An actor in the role of his great-great-great-great-grandfather, by Nancy Cacioppo

“At some point after the lights go up tomorrow night at Elmwood Playhouse for the opening of the musical ‘1776,’ Derek Sherman Tarson will appear on stage playing the role of Roger Sherman, delegate to the Second Continental Convention and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

For Tarson, it will be more than just another dramatic part. Because Roger Sherman is Tarson’s great-great-great-great-grandfather.

The part for Tarson is a minor one. But the venerable ancestor he is portraying played a major part in the birth of a nation: Sherman was the only American to sign not only the Declaration of Independence, but also the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Continental Association of 1774, and the Articles of Confederation.

The musical ‘1776,’ which won a Tony Award after it opened on Broadway in 1968, reenacts the signing of the Declaration.

The signers of the Declaration came from varied backgrounds: landed and monied gentry, trades people, and politicians. But they all had one thing in common a willingness to devote time and energy to the growth of a nation.

‘The philosophy of the time the Age of Reason really helped these men create one of the best thought out forms of government,’ Tarson said. ‘One thing the play makes clear is that these men had to make compromises to get this idea off the ground.’

“Elmwood brings ‘1776’ to life.” -Image courtesy of The Journal News (White Plains, New York), photo by Jaroslav Waznee, Thursday, March 9, 1989

‘Government is always full of compromises,’ he said. ‘There was compromise in the fact that the (northern) delegates wanted to do away with slavery. But the Declaration had to be unanimous. And realizing the southern representatives wouldn’t sign, they did away with the anti-slavery clause. They had to compromise what they thought was right.’

Tarson, 26, grew up fascinated with early American history and culture and from an early age knew quite a bit about his famous relative. ‘I was five when the musical first opened on Broadway. My parents both knew the show’s original director, Peter Hunt, at Yale University. My mother told me Roger Sherman had a small part in the musical, and that helped spark my interest in the play.’

‘When I was 11 years old, my family did a little research to find out more about Sherman’s personality,’ Tarson continued. ‘He was eager to please and very friendly. But if pressed, he was said to be slippery as an eel.’

Sherman’s descendants also figured in the history of the country. His daughter, Sarah, married a U.S. Representative who was also a judge and lawyer. Their sons were George Frisbee Hoar, a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, and Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, who served as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge, and a U.S. Attorney General. Ebenezer’s son, Sherman Hoar, was a Massachusetts Attorney General and U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, who died on a fact-finding mission during the Spanish American War.

Tarson graduated from Nyack High School in 1980, and earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1984 from Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He taught math at Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn for two years before deciding to enter the business world.

Now an office manager in New Jersey, Tarson said he never considered entering government service himself.

Outside of work, Tarson has found many rewards in theater. His first work was done at Nyack High School, where he acted and directed. Later he worked in college productions, and for the last few years he has acted at Elmwood.

When Elmwood held auditions for ‘1776,’ Tarson tried out for a number of roles, but said he was most interested in the role of Roger Sherman. ‘I felt I owed it to the family,’ he said. ‘My mother mentioned to the producers that I was related to Sherman, and that made me kind of a shoo-in.’

Tarson thinks ‘1776’ still speaks to audiences today as much as it did in the 1968 Peter Stone / Sherman Edwards production, which won the Drama Critics Circle Award.

‘One of the special things about this show is it allows people to feel patriotic without being sentimental. And it shows just how much of a struggle it was to get this document signed.

‘Eighteen of the original 55 delegates were against independence,’ he said. ‘Some were Tories, whose loyalty lay with the English. Some felt there was no chance of victory in the field. As for the southern delegates, their concern was states’ rights they didn’t want to give up one master (England) for another (the North).’

On his mother’s side, Tarson is also related to John Adams, to Anne Hutchinson (a founder of Rhode Island), John and Priscilla Alden, and Miles Standish.

But on his father’s side, Tarson is equally proud of his European heritage. ‘My father’s relatives were Yugoslavian and Polish immigrants who came through Ellis Island,’ he said. ‘When my parents announced they were getting married, my mother’s mother declared, ‘It’s about time we got some good peasant stock in this family.”

Having an actor play the role of his great-great-great-great-grandfather should be coincidence enough for one musical, one would think.

But Elmwood’s presentation of ‘1776’ is a casebook study in genealogical happenstance.

Carolyn Whitford, who plays Martha Jefferson, for instance, is related to John Adams. Ed Whalen, who plays Joseph Hewes, is related through marriage to Richard Henry Lee of the Virginia Lees. Ray Murphy, sound designer, is related to Judge James Wilson of Pennsylvania portrayed by Derek Tarson’s father, Ted. And Adair Downing McKean, a life-member of Elmwood, is related through marriage to Col. Thomas McKean of Delaware portrayed by David Guiney.

In addition to the historically accurate sets (designed by Bob Olson) and costumes (by Beth Lynch), ‘1776’ will have yet another authentic highlight. A special lobby display at the theater will feature the dressing chair that belonged to Roger Sherman’s wife. The chair has been passed down through Tarson’s family.”
-Excerpt courtesy of, The Journal News (White Plains, New York), “An actor in the role of his great-great-great-great grandfather,” by Nancy Cacioppo, Thursday, March 9, 1989. (top) “Derek Sherman Tarson in the character of his great-great-great-great-grandfather, in the musical, ‘1776.’” Image courtesy of The Journal News, photo by Vincent DiSalvio, March 9, 1989

-Excerpt courtesy of, The Journal News (White Plains, New York), “An actor in the role of his great-great-great-great grandfather,” by Nancy Cacioppo, Thursday, March 9, 1989

Grandpa rose to great-great-great-great heights, by Nancy Cacioppo

“The great-great-great-great-grandfather of local actor Derek Sherman Tarson was a man who rubbed shoulders with some of the most prominent players in the American Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson described him as ‘a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.’ And John Adams called him ‘as honest as an angel, and as firm in the cause of American independence as Mount Atlas.’

The man — Roger Sherman — was born in Newton, Mass., on April 19, 1721, according to Albert Van Dusen of the University of Connecticut. As a boy in Stoughton, Mass., he learned farming and shoemaking from his father. He supplemented his brief elementary schooling with extensive self-education.

Moving to New Milford, Conn., in 1743, Sherman practiced farming, shoemaking and surveying. And he and his brother, William, had a general store.

In 1745, Sherman became county surveyor, which was a lucrative position. And from 1750 to 1761, he prepared a series of annual almanacs.

After studying law briefly, he was admitted to the bar in 1754, and soon was elected justice of the peace, member of the county court, and representative in the legislature.

In 1761, Sherman moved to New Haven, Conn., where until 1772 he had a store. He represented New Haven in the legislature from 1764 to 1766, was a member of the council from 1766 to 1785, and served as an elected judge in the Supreme Court from 1766 to 1788.

Sherman disliked violent radical action. In the mid-1760s he joined the moderate opposition to British regulation, and in principle denied Parliament’s right to make laws for America.

During the Revolution, he was a vigorous leader in Congress and in Connecticut’s legislature, fighting persistently for sound money and adequate taxation.

He served on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. And he was the only American to sign four historic documents the Continental Association of 1774, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Federal Constitution.

In 1783, he and Richard Law prepared a revision of Connecticut’s laws, published in 1784. And Sherman was elected New Haven’s first mayor in 1784.

At the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, he decided that a stronger central government was required. He presented the famous ‘Connecticut Compromise,’ setting up two houses of Congress, one with representation equal for each state, and the other proportional to population. Back home, he fought hard for ratification.

He closed his distinguished career with two years in Congress as representative and two years as senator.

Sherman was conservative in religion and politics, and doubted the masses’ ability to govern themselves. His contemporaries noted his ‘high intelligence, unswerving honesty, stern devotion to duty, and unusual awkwardness in manner.’

Sherman died in New Haven on July 23, 1793.”
-Excerpt courtesy of, The Journal News (White Plains, New York), “Grandpa rose to great-great-great-great heights,” by Nancy Cacioppo, Thursday, March 9, 1989

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