Convention History as Presented in the Musical Ch5Pt2

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

by Robert Picklesimer


The Strong Delegation from Pennsylvania

(continued from Chapter 5, Part 1)
Chapter 5, Part 1 A Strong Delegation; Benjamin Franklin’s Influence
Chapter 5, Part 2
An Important Note on Costuming and Hairstyles of the Delegates
Chapter 5, Part 3
James Wilson; Gouverneur Morris;
A Note on the Stage Seating of the Pennsylvania and Other Delegations

Part 2 An Important Note on the Costuming and Hairstyles of the Delegates in 1787 the Musical

In our premiere production of 1787 the Musical in 2011, we had a costumer well-versed in period costumes for the stage. 18th century theatre was represented by Moliere and, in England by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who had his The Rivals first produced in 1775 in London. These theatrical works are now known as costume pieces – consistent with other art of that time, they were characterized by how elaborate they could be. Part of their spectacle was elaborately painted sets and grandiloquent costumes and wigs. The more lace and color and fine material and brass buttons the better for these theatrical works. Early on, our costumer was offered the limited resources of the local theatre group, The Creative Dramatics Workshop, to outfit some of the lesser players in the musical, such as the Daniel Shays marchers who were peasants and farmers after all, many of whom had fought barefoot in the Revolutionary war, but the costumer had decided that rags and ragtag was not needed and none of the simpler costumes would be useful. She was determined to rent costumes even for the Shays marchers, which you can imagine began to become a budget buster for the show. But that was completely unneeded. She had told me, the principal author of the text of the play, that she did not need my input, that she knew how to costume these people, and that it was her decision how to costume them (without consulting myself, the executive producer, and writer of checks for the costs of the show).

The final straw, however, was when she had planned the most magnificent costume imaginable for Benjamin Franklin. We had one of the most well-regarded local actors playing the part, and she was determined to show her costuming skills to their best effect by making the most beautiful costume imaginable for Ben Franklin, and was she not shy about telling everyone that was her plan. Meanwhile, she had also rented elaborate costumes for James Wilson, George Mason, George Wythe, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, William Paterson, Roger Sherman, John Lansing, and Rufus King.

Well, from late 1776, until 1785 when he returned, Benjamin Franklin had been America’s envoy to Paris, France. He helped to secure the aid of France, financial and militarily; he was a major factor in the Treaty of Paris which made the peace with Britain after the Revolutionary War, and he became the most famous American in the world, by modeling himself as a citizen of the world, when he first reported to France. He took the fashion world by storm by eschewing the elaborate style of the costume dramas and the elite aristocrats and nobles of Europe, and instead took to wearing the outfit of the common man. He did not wear wigs. He wore simple homespun, let his hair grow longer, and wore a simple beaver hat for his head covering.

Benjamin Franklin returned from France in 1785 modeling that same simpler style. With the American Revolution, the common man was now the hero. Brass buttons and lace were becoming more and more frowned upon. The practice of the elite indicating their superiority by wearing wigs was slowly working itself into disfavor. The American Revolution had changed not only the political climate, but the cultural climate, of the United States, and eventually of the whole world – witness the French Revolution in 1789. Much as today, the French led the world in new styles. They adopted the newer look of the common man and some of the precepts underlying the American Revolution. The theatre of the nobility and the elites in London and Paris continued to foster magnificent costuming spectacle, the great age of costume dramas, but reality and history had left those styles behind.

I appealed to the Director of the premiere production, which at the time we had titled 1787 We the People, showing the appeal to “we the people.” I told him the history of costumes and wigs of the period, how between 1776 and 1787 there was almost literally a century’s difference in styles, much of 1787 favored the 19th century more than the 18th. Leonard directed me to get together with the costumer for us to work out our differences, and I was able to effect some change. Ben Franklin became simple homespun. The New Englanders were more reserved, Rufus King, John Langdon, and Nathan Gorham were persuaded into simpler costumes (some of which the costumer had set aside for Shaysians, although they still looked too nice for Shays’ farmers). Roger Sherman was a puritanical New Englander, no brass buttons for him. Alexander Hamilton and John Lansing were fashion mavens and modeled their suits of the newer trimmer styles. William Paterson styled himself as a simple shopkeeper and country lawyer and would never wear the froufrou of Europe. James Wilson fostered the idea that the universal spirit of the common man pointed us in the right direction: he would never wear the trappings of the aristocracy. George Mason wore simple dress, as did Madison, Wythe, Randolph, and Dickinson. Luther Martin of Maryland was famous for his slovenly hair and dress, almost like he was so caught up in legal opinions that he had no time for elaborate external impressions. Only when we reach the deeper South and some of the older and old school members of the delegate body do we really get to wigs and aristocratic dress. George Washington, Gouverneur Morris, and Daniel St. Thomas Jenifer wear wigs. Pinckney and Rutledge from South Carolina represent the old aristocracy. Blount and Baldwin maintain some of the older elaborate trappings, but not necessarily all.

Luckily this makes the show a little easier to costume, although the costumer for our show had already busted our budget by overbuying materials and over-renting costumes. I had persuaded her to put some of her simpler, although still trim and nice, Shays costumes on those important figures such as Wilson and Paterson who would never wear even the suggestions of nobility (Wilson a Scotsman, and Paterson from humble beginnings in New Jersey). Some of the delegates were still overdressed (both in looks and costs), but it could be dealt with, and the costumer refused to go much further in downplaying her magnificent design in deference to the history surrounding this seminal cultural event. So we settled for as close as we could get.

Luckily, though, in our case, the person in charge of the hair in this show understood the historical changes at this period (he had done some work on Les Miserables among others, and understood the historical style changes starting to take place in this period). He also realized how it would lessen his work. He could put tails on some of the performers, and only needed a small number of wigs (the theatre already had a George Washington wig and one to simulate Ben Franklin’s appearance). He understood some of the history surrounding the period, and not just the theatrical conventions of the day.

This commentary, then, should serve as both a balm and as a warning to future producers of 1787 the Musical. It is not necessarily as elaborate a costume drama as some may be. The Shaysians could be outfitted from stock, they are peasants, though well-meaning. Many of the delegates do without wigs or buttons and bows. Only a few characters need much elaborate costuming, and even a modest addition of brass buttons or lace will serve to set Charles Pinckney, John Rutledge, Daniel St. Thomas Jenifer, or Gouverneur Morris as different from the others, remnants of the previous aristocracy. Washington needs his distinctive wig, but then he does not wear overly elaborate dress, suggesting the severity of a military cut. This will all serve to make production easier and help to restrain costs, as was not done as effectively as it could have been done at our premiere in 2011. But that is one of the purposes of a premiere: we learned what worked, we learned what edits to make, what characters to still yet eliminate, what costuming and hair pitfalls to watch out for. And here others may benefit from our experience, one of the reasons for writing this supplement to the original 1787 the Musical. (to be continued)

CHAPTER 1, PART 1 How the Whole Thing Got Started
 How the Whole Thing Got Started
 How the Whole Thing Got Started
CHAPTER 2, PART 1 Who Didn’t Make the Cut of 55 Delegates
CHAPTER 2, PART 2 Who Didn’t Make the Cut of 55 Delegates
CHAPTER 3 Who Made the Cut
CHAPTER 4 Virginia Delegation
CHAPTER 5, PART 1 Strong Delegation from Pennsylvania; Benjamin Franklin’s Influence
to be released:
CHAPTER 5, PART 3 Strong Delegation from Pennsylvania
CHAPTER 6, PART 1 Small States; “Grumbletonians”; New Jersey Plan; Great Compromise
CHAPTER 6, PART 2 Small States; “Grumbletonians”; New Jersey Plan; Great Compromise
CHAPTER 6, PART 3 Small States; “Grumbletonians”; New Jersey Plan; Great Compromise
CHAPTER 7 The Other Two States with Grumbletonians: Massachusetts and New York
The divided Massachusetts
The division of New York
 Hamilton, before leaving the Convention
 Hamilton returns
 Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr.
Delegations from the South