1776: IT’S A MASTERPIECE, I SAY
By Peter Filichia
Remember, 1776 is first and foremost an entertainment. What was not on the minds of its bookwriter Peter Stone or its composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards was 100% historical accuracy.
For one thing, the 1969 Tony-winning hit shows us fourteen people putting their John Hancocks on the Declaration of Independence (and that includes John Hancock). But fifty-six actually affixed their signatures to the famous document – thirty-seven of which were omitted from the musical.
We can easily see why. If the writers had brought in all the others, the cast would have ballooned from twenty-six to sixty-three. No producer would have been able to afford that many salaries each week, and the show wouldn’t have wound up as the fifteenth longest-running book musical in Broadway history.
When 1776 was filmed in 1971, salaries for movie extras involved not much more than minimum wage. Thus, we had many more delegates crowding around tables in Independence Hall. But Stone purposely didn’t muddle his screenplay by taking time to introduce them to us or even give any one of them a line.
You may have noticed this on July 4, when you either played your 1776 VHS tape, DVD or the laser disc (which is the most complete of all). Failing those, you may well have seen the film the old-fashioned way – by watching it while it was aired, for there are only three things in life of which we can be certain: death, taxes and at least one TV network’s airing 1776 on the Fourth of July.
But wait! That brings us to another liberty that Stone and Edwards took when detailing America’s struggle for liberty. The actual signing of The Declaration of Independence did not take place on July 4, as the musical shows (and as we’ve all been led to believe), but on August 5. That’s why I’ve waited until this month to discuss one of the greatest of Broadway musicals, a show that brings dignity and stature to the art form.
Still, it was last month (on July 3, to be precise) at 54 Below, New York’s snazziest theatrical nightspot, that I was reminded of the strength of the show’s score. 1776 in Concert saw to that.
The temperature outside was the same ninety degrees that’s mentioned in the opening song, but this subterranean spot allowed us to be cool, cool considerate (in our applause) men and women.
“Sit Down, John” opened the show and established the resistance that John Adams met in his never-flagging quest for independence, even from sympathetic colonies. Columbia, which recorded the original cast album of 1776, never issued it in quadraphonic, for that surround-sound innovation wasn’t introduced until 1972. But those in 54 Below got a taste of what such a recording would have been like, for various delegates were situated all around the rectangular room surrounding us and singing.
Emcee Rob Maitner delivered salient facts and opinions. “Who in his right mind would do a musical about the signing of The Declaration of Independence?” he asked, mirroring the question that producers, directors and everyone else posed during most of the ‘60s. Maitner pointed out that Edwards worked on the show for 7½ years, five before Peter Stone joined him on the project. That time span must have for Edwards felt like 1,776 years. Along the way, he may have repeatedly asked himself “Does anybody see what I see?” Perhaps that’s where he even got that line for John Adams in his stirring eleven o’clock number “Is Anybody There?”
Maitner said that Edwards had written songs for some Elvis Presley movies, but had confided to The King that he really wanted to write a musical about the plans to overthrow a very different king. He added that Presley urged him to quit Hollywood and concentrate on Broadway. I was sitting with Keith Edwards, Sherman’s son, who gave a definitive head nod and said “That’s true.”
Since time immemorial, an inordinately large number of songs have used the A-A-B-A structure; one would be hard-pressed to find a musical that doesn’t have a few songs that adhere to this convention. But Edwards didn’t use A-A-B-A once – not once — in any of his dozen compositions.
Perhaps that’s why the score still sounds so fresh, unexpected, dynamic and – to use a word that definitely applies to 1776’s plot — revolutionary.So are Eddie Sauter’s fife-and-drum-heavy orchestrations and Peter Howard’s marvelous dance music, especially in Martha Jefferson’s song “He Plays the Violin.”
Maitner gave credit to Edwards for noting that violinists tune their instruments in fifths, so he took that into consideration when writing his melody. The emcee also added that lyrically the song is “wonderfully and quietly filthy.” Indeed, Jefferson’s violin-playing is a metaphor for lovemaking, but Martha is after all married to the man. These two wouldn’t garner any criticism from even the staunchest fundamentalists.
Then Maitner pointed out that Martha couldn’t have traveled to Philadelphia at John Adams’ request because in early 1776 she had suffered a miscarriage. Nevertheless, he supported the writers’ eliminating that detail “because nobody wanted to hear a song about that.”
When writing lyrics, Edwards occasionally used a pop songwriter’s sensibility; the score has some imperfect rhymes (views/mute; unstrung/undone) and dozens of false accents (compro-MISE; independen-CY). The humor behind one song – “The Lees of Old Virginia” — totally depends on false accents; Richard Henry Lee enjoys adverbs, because each ends with his name: Immediate-LEE. Short-LEE.
Ron Holgate, who played Lee, won a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Also nominated in that category was William Daniels as John Adams. If you know the show, you know that Adams is hardly a featured actor; he dominates the entire proceedings.
I daresay that I have seen between 80% and 90% of the Broadway musicals produced in the last half-century, but I still rank William Daniels’ performance as the best I have even seen a male lead give in a musical. The ferocity, single-mindedness and an ability to put aside his ego and principles to get the job done – as well as a solid voice – made it so.
So why “featured actor” instead of “lead actor”? For years we’ve heard the explanation that the Tony committee only considered leads to be performers billed above the title, and Daniels was below it. What’s never mentioned, however, is that Jerry Orbach, who did go home with that year’s Best Actor in a Musical Tony, was also billed below the title.
My buddy Alan Gomberg thinks that the Tonys wanted to do Daniels a favor, for he believes Orbach was a shoo-in for the prize and the committee wanted to give Daniels something. If so, Daniels was in a “Don’t do me any favors” mood, for he rejected the nomination, paving the way for Holgate’s win.
Actually, I would have liked to have seen them go head-to-head – and I say Daniels would have won. After all, in the four categories in which the two shows competed against each other, 1776 emerged victorious in three of them.
Maitner talked quite a bit about “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” sung by the conservative characters whom we don’t want to succeed. Because of its political slant, President Richard M. Nixon didn’t want it performed when he invited 1776 to play the White House. Maitner related that both Stone and Edwards refused the demand, and that the show was done unexpurgated.
Think of that! Two mere writers take on the President of the United States – and get their way! That was — oh, that word! – revolutionary.
It was a temporary victory, however. When Jack Warner bought the property to make the film, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” was filmed, but Nixon, a pal of Warner’s, asked him to take it out. This time, Stone and Edwards had no power. Years had to pass before it was restored to the film.
“Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” starts with a riff on a few notes and words we know from what would become our national anthem; it also ends with its six opening notes: “Oh-ho, say do you see what I see?” asks John Dickinson, the British loyalist who’s the greatest threat to independence. The funny thing is that when 1776 opened, Broadway suddenly had two songs that referenced “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The title song of the eleven-month old Hair had Claude sing “Oh, say can you see my eyes? If you can, then my hair’s too short!” How interesting that both shows that involved protests should include moments from the anthem.
Maitner pointed out that “Momma, Look Sharp” was based on a mother’s letter that told of her search for her son’s body after the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Keith Edwards said that of all the songs he heard his father playing when writing the show, this seemed to be the one he sang around the house the most.
What a clever approach Maitner took with “The Egg,” the song in which Adams, Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin decide on America’s symbol. Maitner said “People have forever asked ‘What came first, the chicken or the egg?’ but where 1776’s ‘The Egg’ is concerned, we know that the logo came before the song.” Yes – after Fay Gage had done the design in which an eagle was shown popping out of an egg, Edwards was inspired to write the song.
The 1968-69 Tony Awards offered no prize for either Best Book or Best Score. Both Stone and Edwards received trophies for their contributions to the Best Musical. Although Stone had written books for two earlier musicals (both of which had flopped), 1776 established him as a bookwriter with whom to be reckoned. He went on to see six more of his musicals produced on Broadway (as well as his spruce-up of Annie Get Your Gun), and won two Best Book of a Musical Tonys in the process.
Edwards did work on another musical, but it wasn’t produced. He never did return to Broadway, and died much too young, only days before his sixty-second birthday. Still, if you’re going to be a one-hit wonder, well, what a wonderful one hit to have.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at http://www.kritzerland.com/filichia.htm and at http://www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at http://www.amazon.com.