Sunday, March 16, 2014

This Day in Theater History (‘1776’ Opens in New Era of Revolution)

March 16, 1969—After a decade of striving to bring 1776 to Broadway, its creators were annoyed by any suggestion that their musical about the turbulent creation of the Declaration of Independence was out of step with a new generation that had just made Hair a hit. They felt that, rather than passing, their time had arrived. Thousands of theatergoers—not to mention three Tony Awards (including Best Musical)--proved them right. By the time its extraordinary run was over, 1776 had gone on to 1,217 performances in three different Broadway theaters.

The musical did not simply humanize the signers of the Declaration of Independence, welcome though that may have been. It also clearly struck a chord with audiences without being politically incorrect. For theatergoers beset everywhere by troubling and seemingly new questions on the meaning and justice of the American experiment, it showed that even during the nation’s birth, its “fathers” (just the appropriate word, in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)  wrestled with issues of race, in the form of slavery; an earlier deeply divisive war, a revolution probably supported by no more than one-third of the inhabitants of the time; determined right-wing opponents (and, in articulate conservative John Dickinson, a sort of forerunner of William F. Buckley Jr.); and, in the form of John Adams’ fiercely intelligent spouse Abigail, wives dissatisfied with their lot in a changing world.

Yet 1776 did not make the mistake of another history-based Broadway musical from the year before, Maggie Flynn, about the New York City Draft Riots of 1863, in providing no significant respite from material already inherently depressing. (See my prior post on the latter.) Onetime schoolteacher Sherman Edwards composed enough songs with bounce and light to balance out undeniably darker fare such as “Molasses to Rum to Slaves,” about the “triangle trade” among Africa, the North and the South that sustained slavery. And, of course, it featured a happy ending.

The film version, released three years later, can stand as a fair proxy for the original Broadway production, as it featured the same director and most of the same cast. (The most significant exception to the latter was Blythe Danner, who, in the role of Martha Jefferson, had replaced Betty Buckley, whose debut on Broadway turned out to be an accurate promise for a fine career in musical theater.)

I came to know 1776 late in elementary school, when I repeatedly played the movie soundtrack and hunted down the script. At a pretty decisive point in my own education, when I became extremely interested in history, it opened a door into aspects of American history that I had not known.

The libretto by Peter Stone (who would go on to write another book for a musical that strove for historical accuracy, but was much less financially successful: Titanic) did an excellent job of detailing Adams’ irascibility, Thomas Jefferson’s taciturnity, Ben Franklin’s bonhomie—and the strong yen for women that, whether in marriage (Adams and Jefferson) or outside (Franklin), animated all three. To be sure, it took a couple of large stabs at dramatic license to heighten the suspense of the show (in real life, the crafting of the Declaration was a formality after the epic battle in the Continental Congress to pass the resolution for independence, and the signing took place over a period of months rather than a single day), and at least one unjustifiable mischaracterization (of the solemn Virginia firebrand Richard Henry Lee as a goof, which I discussed in this post).

But musicals can—and they have—been far, far less historically accurate than this. For instance, another musical about this crucial year in American history, Rodgers and Hart’s Dearest Enemy, took a real incident (a Quaker woman who, through hospitality to General Howe, slowed down the British pursuit of the Continental Army out of New York) and added quite a bit of fanciful trappings. I suspect that quite a few fans of the show, like me, became fascinated enough by what they saw on screen or stage to follow up in reading about the actual history.

I missed the much-praised 1997 Roundabout Theatre revival starring Brent Spiner. But the show has become a staple of regional productions all around the country. In recent years, as Americans have endured the spectacle of a deadlocked Congress, more than a few people have discovered fresh meaning in the opening scene of the play, when Adams, his patience exhausted by the slow progress of his attempts to move independence along, lashes out memorably with: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!”

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