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Patrena Murray shines as ‘Benjamin Franklin,’ in 1776 on Broadway

The Brooklyn-raised actress is making the most of her Broadway debut in this revived musical

October 26, 2022 Evan Rosen
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History’s looking a little bit different at the American Airlines Theatre recently. 

1776, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical about our nation’s founding is back on Broadway, reinstituted after 25 years on the shelf – this time, with an all-female, trasngender and non-binary cast that is giving new meaning to the text.

At the heart of the production stands Patrena Murray’s ‘Benjamin Franklin’ – wise, lovable and commanding – gout and all. We see her take complete control of the Continental Congress through frank logic, persuading and dissuading with a wave of the hand. In her expression, we see the wit and charm of the man we’ve come to know in our collective imaginations. On the stage, her presence is felt even when she is sitting off to the side, foot elevated (for the gout), simply observing the events unfold as a paternal watchful eye, as if something straight out of the history books. 

For Murray, it’s the fruition of a lifelong acting dream. Born in Jamaica, West Indies, she was just 9 years old when she moved with her mother to Brooklyn. It was at that age, that she had a pivotal realization watching the actress Juliet Stevenson on television. “I was enraptured with her performance and I thought Oh my god, that’s what I want to do. It was making me feel all these different things but it was all just pretend.”

(l to r): Elizabeth A. Davis (Thomas Jefferson),Patrena Murray (Benjamin Franklin) and Crystal Lucas- Perry (John Adams) in Roundabout Theatre Company’s 1776. Photo: Joan Marcus, 2023

And she’s been acting in some capacity ever since – throughout school, finishing her studies in the conservatory at SUNY Purchase and working professionally since 1992, making appearances on classic shows like Law & Order and The Sopranos and working extensively in the theatre. Murray also spent time as a company member of the Irondale Ensemble Project, located in Fort Greene. After many years, Murray no longer lives in Brooklyn but her mother and cousin still reside in Canarsie. 

And although making it to Broadway has been a dream of hers, Murray says that doing 1776 and playing a character like Franklin is especially “amazing,” something she “would never have believed, not in a thousand-million years.”

In order to prepare for these historic roles, she says the team was provided with an abundance of background information from dramaturg Robert Duffley as well as researchers at Harvard University. Even so, Murray says it was the plunge she took herself, into the archives of the bespectacled legend, that ultimately led to her finding the character.

“I read as much as I could about him, including his autobiography,” she explained. “But the one thing that clicked for me was really surprising. It was actually the Ken Burns documentary (Benjamin Franklin). When I watched it, I thought, Oh my god, I think I know who this man is! And it wasn’t just an intellectual knowing, but it was like I could find him in my body. I recognized a part of him, and by the time the documentary was over I was like, no it can’t be over! I wanted more.”

It was director Diane Paulus who was originally wanting to see more – more of Murray – after working with her on Gloria: A Life at the American Repertory Theater in 2018. She asked Murray to come audition for 1776 and knew that she wanted her for the role of Benjamin Franklin. 

“Diane called me in on my day off – I was doing a show in 2019 in Baltimore called Men On Boats. I took a plane in and auditioned and she asked me to come back in, but I had a show to do, so they put me on tape and then had me wait for a little bit, and then the rest was history. I found out a little later that I got the part.”

With Paulus’s direction, the play is able to breathe new life into an old story, giving new meaning to the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. “The goal with the play is to hold history as a predicament, rather than affirming the myth,” she told the New York Times.

The company of Roundabout Theatre Company’s 1776. Photo: Joan Marcus, 2023

“It’s about putting history under the microscope, not just accepting it for what it is,” Murray adds. “Can we have a robust conversation about what the Declaration of Independence means, for all of us?” 

And while the show itself is not perfect, and has even drawn criticism from other members of its cast, it’s a valuable recontextualization and conversation to have around our country’s history. Murray says her main focus is having the audience really hear the words and see the complex men behind the facades. 

She recollects a time when she was playing General George S. Patton on stage, and hearing a reviewer claim to “be able to listen to General Patton because the actress playing the character is so different from who he actually was. You’re able to actually hear the words of Patton and who he was.” 

Watching Murray’s Franklin, I did not attribute the clarity of her performance to the stark contrast between her and her subject, but I do admit to feeling a glimpse into, or a more intimate impression of who Franklin truly was. And while the rest of the cast effects similarly, it is Murray who has the benefit of playing such a notable and recognizable figure, and who capitalizes on it tremendously. Indeed, it is a glorious debut for the Brooklyn-raised actor. 

As for what’s next for Murray, she plans to go on-tour with 1776, after its stint on Broadway comes to a close Jan. 8. If you’re looking to catch the show before then, tickets are available at the link here.

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