By Peter Filichia
If you’re like me and my friends, you watch the film version of 1776 each 4th of July – and then follow it up by listening to the 1969 original cast album for the next week.
For a while there, the recording was unavailable. Now it’s back in a CD set in slimline cardboard packaging – all the better for those of us who are running out of shelf-space.
One must admit that composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards wrote a very odd score. For one thing, there are far fewer songs than are found in the average musical: An even dozen. The show actually contains a 36-minute stretch in which not a note of a melody is heard; it will probably now-and-forever be the longest such musically arid scene in the history of Broadway musicals.
During the writing, rehearsals, and tryouts, plenty of songs were dropped, ones with such titles as “Sextet in Revolutionary Time,” “Tea Party, Concord, Lexington, and Bunk” and “Are You That Man?” The fourth scene had “A Letter from Silas Deane” – in which the Connecticut delegate who’d gone to France in hopes of getting some economic support wrote of his lack of progress. Abigail Adams also had a militant pep-up song to inspire the soldiers after they’d endured a defeat.
But the strangest aspect of the 12 songs that remained is that none has an A-A-B-A structure.
Do you know the term A-A-B-A? The vast majority of songs use it. Take as an example “If I Only Had a Brain.” Note that the first section (of eight measures) that begins “I could while away the hours” is musically identical to the second one that starts with “I’d unravel ev’ry riddle” and the last one that commences with “I would not be just a nuffin.” We’ll call each of those sections “A.”
But the part that follows the second section – the one that begins “Oh, I-I-I-I could tell you why” — is completely different. So we’ll call that “B.” Hence, A-A-B-A.
Now take a look at “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies, where the first section isn’t quite replicated by the second. The first section is still A, but the second section, similar but not exactly the same, is called A-prime. It’s abbreviated by adding an apostrophe after the letter: A’.
With that in mind, let’s see how Sherman Edwards structured his songs:
1) “Sit Down, John” – In which John Adams infuriates the Congress for bringing up the issue of American independence: A-A’-B-C-C-D-D-E-E-F-B-B.
2) “Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve” – In which Adams expresses his frustration with Congress: A-A-B-B-C-A-A-B-B-C-D.
3) “Till Then: — In which Adams writes about his troubles to Abigail: Simply an A.
4) “The Lees of Old Virginia” – In which Richard Henry Lee of Virginia is cocksure that he’ll get Congress to agree to an open debate: A-B-C-B-D-C-D.
5) “But, Mr. Adams” – In which Adams seeks an author for the Declaration of Independence, first imploring Pennyslvania’s Benjamin Franklin, then Connecticut’s Roger Sherman and New York’s Robert Livingston, and finally Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson: A-B-C-D-E.
6) “Yours, Yours, Yours” – In which Adams again writes Abigail: A-A-B-B-C-C-D-A-E-F.
7) “He Plays the Violin” – In which Martha Jefferson tells Franklin and Adams about her husband’s special talent: A-B-C-D.
8) “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” – In which the British loyalists in Congress express their views: A-B-B-C-D-C-D.
9) “Momma, Look Sharp” – In which a young soldier tells of seeing his friends killed in battle: A-A-A-B-A’
10) “The Egg” – In which Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson discuss how the Declaration will be received in Congress: After an A-A’-B-B’-C-D verse, it’s A-B-A-B-A-B-C-C.
11) “Molasses to Rum” – In which South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge insists that Northerners have been no better than Southerners on the slavery issue: A-B-C-D-A-B-C-D-D-E-A-B-F.
12) “Is Anybody There?” – In which Adams feels utterly alone and begins to doubt his dream of independence will ever reach fruition: After an A-B verse, A-B-C-D-D-A-E-F-A.
Some view these A-A-B-A departures as a blessing; others miss the classic song structure. Whatever the case, Eddie Sauter’s fife-and-drum orchestrations are marvelous throughout.
Besides, Edwards’ ideas for these songs were solid ones. His lyrics, however, didn’t have the meticulous craft that Broadway musicals had back then. There are 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.
But 1776 was always famous for breaking rules. The show, originally with book, music, and lyrics by Edwards, was optioned in 1966 by Norman Twain. However, he dropped it in favor of Henry, Sweet Henry, which would run nine weeks. Bob Banner, a TV producer best known for working with Carol Burnett, was interested, too, but it was Stuart Ostrow who in 1967 promised he’d bring 1776 to the stage (although he did want Edwards to change the title).
Ostrow’s first show We Take the Town (about Pancho Villa) closed in Philadelphia, but his second, Here’s Love (a musical of Miracle on 34th Street) cracked the 300-performance plateau. His third,