"Put them in the ships--cram them in the ships--stuff them in the ships!"
- Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
- Book by Peter Stone
- Directed by Peter Hunt
- Opened 3/16/69 at the 46th Street Theatre in New York. Closed 2/13/72 (1217 performances).
Benjamin Franklin (CD only)
Richard Henry Lee
Henry Le Clair
B. J. Slater
"A Leather Apron"
Based on an original idea by Sherman Edwards, this musical concerns the struggles of the American Continental Congress to declare independence from England and the oppressive laws of King George III. The primary movers behind the idea of independence are the "obnoxious and disliked" John Adams (MA), Benjamin Franklin (PA), and Thomas Jefferson (VA), who is pressganged into writing the Declaration of Independence. Opposing forces include the representatives of the slave-owning states, led by Edward Rutledge (SC), who refuse to even consider signing the Declaration if it explicitly frees the slaves; and the wealthy conservatives, led by John Dickinson (PA), who do not want to put their fortunes in jeopardy by defying the motherland. Each colony has sent three representatives, so a simple majority of two will decide a given colony's vote, but the actual vote for independence must be unanimous to show a united front against England; otherwise, fighting against itself as well as England, the newly fledged country will fail before it starts.
- Sit Down, John
- Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve/Till Then
- The Lees of Old Virginia
- But, Mr. Adams
- Yours, Yours, Yours
- He Plays the Violin
- Cool, Cool, Considerate Men
- Momma Look Sharp
- The Egg
- Molasses to Run
- Is Anybody There?
Entries in red were winners.
- Best Musical
- Best Director
- Best Actor, Supporting or Featured (Ronald Holgate)
- Actress, Supporting or Featured (Virginia Vestoff)
- Scenic Designer (Jo Mielziner)
Yes, it's a weird idea for a musical. And it came from an unlikely source: Sherman Edwards was a history teacher-turned-pop-song composer who had had some success but nothing overwhelming. By all rights, 1776 should have been a footnote in the Ganzl. But surprise! It turned out to be a gripping, humorous production with a great book, characters who were treated with more honesty and accuracy than in many history books, and a terrific set of songs that sounded American without being offensively patriotic. Indeed, for many people the video of 1776 is required viewing on the Fourth of July. Just as Fiddler on the Roof touches the Jewish part of my soul, 1776 touches the American part.
The score doesn't sound like anything else out there, from its fife-and-drum overture (a version of "The Lees of Old Virginia," the jolliest and funniest song in the musical) to the delicate waltzing beauty of "He Plays the Violin" to the stirring finale, which is a list of Declaration signers intoned over tolling bells that get louder and louder. "Momma Look Sharp" is a beautiful ballad about the horrors of combat that would have been even more affecting if the singers' rather quiet voices had been a little more prominent in the mix. Adams's duets with his wife Abigail, friend and confidant, are a nice conceit, but those are the two least interesting songs in the show. On the other hand, "Molasses to Rum" is a dark stunner that both "celebrates" the horrors of slavery as it reminds us that the North had a hand in the slave trade. "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men," left out of the 1970 release of the movie (but restored in the recent DVD) because it was thought that the sight of portly bewigged men dancing together would provoke laughter, nevertheless conveys the point of view of the conservatives in Congres quite thoroughly. (Oh, what bitter irony that today's conservatives proclaim themselves patriots when their philosophical counterparts of the Revolutionary period nearly prevented this country from forming at all.... See also Boo Hiss! Villian Songs.) Every time I read about gridlock in government, I think of the song "Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve" (but not one damn thing do we solve).
An interesting minor point about the show is the mild emphasis on the characters' sex lives, something that assuredly is not in most history books! John Adams speaks repeatedly of "walking in Cupid's grove" with Abigail. Thomas Jefferson would prefer to go home to his wife than to write the Declaration of Independence, and he's so horny that he can't concentrate on writing until Adams fetches Martha for him--at which point they practically collapse into bed together. ("He Plays the Violin" is Martha's account of how Thomas seduces her with music.) Even Richard Henry Lee sings of having his wife refuse his bed if he can't deliver up a resolution on independency. These little touches further humanize these Founding Fathers.
This is not a singer's musical--there are few really first-rate singing voices in the cast. But what they lack in melodiousness they more than make up for with fire and verve and acting ability--and somehow, the imperfect voices make the characters that much more believable, that much more human. Thus, even though the voices on the revival CD (what little I've heard of it) are "better," they're less interesting to listen to.
- Why the hell wasn't William Daniels Tony-nominated for his performance? He manage to sound formal/pompous and passionate at the same time, yet conveys a warmth in his mental conversations with his wife Abigail which does a lot to mitigate his "obnoxiousness." Maybe his voice was just not good enough; he can sing, but he's got no great voice. But worse voices have won the Tony--and worse actors have won it for sure. Maybe his prior rep as a character actor worked against him. (Did you know he played Dustin Hoffman's father in The Graduate?) No way to know. But we can be glad that he did well on St. Elsewhere later on.
[Aha! According to friendly reader Rosanna Bencoach, Mr. Daniels received a nomination as Best Supporting Actor, which he turned down presumably because he felt, as I felt when I heard, that it was a crock. Apparently, at the time and possibly still, the only ones who got nominated for Best Actor/Actress were the people with their names above the title. To which I say: what kind of bullshit star-pandering attitude is that? Also, please see friendly reader Miriam Burstein's letter about this and other issues brought up in the review.]
- We don't get to hear much of Paul Hecht on the CD, except in "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men," which is an interesting song but not a great displayer of character, and he wasn't in the movie (nor was the song, for that matter). Thus, it's hard to judge his performance in 1776. However, he sang better here than he would in The Rothschilds a year later.
- I don't know what else Clifford David has done, but based on his performance on "Molasses to Rum," I hope he had a distinguished career! I've now heard three versions of this song: David's, John Cullum's, and the guy who sang it on the revival CD, and (with all due respect to Cullum, my all-time favorite Broadway leading man), David's is easily the best. (OK, I went to look him up on Amazon and discovered that I have him on two other CDs: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, with Cullum and Daniels, and Wildcat, both of which predated 1776. The only other listing was for a 1993 recording of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which I wouldn't be caught dead owning. I sure don't remember him standing out in the two CDs that I do own, so I wonder if this was the high point of his musical career?) See also Boo Hiss! Villain Songs.
- Poor old Rex Everhart. Stepping in to take over for Howard Da Silva, who had a heart attack almost immediately after the show started, he found himself in the unenviable position of filling the shoes of an actor who has been seriously described as "a national treasure." Nearly every review of this CD on Amazon mentions something to the effect of "Gee, it's too bad we're stuck with Everhart instead of Da Silva." Well, I'm here to tell you that he does a perfectly acceptable job on this CD. He certainly makes a better Ben Franklin than did Robert Preston in Benjamin Franklin in Paris! He's no great singer, but none of the principals in the cast is (and God knows Howard Da Silva's voice was no great shakes), and of course I have no idea of his performance on stage, but if you didn't know he was filling in for someone here you'd assume he was the first choice for the role.
- Ken Howard displays a weak and off-key voice in this musical; he's better when he sings with other people, and he's fine in the nonsinging scenes in the movie. He would go on to sing more competently in Seesaw (and to win accolades in The White Shadow).
- I was rather surprised that Ronald Holgate got a Best Supporting Actor for what was a pretty small role--he gets suckered into introducing the issue of independency after Adams is unable to force a discussion himself, and after his big number ("The Lees of Old Virginia") practically disappears from the musical. However, he plays the active, amiable dolt very nicely. He did something similiar in the original cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, except more pompous and evil.
- Betty Buckley has but a small role and one rather unimportant song, "He Plays the Violin," but it's a beautiful song and shows off her stunning voice to full advantage. I'm guessing they added it because they knew what a smashing singer she was. I remember the first time I really listened to this CD; it was one of those "Wow! I gotta play that again!" songs. Why didn't they use her in the movie instead of Blythe Danner??? That was the biggest disappointment in the movie by far!
- Virginia Vestoff is a pleasant presence who also doesn't have much of a role (though it's larger than that of Buckley), but in her few songs she manages to convey that she's the equal of her husband in stubbornness and exasperated with him, but fond of him for all that. She does deserve her Tony nom.
Like other musicals in the Sony Broadway series (e.g., On the Twentieth Century), this one comes with a thick booklet that seems to promise the libretto but really just includes the same eight-page plot summary/interesting background on the show in four languages (English, German, French, and Italian). Also included are a thorough cast list, a song list, and a scattering of pictures that depict only five individuals among them--probably the booklet's biggest disappointment.
An excellent example of how a musical can work beautifully despite not having great singers, and how history can be musicalized without compromising it. Full of passion, excitement, humor, and drama. Most highly recommended; certainly part of a core collection of musicals, and one that would be an excellent classroom presentation to boot, though I'd advise having copies of the libretto at hand for students. A necessity for fans of William Daniels (who may not know of his stage work), Clifford David, and Paul Hecht; a minor acquisition for Ken Howard fans. Although it has but one song by Betty Buckley, it's one that her fans should know; it's on her Betty Buckley's Broadway album, I believe, but fans would still be doing well to get 1776 if only to hear the song in context. Howard Da Silva fans are urged to get the movie version.
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