Convention History as Presented in the Musical

History of the 1787 Constitutional Convention as Presented in
1787 the Musical
We Wrote the Constitution

by Robert Picklesimer


How the Whole Thing Got Started: The First Production of 1787 the Musical
and the Process that Led Up to It

Chapter 1, Part 1 

On June 30, July 1, 2, & 3 of 2011, Lucinda Lawrence, my writing partner and co-creator, and I, Robert Picklesimer, produced an original musical, 1787 We the People, at the 1500-seat Virginia Theatre, an historical landmark in downtown Champaign, Illinois. While we were the executive producers, Jeff Goldberg, as producer, Prudence Runkel, John Stuff, Todd Salen, Leonard Rumery as Director, and Aaron Kaplan as Music Director, all of whom had worked extensively with another area producing company (The Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company), were all very important components of that initial production.

The premiere production of this musical was the fruition of more than 10 years of development on my part, and more than six years in co-creating development with Lucinda Lawrence, who was with the University of Illinois School of Music, Division of Bands. I had performed in an earlier musical, 1776, with the aforementioned C-U Theatre Company, along with Jeff, Pru, and John Stuff at the same Virginia Theatre over the July 4th weekend in 1993. While that show, 1776, was about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, I had long wondered if the writing of the Constitution could benefit from a similar treatment.

Between 1993 and 2000, I had developed other theatre pieces, including translations/ adaptations of Antigone, Andromache, The Persiansand Hecuba, original play scripts on The Death of Christopher Columbus, and Tut: the Boy King, as well as adaptations of The Little Match Girl and Snow White, Mark Twain’s Adam and Eveand William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, long considered one of the best plays performed at the little theatre, The Creative Dramatics Workshop, in Sidney, Illinois.

But in approaching the historical subject of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the problem and question was the same as with every show: was there enough ‘drama’, enough interesting elements, to make a play/musical about the subject worthwhile? Then in 1999, I quite accidentally stumbled upon Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia, the Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787. The book was being discarded by a local library, and was actually the First Printing from 1966, so it gives some idea of the interest the Constitutional Convention had for students and other library-goers at the time. Clearly by 1999, the book had been receiving such little circulation, and the concept of history to most students had been so limited to only what happened yesterday, that the local library felt they could discard the book. And it fell into my hands.

The thing most initially evident to me from her book was that there were some very real and interesting conflicts and personages involved in that 1787 Convention, which was not called the Constitutional Convention until well after the Constitution had been proposed and offered to the states. It was initially sold by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton as a means to revise the Articles of Confederation, mainly addressing economic matters. But in involving George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Elbridge Gerry, George Mason, Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, John Dickinson, George Read, Edmund Randolph, William Paterson, Rufus King, Charles Pinckney, and James Wilson, it was clear to me that the Convention had more than enough interesting persons to make for an entertaining play/musical. The drama of the ratification by the various states could have made for a play itself.

It was clear that I had the germ of a dynamic musical here, and by using the earlier 1776 as a relative model, vastly changed because of differing participants and issues, I would be able to begin the basic idea of a musical about the writing of the Constitution in 1787. But not before I had read hundreds of books on the subject and proceedings of the Convention, the most valuable being multiple biographies of all the primary players, James Madison’s notes on The Constitutional Convention, edited by Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship, Founding Fathers, by M.E. Bradford, Decision at Philadelphia, practically a textbook on the subject, by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier, James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights, by Richard Labunski, and the above mentioned Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia.

But as any writer will tell you, having the history is one thing, but it is quite another matter to translate the history into a dramatic or musical product. I had the germ of some dramatic and musical ideas, and a basic structure in mind, but now was the time to bring a musical partner aboard. I had the idea to begin with “Books, Books” with Madison requesting books from Jefferson and Adams, and the joke of getting piles of books from Jefferson and just one from Adams, and the answering refrain of the Hamilton ”I Kind of Like Him” ballad; had “Old Patriots, Young Lions” in mind, and the so-called “Grumbletonians”; had “Who Are We?” with Washington’s answer “We will have NO Kings again!” at the Act break; had a comic song in mind for Yates and Lansing to leave after Hamilton had done so; had “Old Man River” in mind for the slave’s lament after representation as 3/5ths a Man was agreed to; and had a ratification story to tell at the end. But most of the songs were just sketchy ideas about the tone and approach to some of the songs and no idea how to implement them.

Chapter 1, Part 2

So in February of 2005 I approached the University of Illinois School of Music, thinking surely they had someone… (continue)

CHAPTER 1, PART 3 How the Whole Thing Got Started…
to be released:
CHAPTER 2 Who Didn’t Make the Cut of 55 Delegates
CHAPTER 3 Who Made the Cut
CHAPTER 4 Virginia Delegation
CHAPTER 5 Strong Delegation from Pennsylvania
CHAPTER 6 Small States; “Grumbletonians”; New Jersey Plan; Great Compromise
CHAPTER 7 The Other Two States with Grumbletonians
CHAPTER 8 Delegations from the South

2 thoughts on “Convention History as Presented in the Musical

  1. Pingback: Companion piece Chapter 1, Part 1 |

  2. Wonderful to get more history of the beginning of Bob’s project. I was in the cast as a favor to Bob. I have performed with him and for him and am glad I agreed to help. I believe that this is very educational and entertaining and should be produced for the public to appreciate.

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