Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Doing a Number on “1776”

 Today if I mention a musical set in colonial America and reflecting the lives of the Founding Fathers, you’ll naturally think of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus, Hamilton. That show, of course, has earned raves (and raised some hackles) for casting performers of color in the central roles, thus playing up the revolutionary side of the fight for a new republic, while also reminding us that (unlike the Dead White Men depicted in our high school history books) the founders were complex figures with complex, often-clashing views on race and everything else.

 But back in 1969, there was another hit Broadway musical about the Founding Fathers, one in which the Dead White Men of the history books were played by white men who were very much alive. The show won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, for depicting in some detail a key moment in American history. Almost the entirety of 1776 plays out in and around Independence Hall, Philadelphia, where delegates from the 13 colonies are hotly debating declaring independence from Britain. Among the show’s unusual aspects: in the entire cast there are only two female roles (Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson – no Sally Hemings here).  And there’s a thirty-minute stretch in the first act, as the delegates bicker over policies and procedures, without any musical numbers at all.

 Elsewhere there are songs aplenty, everything from a rollicking frontier ballad sung by a Virginian proud of his ancestry (“The Lees of Virginia”) to a stark lament about a young soldier lost on the field of battle. A delegate who after long months stuck in Philadelphia is deeply missing his beloved wife sings long-distance duets with her. But there are also ricky-tick comic ditties in which delegates insult one another, particularly heaping scorn on the much-disliked John Adams.

 I don’t know how all this played out on stage. But in 1972, ramping up for the nation’s bicentennial year, Jack Warner brought the stage production to the screen, keeping intact most of the original cast.  This meant moviegoers got to see as the “obnoxious, unpopular” though ultimately right-thinking John Adams an actor named William Daniels, best remembered as Benjamin Braddock’s jolly but domineering dad in The Graduate. His is the leading role, though I got much more enjoyment from Howard Da Silva as a sly and colorful Benjamin Franklin, Adam’s frequent (though frequently napping) sidekick.  

 Scholars agree that the story played out in 1776 takes some liberties with what actually happened. They insist, though, that it remains true to the gist of the basic arguments for and against declaring independence from the Motherland. Of course, the original delegates were not apt to burst into song,  nor to participate in quaint little dance routines. This may have worked well on the stage, where we expect a certain level of artificiality. The show’s creators felt their story was enlivened by music, and that songs served to humanize those historical figures who too often strike us as colorless, even stodgy. On screen, however, it’s jarring to watch Founding Fathers musically insulting each other. There’s a music-hall-style number in which Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and some others—all trying to get out of writing the Declaration of Independence—toss back and forth the quill pen that is meant to be used on the document. This silly, obvious piffle is mirrored by a later (supposedly) comic number in which delegates hotly debate whether the national bird should be a turkey, an eagle, or a dove. (Adams wins on that one.)

 Verdict: fascinating material (including a tough debate on slavery) marred by trivializing musical turns. 



  1. Hi Bev, Hope you and yours are holding up well in these frightening times. I remember when 1776 played on Broadway, most critics commented on the absence of the Black people and issues in the play by saying, in short, “ What Bullshit.” Did not see it nor the movie for that reason. Glad Lin has helped to change things. MUCH more to be done. Best, Bob.

  2. It's certainly true that this is a very White cast, and that the complexities of Thomas Jefferson's attitude toward slavery are sidestepped. (Fawn Brodie's groundbreaking work on Jefferson and his slaves didn't appear until 1974.) The issue of slavery does come up, rather powerfully, late in the show, and we are given to understand why it didn't get included in the Declaration of Independence, despite John Adams' passionate objection. I notice that an Encore presentation of 1776 in 2016 did include African Americans among the delegates -- I'm not sure if this helps or hurts the show, given that it is so obviously contrary to history.