History is being made and portrayed each night at the American Airlines Theatre in New York City as a cast of female, transgender, and nonbinary actors take on the roles of the founding fathers of America in the musical, 1776. Elizabeth A. Davis is playing Thomas Jefferson as the events unfold leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Along with singing and acting, Davis is also playing the violin in the role – just as she did in her Tony-nominated performance in Once – and she just happens to be seven-months pregnant as well as the mother of a five-year-old.
Davis took time out to chat by phone to share her love and appreciation for the entire production team and her cast-mates who are all “very funny.” She also explains her approach to portraying the man who would become the third President of the United States from a fundamentally human perspective, full of inconsistency and hypocrisy, as news emerges every day that changes Americans’ perspective on democracy.
“Human nature does not change. The foibles, the faults, the things we long for and crave as humanity. These things don’t change. There’s something so fundamentally human about crawling around in this persona – no matter who’s going to play it – there’s something fundamentally human that doesn’t change,” said Davis adding that being seven-months-pregnant makes her think about the women in Jefferson’s life as well as the man himself.
“Martha Jefferson, his wife, struggled in child birth, had miscarriages, and was actually suffering a miscarriage while he was writing the Declaration which is one of the reasons he was really trying to get home. And then there’s the whole historical line of Sally Hemings and the children that came from Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved woman who also happened to be Martha’s half-sister,” said Davis. “There’s all this complex progeny and being with child and giving birth that surrounds his life. They lost several children actually which was very common. For me, being pregnant on stage playing Thomas Jefferson, all of that is brought into very stark reality.”
In the production, Jefferson is portrayed as someone who is always in his head and Davis has had fun bringing her own physicality to this trait.
“He was brilliantly disinterested in the drama as it’s portrayed in our show,” she explained. “I enjoy getting to luxuriate in sitting for what is the longest book scene in musical theatre history – scene three of our show – and I just sit there and yawn and rub my belly and it’s completely in character because he’s so uninterested in being there. I have such fun in that particular scene.”
Davis and audiences can’t help but to bring their own stories to mind throughout the show especially when she is performing “The Egg,” a song which contains the lyrics, “We’re waiting for the chirp chirp chirp of an eaglet being born” and “The eagle inside belongs to us.”
“When we were doing the show out of town at American Repertory Theatre, I was walking through the process of grief of some pregnancy losses from 2021 so singing that song was poignant and almost difficult for me,” she said.
“I remember the first night I sang that song after discovering that I was 15-weeks pregnant,” Davis added, explaining that she gets chills even recalling the moment. “I still nightly get chills while singing it in front of an audience and now that I’m obviously pregnant I feel this connection and camaraderie with the audience of being like, ‘Are you seeing what I’m seeing.’”
Davis explained that she enjoys how the production evolves each night with the news of the day or the different energies from audiences as “there are new things in the world that we’re responding to as people.”
Though it’s a new day, the fight for democracy is not a novel concept. Davis mentions the ideas of Harvard University Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed saying, “The declaration, democracy, these are aspirational thoughts. This is an aspirational document, meaning none of it is guaranteed. Each generation gets to decide how they will interpret the fight for democracy. I am thrilled to be a part of a production that gets to encourage people to show up anew.”
Davis also values having been involved in the production of Once, which recently celebrated its 10-year-anniversary with a reunion concert.
“To play those songs again and to be with those people again, they are my family for life,” she said after explaining how the experience helped to guide her career. “That role and that production absolutely shaped my aesthetic. It was the first production that on a large scale allowed me to bring all of the parts of my creative self to the table all at once, no pun intended. Since then, in the past nine, ten years I have found many opportunities to have different incarnations of that and I will never not be so thankful for that group of people, that production, everything that it gave to me.”
Another piece of Davis’ creative life is also being explored through music as she is putting out an album, The Apple Tree. Select singles are currently available to be streamed on Spotify.
1776 is directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus. The cast includes the likes of Crystal Lucas-Perry, Gisela Adisa, Nancy Anderson, Jill Vallery, and many more people whom she credits for making the production a wonderful experience.
“We’ve all been together since March of 2020. We were doing one of the first Equity-approved Zoom workshops and we have continued as a company – creatives, cast, producers across the board – we have found a way, in an extraordinarily difficult time to make theatre, to continue to move forward and to make theatre together,” she explained. “I’m really thankful to have had this piece, this process, the people involved in such a tenuous moment when work in the theatre is not the easiest thing to come by right now. It’s an industry that needs a lot of TLC. What we do is not Covid-friendly and people are working extremely hard to try to keep going in the face of a lot of obstacles. I have a lot of admiration.”
Anyone looking to enjoy human connection while revisiting our nation’s history from a fresh perspective would benefit from seeing this production.
“That’s the power of live theatre,” said Davis. “It’s new and it’s old simultaneously. Text like we’re working with – in my view – is never a relic because it always has the capability to be breathed into through the lens of what is happening in our very current moment.”
1776: The Musical runs eight shows a week at American Airlines Theatre in New York through early-January 2023. Click here to pick-up tickets and more information about Elizabeth A. Davis can be found at Elizabethadavis.com.