1776: Someone Had to Write It

1776

Sitting down to write a post today, I initially wanted to write something on musicals about the Presidents of the United States.* Then I started to realize that the pickings were slim. Anyone remember 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Didn’t think so. To anyone that might have saw one of its seven astounding performances, I am so sorry.

Then I cracked in my trusty copy of the film version of 1776 and I realized that I might as well write about that because I’m not doing anything else today until someone starts exploding things outside. That might make me sound not-so-patriotic, but it’s tradition.

For a little bit of background, 1776 first opened on Broadway on March 16, 1969 at the 46th Street (now Richard Rodgers) Theatre after tryouts in both Washington DC and New Haven. The original production was a success, managing 1,217 performances and landing the Tony Award for Best Musical, and has been heralded as having one of the best books of a musical ever. Hell, the show was so successful that it managed a movie deal, the rights selling for $1.2 million. And that’s in back then money!

So what made the show watchable? Because, let’s be honest, there have been some pretty awful musicals based on historical events. I’m looking at you Teddy and Alice. First of all, it didn’t hurt that the writing team behind the show was a near perfect match. Sherman Edwards, the composer and lyricist, had been wanting to work on a musical about the founding fathers since the 1950s. A writer of several rock and roll hits, Edwards left the mainstream music industry so that he could write 1776. Although the most criticized thing about the show seems to be the lyrics, they’re catchy and fun and the opening number “Sit Down, John” is a brilliant opening number. It sets up John Adams as the all out antihero about to duke it out against the other founding fathers.

That’s where book writer, Peter Stone, comes in. The men and (two) women in the show aren’t just new characters. These are characters that we’re all very much aware of. No matter that we didn’t pay attention in history class, we know who these people are. Stone and Edwards both take liberties with historical accuracy, but they do so in a way that it almost makes you think the members of Congress are not going to sign the Declaration of Independence. And then where would we be? Well, we’d still be here, but we’d be under different rule. Yes, John Adams was nicer than he’s shown in the musical and yes, there were a lot more members of Congress than the ones shown, but John “Dickface” Adams is more interesting and you’ve only got so much stage space.

The writers also managed to do something that most writers would think was crazy: They managed to realize that a musical does not need a song every five minutes. In fact, 1776 has a good 35 minute break between songs in the first act (if the particular production has an intermission, as it varies). The break was so long that during the original Broadway version, pit musicians would take a break during the time and go out to the bar in the lobby. Mmm, Broadway booze.

The original production was also not short on talent in its cast, which didn’t hurt it. William Daniels as John Adams, Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, and Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson created a shockingly strong lead trio. Rounded out with people like Tony winner Ronald Holgate as Richard Henry Lee and newcomer Betty Buckley as Martha Jefferson and this show had one of the strongest casts on stage that season.

Thankfully, most of the original Broadway cast is now preserved on film. Major exchanges come on the form of Blythe Danner playing Martha Jefferson and John Collum (who replaced Clifford David in the Broadway production) as Edward Rutledge. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen Clifford David in the role, but no one’s “Molasses to Rum” gives me chills like John Collum’s. Fortunately, the movie provides a preservation of Howard Da Silva, who had a heart attack and was unable to record his part on the original Broadway cast recording.

Speaking of preservation, the original movie went through one rough area because of the feelings of a certain man named Richard Nixon. Nixon, after seeing a screening of the film, took offense to the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men”, which he deemed as an insult to conservatives. Well, it did show pre-Revolutionary conservatives in a bad light, but Nixon ordering the destruction of the original negative of the song seemed a bit much. Fortunately, the song was only cut from the theatrical release, but later restored. Take that, Nixon.

1776 had proven to be lasting theatrically, with regional theatres, community theatres, and some brave high schools all across the world taking it on. In 1997, it was revived on Broadway with the intention of a limited run. It then transferred to the Gershwin Theatre for a commercial run, playing 333 performances with a cast that included Brett Spiner, Pat Hingle, and Paul Michael Valley.

In no way is 1776 perfect. What it is, though, is a damn fine musical with interesting music, an amazing book, and an important story. And, really, when your main characters are Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, that’s just awesome.

*Yeah. I know. It’s Independence Day in the US, and Presidents Day would have been more optimum for something like that. If the History Channel can talk about presidents all day, then so can I.

Top Ten Movies for Independence Day

It’s that time of year again everybody! Bust out your American flag track suit, a stack of roman candles, and head on out to the closest neighborhood BBQ you can find! Seriously, just walk in! You don’t have to know them, it’s America’s Birthday, damn it, they have to let you in! Or you can just watch a bunch of movies, such as these ten that I have conveniently compiled into a list. They’re not all necessarily movies about Independence day, but they’re all movies that’ll have you shoutin’ “America Fuck Yeah!” Well one of them definitely will anyway…

National Treasure (2004)

Say what you will about Nicolas Cage (he’s Bitchy Queen’s favorite actor, but we’ve come to realize not everyone holds the same amount of respect for him) this is a fun movie. Using the history and mystery of our great America as it’s main plot, it’s got lots of patriotic sights to see and a fair amount of action as well. All in all a fun ride!

1776 (1972)

I’ll admit, this movie isn’t too good. I’ve heard the original stage version is much better, but I’ve never seen it so I can’t compare the two, HOWEVER where else will you get to see Mr. Feeney singing and dancing as John Adams? I mean come on, for God’s sake John Sit Down!

 

Rocky IV (1985)

It’s hard to make a more patriotic movie than this: Rocky Balboa punches the entire Soviet Union in the face. What isn’t to like? In all seriousness, it’s a good film with Stallone at his best and will make a great 4th of July flick. He is draped in the American flag on the cover, after all.

 

Rambo II (1985)

I ain’t done with Stallone just yet! While the first Rambo isn’t exactly the best “Go USA” type of movie (what with the whole America’s poor treatment of veterans and everything) First Blood: Part II is as America as you can get! Shootin’ up Soviets and Vietnamese.

 

Team America: World Police (2004)

I don’t really think I need to say anything other than this:

JFK (1991)

This is more of a political scandal sort of flick, more than one celebrating patriotism but it does revolve around one of the biggest national tragedies: the assassination of JFK. Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Costner star in this controversial Oliver Stone flick, add in an amazing performance of Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald and you’ve got yourself one heckuva a crime drama.

Air Force One (1997)

Hey, speaking of Gary Oldman why not watch him and Harrison Ford duke it out in typical Soviet V. USA style? There ain’t nothin’ better than watching President Harrison Ford kicking some terrorist ass!

All the President’s Men (1976)

This film doesn’t exactly cover one of America’s, uh, finer moments but it is an interesting story about two Washington Post reporters uncovering the details of the Watergate scandal. With two amazing performances from Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, you don’t wanna miss this one.

A League of Their Own (1992)

You can’t go wrong with a movie all about America’s favorite pastime, and A League of Their Own is one of the finest baseball movies ever made. An amazing performance from Tom Hanks as the alcoholic manager Jimmy Dugan of an all female professional baseball team, The Peaches is reason enough to check this one out. But the rest of the performances in this movie are all fantastic, and is an all-around great story!

Independence Day (1996)

Well with a name like that it’d be hard to not finish off this list. For real though, Will Smith and the USA teaming up with the rest of the world to blow the crap out of some aliens. This is the one you’ll all be watching.