men with privilege. And even in actual Broadway show and the revival, it was white men who got to do these things, that got to say these lines.

And I think our retelling hits home a little bit more because you’re hearing these words and you’re hearing the Declaration, amendments and the Congress debates, you’re hearing them from the mouth of these powerful, different bodied people on stage.

So I think it gives you a minute to stop and reflect. So at the end, spoiler alert – not spoiler alert because its history, Thomas Jefferson writes in the Declaration about how slavery needs to be abolished. And Rutledge, one of the characters Edward Rutledge, talks about how he doesn’t want that in the Declaration and he won’t sign it unless it’s taken out.

And so the fact that John Adams is played by a black woman and she has to stand there and see this very important piece of history and just this tragic part of America be cropped off and continued on, it’s harder to watch because you see the reactions of the black cast and of the POC people on stage while that is being taken out, like while we are having to keep slavery in America in order for it to be born.

And I think that’s very important for the audience to see. And we created this country, but at what cost? Like, at the cost of Black people’s lives and at the cost of POC people’s lives and futures? That is something that this production does that no other production has done before.

I think it’s so important for people in the audience, especially younger generations, older generations above all, to see, “oh, my God, we are still fighting today for the people on stage’s rights.”

Women are still fighting for the right to their own body. Trans people are still fighting for their life. Black people are still getting shot because they went to the wrong house to pick up their siblings! It’s still a fight that is happening today. And America is amazing and great, and we have so many rights but there’s just so much we need to work on and we can’t stop now.

So as a Latina, what is it like being part of Broadway in a space that you go back a couple of decades was like it was revolutionary to have one person that doesn’t look typical of that time of the era on stage. Right. And then also well, let’s start with that one first.

Yeah, I think it’s been pretty crazy to me because first of all, not being a white person on Broadway, that’s revolutionary in itself because so many shows are just like you get the token, POC person who’s in the ensemble in the back and they’re like, “we did it! Diversity!” And I think being on stage as a Latina woman and being on stage as a non-tiny, little beautiful woman, I’m so proud of my culture. And with my culture comes my body and a lot of Latina women or a lot of Latin people, their bodies are different. We’re all differently shaped, and people like to call it, I don’t know, “spicy” and “exotic” and “sexy”.

But it’s how we have been brought into this world. And so being on stage as someone who’s fully figured and curvy and has shape I think that’s so important for people to see because theater been kind of cutting off not only Mexican people or Latin people, Black people, but also people with different body types.

I think I love going on stage as a Latina woman because if there’s one singular person in these audiences, one singular young Latin person who can look at me and say, “she looks like me, these bodies on stage, they look like what I see in my day-to-day life, so I think this is achievable, this is attainable.”

I think that’s so important to me and also so important to stand in front of, on Broadway our audiences were mainly white people. They’re the ones with the money and privilege in theater. So standing as myself in front of these people felt so liberating and so important. And I never imagined that I would be able to do that so openly and freely, and this production gave me that.

And so I actually did a production before this, Into the Woods in Austin, Texas. And I got cast as Cinderella and I never considered myself to be someone who could be Cinderella. I’m glad that these doors are opening for different cultures and different types of bodies because it’s important, because people like me do fall in love and people like me are princesses and can be genuine and sweet and can write the Declaration of Independence. I think I’m so proud to be Mexican and to be on this stage saying these words.

Thank you so much. Finally, why would you recommend that people see 1776, given that it’s so different than what it was before?

I think it’s very important for people to come see. I know that it’s going to make people uncomfortable, and it’s going to make people come face to face with a history of America. And I know a lot of people come to the theater to escape.

And while there are moments in the show, obviously you do escape, we have jokes in this show, contrary to popular belief, there are moments of laughter and fun, but it’s also a good opportunity to see America through the eyes of people who were not considered. And I think that why it’s so important because we can’t go day to day thinking, “oh, this is a great world we live in, everything is perfect,” because it’s not.

And just like we have to do today, back in 1776, they had to make some pretty daunting sacrifices in order to make America what it is. And I think people seeing that, watching that, and hearing certain things come out of certain people’s mouths in terms of race and slavery and voting rights, I think that’ll make people in the audience think and re-evaluate.

I hope it opens up people’s minds to be like, “okay, America started off not great and we are still working towards making America what it can be,” which is a place where people of all kinds can live their lives and have rights just like everyone else.

I also think it’ll be good for audiences to come into the theater and see that Broadway shows and musicals can feature different body types and different culture and ethnicities and genders. And I think we need to normalize that more a little bit so that it could transfer to making every show able to cast different types of people and in order to do that audiences need to see that type of stuff. So I think this is a good steppingstone for it.

More information and tickets available at broadwaysanjose.com

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