CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The creators of the new musical "1787: We the People" don't mind if audiences compare this homegrown original to "1776," a 1969 Broadway hit. In fact, executive co-producer Lucinda Lawrence hopes the new show, about the Constitutional Convention, will be thought of as the sequel to the show that inspired it - the musical version of the drafting and ratification of the Declaration of Independence.
"Oh yes, unabashedly so," she said.
Lawrence, who is librarian and logistics coordinator for the University of Illinois bands, composed the music for "1787," which will have its premiere run June 30 (Thursday) through July 3 (Sunday) at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign. Robert Picklesimer wrote the book and lyrics.
Lawrence and Picklesimer met in 2005, when Picklesimer - founder of Creative Dramatics Workshop, in Sidney, Ill. - called the university looking for someone to "orchestrate" his musical.
The call was eventually routed to Lawrence, because she teaches a course in arranging music for band. Although she initially tried to refer him to someone else, Lawrence soon realized that, having both a bachelor's and master's degrees in music composition from U. of I., she could tackle Picklesimer's project herself.
"The subject matter is the Constitution, about which I am passionate," she said.
Picklesimer spent years researching the convention and the events leading to it.
Condensing such a span of history into an evening's entertainment required extensive editing, and Lawrence is keeping tabs on of the final phase of that task.
"Among my jobs in this collaborative work is, I am the keeper of the time budget," she said. "For example, Bob said he could do an entire show just on the ratification, because it was a two-year process. We have ratification down to one scene."
Picklesimer tapped another U. of I. employee, Jeff Goldberg, as administrative producer for the show. Goldberg, who earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Illinois (the latter in public administration), is the coordinator of student academic affairs in the biochemistry department. He also is the president of the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company, and has produced more than 40 plays, concerts and musicals. Goldberg has known Picklesimer since 1993, when they were both cast in a local production of "1776."
"1787" isn't a U. of I. production, but about half the cast and most of the creative team have connections to the university, either as current students, alumni, employees, or some combination thereof. Leonard Rumery, stage director, taught music at U. of I. from 1977 to 1982, and earned his law degree in 1989. Aaron Kaplan, music director, graduated in May with bachelor's degrees in music education and cello performance, and will begin graduate school at the U. of I. in the fall.
George Washington is played by Andy Blacker, who works in Facilities and Services; Alexander Hamilton is played by Corbin Dixon, a senior music major; Samuel Adams is played by Gil Yohnka, an adjunct faculty member in the U. of I. Police Training Institute. Another key role - that of Washington's personal valet, a slave - is played by baritone Sam Dewese, a U. of I. opera major. He will sing "Three-Fifths of a Man," (referring to the way slaves were counted in the U.S. census), which both Lawrence and Goldberg predict will be a "showstopper."
Despite the inherently political topic of the musical, audiences should expect to be entertained, rather than surprised or antagonized, by the conflicts hashed out by the Constitutional Convention factions known as Younger Lions, Older Patriots and Grumbletonians.
"If you've read your history book, you already know the ending," Goldberg said.
"This is a feel-good, patriotic, we-love-America musical," Lawrence said.
Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. June 30 through July 2, and 2:30 p.m. on July 3. The Virginia Theatre is at 203 W. Park St.. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit www.thevirginia.org.