By day – and for the last 30-plus years – Duane Leatherman has taught math at Butler. By night – and for the next couple of weeks – he’ll don a shoulder-length wig, spectacles, and colonial garb to play Benjamin Franklin in the Belfry Theatre’s adaptation of 1776, The Musical.
“It’s amazing because he definitely looks just like him,” said Director Elaine Wagner ’67, MM ’73. “People have seen him in his full costume, and you really feel like he is Ben Franklin.”
This is not Leatherman’s first rodeo—he has been in four adaptations of 1776 and has acted in over 50 musicals since high school. He studied math at Anderson University, but he said it was his love of being on stage that kept him active in theater throughout college and beyond.
“People actually thought I was a theater major because I was doing plays all the time,” Leatherman said.
Leatherman, Butler University Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Actuarial Sciences, now acts for a number of community theaters, including the Belfry in Noblesville. But this is the first time he will play the full theatrical role of Benjamin Franklin—a part he has wanted to play his entire life.
“It’ll probably be the height of my theater career,” he said. “He is one of my heroes, and he’s a fun man to play. He was a scallywag with a twinkle in his eye all the time.”
The musical features rousing debates, witty dialogue, and lively Broadway musical numbers. The performance follows the difficult journey to independence as members of the Second Continental Congress negotiate, debate, and negotiate some more to break the British hold on American freedom.
The play will run the weekends of November 21 and 22 at 8:00 p.m., November 23 at 2:00 p.m., November 28 and 29 at 8:00 p.m., and November 30 at 2:00 p.m. at the Ivy Tech Community College Auditorium in Noblesville. (Purchase tickets here)
Leatherman and Wagner are joined by a troop of Butler bulldogs in this re-enactment of American history. Roger Boop, former Dean of the College of Education, plays Stephen Hopkins, the feisty Continental Congress member who always wants to drink rum. Wayne Wentzel, Professor Emeritus of the School of Music, plays Caesar Rodney, President of Delaware during most of the revolution. Doug Peet ‘77 plays Richard Henry Lee, President of the Continental Congress from November 1784 through November 1785. Robin Peet ‘76 plays Abigail Adams.
Wagner graduated from Butler with an undergraduate degree and master’s degree, and she even took a contemporary music class Wentzel taught. Her Butler legacy continues with her two children who also graduated from the university.
She said it is unusual to have so many Butler cast members in a Belfry Theatre production, and she appreciates the time spent working with the talented individuals from her alma mater.
“They are just wonderful,” Wagner said. “They are so easygoing and willing to do whatever we need to do, and they all jumped right into their characters.”
Wagner directed 1776 for the Belfry Theatre in 1987, and she said she chose to direct this play again in celebration of the theater’s 50th anniversary and because of the show’s popularity with audiences.
“They will see history brought to life,” she said. “The Declaration of Independence is something people don’t think about very often because it was written so long ago. The historic characters feel like real people because their behavior is so similar to people today.”