It is not by a long stretch the musical with the most craftsmanlike lyrics, nor does it have breathtaking musical sweep, nor even a preponderance of music (its entire score, including incidental and dance music, totals maybe 55 minutes, merely a third of its playing time), nor does it have much in the way of dance or visual excitement, nor did it have significant impact upon musicals that came in its wake. And yet, if you forced me to choose one musical of the dozens I love that I would consider my favorite...it would be "1776". In a walk.
Why? Because as a play of ideas it satisfies the intellect. Because as a story of a larger-than-life hero with a noble mission, it satisfies the viscera. Because its Sherman Edwards score sings exactly when it needs to and exactly as long as it needs to, and if his lyrics are more crudely executed than those of Sondheim-Bock-Ebb-Hammerstein-Loesser et al., you forgive them, because what they lack in finesse they have in point. And if his music is only rarely adventurous, you forgive that too, because it is always muscular and compelling, its sly integration of contemporary musical theatre vocabulary with the baroque-and-folk stylings of the eighteenth century likewise on target and positively mesmerizing.
And because, in the libretto of Peter Stone, it has the best book of any musical ever written. Bar none. Not just because it's so impeccably constructed, but so impeccably proportioned--set-up, exposition, conflict, resolution, descending action, character, wit, humor. There's not a moment in it that doesn't satisfy, that doesn't function precisely as it intends to function.
And it's back on Broadway. And about time.
It is, of course, based on a historical incident: the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence. So we know, as we take our seats, how it'll turn out. Or so we think. The brilliance of "1776" is that it frustrates that certainty almost immediately.
It begins with the burning passion of its angry hero, John Adams (Brent Spiner), to see America free of British tyranny. But so contrary is his nature to his goal that his colleagues in Congress--even those sympathetic to the cause--won't even debate American independence because his bullish tenacity so pisses them off. His staunchest advocate, Benjamin Franklin (Pat Hingle) even tells him, "Nobody listens to you, John, you're obnoxious and disliked." (As a matter of historical record: that description is actually Adams' own of himself.)
"I'm not promoting John Adams, damn it," protests Adams, "I'm promoting independence."
"Evidently," Franklin comments, "[Congress] can't help connecting the two." He convinces Adams to let someone else in Congress propose, that being the exuberant Virginian Richard Henry Lee (Merwin Foard). Once the proposal is accepted for debate, however, the conservative opposition against independence weighs in, in the person of Pennsylvania's John Dickinson (Michael Cumpsty). Who in turn proposes that any vote for independence must be unanimous. Surprisingly, the President of the Congress, John Hancock (Richard Poe), an independence advocate himself, throws his tie-breaking vote with the conservatives, refusing to "set brother against brother..." such that "our new nation will have as its emblem the mark of Cain."
"It will never be unanimous, damn it," breathes Adams.
"If you say so," replies Dickinson.
And that's why the drafting of a Declaration is proposed before that vote can be taken. You see, the famous document, written by Thomas Jefferson (Paul Michael Valley) was not originally motivated by any urgent need of some heroic manifesto.
It was a delaying tactic! That it became something transcendent is key to why the story is so amazing.
There are many characters in "1776", most of them congressmen, most of them important in one way or another, more than usual to keep track of even in a big musical--and yet we do...because Adams is the hub. They are satellites who relate to him, rather than to the abstraction of "independence"--more specifically, he personifies the abstraction. And that relationship, complete with worthy and intelligent opposition is so contentious as to demystify the historical aura of "great men." We become so caught up in the idiosyncrasies of these characters, the intricacy of the battle, and the roiling, deeply human interplay between the factions, that as the odds against Adams mount--
--we forget that we know the outcome. And we actually begin to doubt. In fact, it isn't until the final third of the play that the enormity of what these men are trying to accomplish dawns on us; that we come to grips with the fact that they are, in fact, risking the hangman's noose for their convictions. (And if it sounds like a preponderance of "guy stuff"...it is. But there's a smattering of romance nonetheless, that spark provided gaily by Jefferson's wife [Lauren Ward] in a lighthearted cameo, and more profoundly and continuously by Adams' wife Abigail [Linda Emond] whose famous correspondence with her husband is musicalized in the recurring number "Yours, Yours, Yours".)
What further roots our familiarity with the many characters and issues at stake is the dramatic centralization. About 85% of the play takes place in the Continental Congress. Where the various representative have nesting places. Lewis Morris of New York occupies that chair there, Samuel Chase of Maryland is here, Furthermore, Peter Stone devised a brilliant addition to the set (brilliantly realized in Jo Mielziner's original design, now equally notable in the Tony Walton variant), which is the one accouterment that isn't a historical reality. But it is the heart and soul of the show's clarity.
It hangs on the back wall, dead center. Three columns, each with thirteen rows. First column labeled YEA. Second column a row of dark oak wood tiles, each sporting the name of a different colony. Third column labeled NAY. Whenever a vote is taken, Congressional Secretary Charles Thompson (Guy Paul) reaches up with a hooked pole, fits it into a hole in the appropriate tile and--whap--slides it into the appropriate column. If ever you forget where things stand, you merely shift your eyes for an instant refresher. This, among other things, makes the setting as much a character as any of the people onstage.
As with any musical from a particular era, "1776" also carries with it a subtle seasoning--not articulated, and perhaps not as readily apparent to younger audiences, but there nonetheless. When it was originally produced in 1969, Nixon was in the White House. And there was an undeclared war in Vietnam. And the spirit of revolution, of wanting to buck the conservative establishment, was thick in the air. (Nixon's White House was to impact upon the film version too. And more about that later...)
The score, by the late pop-songwriter ("Wonderful, Wonderful") and former history teacher Sherman Edwards--whose brainchild and obsession "1776" was for nearly a decade before Peter Stone came on board--is sometimes as cornball as anything in "The Music Man" (such as "The Lees of Old Virginia"); sometimes as light as opera buffe ("But Mr. Adams"); sometimes subtly anachronistic (the jazz waltz "He Plays the Violin"); sometimes as risky as anything out of the Sondheim canon ("Cool, Cool, Considerate Men" and "Molasses to Rum"); sometimes just unabashedly rousing ("Is Anybody There?"). But it's all, curiously, of a piece. One of the greatest frustrations of the musical theatre is that Edwards died in 1981; it hurts to think that he may have been a one-show wonder. Too much about "1776" is too special. You can't help but wonder what else he had in him...
Now as to the revival proper.
First, let's dispel some myths promulgated in the press. One has it that Peter Stone has "streamlined and revised" his book, thus elevating it to belated greatness. Baloney. The structure hasn't changed at all; rather than streamlining, he has added. Several lines he devised for the screenplay to amplify character have been interpolated into the playscript--and he has added a brief new coda to an early Adams/Dickinson debate. All told, less than five minutes of new material, all of it welcome, none of it crucial. Otherwise, the book is precisely what it was before.
Myth #2: That this revival is better than, or equal to, the original.
It's not. It hasn't the same level of grace or style. But newcomers to the show, as well as those whose memories are not reinforced by multiple viewings of the original (or otherwise intense familiarity), will not have anything of consequence to complain about. As always, with the musical revivals helmed by director Scott Ellis, the same characteristics are in place. (1) He stays out of the show's way, without imposing anything distracting in the way of directoral imprint. (2) He stages it accurately and cleanly but not insightfully (a friend of mine put it this way: "He understands what it is, but he doesn't really understand what it gives him to work with.") (3) He tends to cast well, but always makes a few off-center choices; not so off as to distort the balance, but bewilderingly shy of the ideal. (4) He occasionally makes directoral choices that get the job done but miss more satisfying subtleties.
Fortunately, if "1776" is presented with an able cast and even bare-bones technical proficiency, it finds its level and plays itself: the piece is simply too strong, too rich, to leave its actors floundering.
As for the actors. If you saw the Broadway original, or know the film (especially the restored film...again, more on that below), you miss many of the original players; not because they're familiar, but because the original director, Peter Hunt (along with producer Stuart Ostrow), did something remarkable, the like of which I've never seen, before or since. He gathered an entire ensemble of non-stars, each of whom somehow conveyed the iconographic essence of the role he or she played. In many cases, the match of persona to role was so striking that it was like watching Harrison do Higgins, or Brynner do the King. Not as glamorous, perhaps--but equally historical and definitive. (Sure enough, even in the original production, there were losses when some of these actors left the run; even the most accomplished replacements didn't quite come at you with the same authenticity. John Cunningham was a lovely Adams--but not nearly so divinely furious as William Daniels; Jay Garner's turn at Franklin was that of a grand old pro; but it didn't have the subtlety, range and substance of Howard da Silva.)
As for the company on offer at the Roundabout, which I've seen twice now: They have the advantages of having created their gestalt anew, and of distance from the original; and because they are, likewise, not stars, they stand less in the shadows of the original, and do seem to be "creating" their roles, for the most part. That said, there are ups and downs. Brent Spiner's Adams is generally an up, fueled by the right notions, but he sometimes seems more peevish than angry; you may find yourself missing the rage. Pat Hingle is hardly the ideal temperament for Franklin at all: far from being a master of musical theatre timing, he has been recruited from the ranks of "serious" actors; nothing qualifies him for the role other than being a grand elder statesman of the theatre. But he has somehow parlayed that into an interpretation that fits him, Rougher, cruder and not always on the money--but he gets his laughs when they count and makes friends with the audience very quickly.
Of the other leads, Michael Cumpsty's Dickinson is on a par with the great Dickinsons of the past (this is one of the roles that has lent itself to being played definitively in numerous ways). With his brooding intelligence and British urbanity, he is the personification of the worthiest opponent. As South Carolina's Edward Rutledge, the proponent of slavery, Gregg Edelman acts the Southerner a bit too self-consciously at times--but he is nonetheless giving his best performance ever. An often facile player in leading-man parts, he is here getting to do something darker and more interesting, in which his bag o' tricks has been forsaken for more genuine passion. And he does sing the hell out of "Molasses to Rum", which is presented here in the uncut version that previously appeared only on the album. Paul Michael Valley's Jefferson is fine, but the subtle Southern accent seems a misleading mistake (one of those odd Ellis choices I mentioned, and an overly simplistic one: just because Jefferson hails from Virginia too does not mean he shares an accent with Lee). Merwin Foard is a robust and gratifying Richard Henry Lee, Richard Poe handles Hancock with just the right balance of solemnity and leavening humor, and Tom Aldredge as cantankerous old Stephen Hopkins is...well, Tom Aldredge. Which means just about ideal. As for the rest of the gentlemen onstage: the range varies, but all preserve the individuality and distinctiveness of their characters, which is the most important general comment one can make.
The two women (Emond and Ward) likewise are sufficient unto the task, but hardly the best in the New York talent pool for the jobs.
Tony Walton's set has less historical reverberation and detail than the original, but the task was to adapt the show to the Roundabout's odd, semi-thrust space inexpensively and attractively, and that he has done with flying (actually with muted) colors.
The original Eddie Sauter orchestrations are among the very best written for any pit orchestra...and of course the Roundabout can't afford a full pit orchestra, so using the Sauters as a guide, Brian Besterman (younger brother of fellow orchestrator Doug) has reconceived and reduced them for eight musicians, led by the formidable musical director Paul Gemignani. But if bad news is it ain't a full pit, the good news is that Besterman's is the best such reduction ever done, preserving more of the depth, spirit and texture than one would have thought possible. Kathleen Marshall's musical staging is smart and generally unobtrusive--which is what the show requires--but it doesn't have the kind of small signature tweaks that peppered the Onna White originals (the passing of the quill pen in "But Mr. Adams", the chin bit in "The Egg") and I can't help but think something similar might have provided a pleasant kick.
But there are pleasures enough, and, as I say, the show survives magnificently. Less because the current production is magnificent than simply because its innate spirit of 1776 is, as ever, indestructible...
* * * * *
As for that original production alluded to...anyone desiring a pretty good feel for it might wish to check out the film version--but not the two-plus-hour 1972 theatrical release frequently seen on television. For two reasons, one merely technical:
The wide screen is necessary. Peter Hunt didn't obey the nicety of shooting his film with an eye toward eventual television broadcast. The camera composition makes such thorough use of the full wide frame that the pan-and-scan teevee adaptation is almost a desecration. (For the record, I've never been a purist about this, so the observation does not come from some lofty æsthetic.)
The actual desecration, though, was inflicted by the film's producer, Jack Warner (it was his first for Columbia after leaving the studio that bore his name) He believed mightily in the project, and to his credit sanctioned having as many of the original personnel involved as director Peter Hunt wanted (Warner had received such flak for having cast Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" rather than Julie Andrews that he was not about to compound the felony)...but he was also a staunch right winger. And much of the film's political content bothered him.
So he cut it.
Whap. Just like that.
Forty minutes of it. Most of it political debate. And two verses of "Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve" were eviscerated.
One of the last cuts made, while Hunt was away in Europe, was the song "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" (the creators abbreviate it as "Cool Men").
When I was in college, I interviewed Peter Stone for my campus paper. I asked him why "Cool Men" wasn't in the film, since it's practically the center of the show, crystallizing the conflict and defining the conservative faction in song--and since, curiously, the tune was still alluded to in the film's underscoring. "It was shot," Stone said to me, "and shot beautifully." Then how, I asked him, could it possibly have gotten cut?
This was the early '70s--and this was Stone's answer then. "If you put a gun to my head, I'd have to tell you I don't know. But if you took the gun away, I'd say for political reasons."
A very tactful way of saying what couldn't be admitted at the time for publication. Which was this--
--Nixon called Warner up and asked him to cut it. And so it went. All eight minutes of it. And because Warner didn't want to be overruled at some future point--
--he then burned the negatives. Presumably destroying it forever.
(In 1969, "1776" had the distinction of being the first stage musical to be performed at the White House in its entirety. Previously, "tab" versions of shows had been presented. Even so, "Cool Men" created much controversy. A request was made that the number be cut for the White House presentation. The request was refused; "1776" would be performed with "Cool Men" intact or not at all. The number stayed in. But Nixon remembered...)
In the early '90s, a company called Pioneer Video had an unexpectedly enthusiastic response when they released the theatrical version of the "1776" film. The response was so positive that two Pioneer Video guys, Joseph Caporiccio and Michael Matessino decided to go on a quest...to see if they could restore the film to its full length.
The film's editor couldn't help. But the editor's assistant, who had worked on the 1972 trimming project, had felt it such an injustice, that she secretly set aside complete copies of the "burned" scenes. Which were stored, in strips, in a salt cellar in Wisconsin.
These strips (and others kept by Columbia pictures' storage facility in Kansas) were cleaned by hand, their color retimed, individual frames repaired--then painstakingly edited and synchronized to newly mixed and mastered stereo tracks. (The original film was not released in stereo, as Warner had deemed it too expensive to be worth the bother. Caporiccio and Matessino approached Columbia records, who had released the soundtrack album, but the option of using the album as a stereo source proved unworkable, due to the heavy reverb and graceless panning of the album mix. Amazingly, though, Columbia Records had held onto the original 16-track master tapes--which included all the songs, the unreleased reprises, and background music. Combined with the soundtrack material from the Columbia Pictures Kansas facility, the restorers now had everything.)
The laser disc restoration transforms what had previously been an okay, compromised film version of a musical into something that, if not a masterpiece, misses only by a klik or two. I am told that recently, the restoration has been released on videotape as well.
The film preserves the performances of many of the players from the New York company. What is not generally known is that in several instances, replacement and tour performers who found favor with the creative team landed smaller supporting roles in the film: James Noble, a New York Hancock (who would come to prominence as the Governor on "Benson"), plays the Reverend Jonathan Witherspoon of New Jersey. Patrick Hines, a road company Dickinson (actually, he was in the bus and truck, that toured smaller towns while the national tour played larger venues) assays portly Samuel ("bacon face") Chase of Maryland. The most interesting replacement of all is John Cullum, repeating his stage role as the formidable Southerner Edward Rutledge (who sings "Molasses to Rum"). But Cullum was not the first Rutledge. That was Clifford David. Nor was he even the second. That was David Cryer. Cullum was, astonishingly, the third Rutledge in New York. But the deep South authenticity he brought with him was so perfect and unassailable, and so redefined the role, that it was he who got the screen assignment.
In smaller roles, the film sprinkles a few "ringers" (notable character actors such as Rex Robbins and Robert Myhers who never appeared in the stage musical) in with the original New York ensemble. Curiously, two of the larger roles are taken by ringers too. The late Donald Madden (an early AIDS death, a Canadian-born actor often hailed for his Shakespearean performances) plays Dickinson, rather than the expected Paul Hecht; and Blythe Danner, rather than Betty Buckley, plays Martha Jefferson.
We are not, however, deprived of the definitive originals: the fiery obstreperousness of William Daniels' Adams is unstoppable; and the lilt and panache of the late Howard da Silva's Franklin is unbeatable. (Also unavailable anywhere else. da Silva had a heart attack several days before the Broadway show's opening night. But he refused to relinquish his opening, preferring instead to die onstage if he had to. He had his opening night, as he wished--then left the theatre, went straight into a waiting ambulance and was out of the show for two months. That's why his standby, Rex Everhart, who later played Franklin in the national tour, is on the original cast album and not da Silva.) There are other splendid performances from the original cast--Ken Howard's Jefferson, Roy Poole's Stephen Hopkins, Ralston Hill's Congressional Secretary Charles Thompson, William Duell's custodian Andrew McNair--and three personal favorites, David Ford's Hancock (Ford himself graduated to Dickinson during the New York run), and the subtle confusion of upstanding Jonathan Moore as the undecided Georgian, Lyman Hall. And the sweet wisdom of Virginia Vestoff's Abigail Adams. Among others.
If I have one serious quibble with the film, it's that--typical of many films of stage musicals--the musical direction (in this case by Ray Heindorf) is uneven, having nowhere near the precisaion, crispness, and authority--either in the choral or instrumental work,--of Peter Howard's original baton.
But you take your victories where you can...and the fact that this film of this spectacular musical is now restored for posterity is a miracle no less wondrous (in its way and in its discreet context) than the signing of the Declaration itself.
Your perspective, your familiarity with the material, and possibly even your age, will determine for you how well the film stacks up next to the Roundabout revival. I recommend both equally, for different reasons.
But I will say...for students of theatre, or aficionados of the show, who want some sense of its original choices, energy, nuances...who want to see the original impulses of its creative team, still fresh from the stage production and undiluted by the passage of time and reinterpretation...this film provides a rare document of its type. Capturing a moment of our theatrical history as surely as it captures a moment of our American history...as Adams would say, forevermore...
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