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The Spirit of 1776

Filichia revels in the masterpiece that Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone crafted in 1776.

1776 declares its independence from VHS:
The film of the musical is now available on DVD
"It's a masterpiece, I say; they will cheer ev'ry word, ev'ry letter," sings John Adams in 1776, referring to Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. The same could--and should--be said of Peter Stone's book, based on Sherman Edwards' conception, for that 1969 Tony-winning musical, the film version of which just came out on DVD. For Stone's work is the best libretto that the musical theater has ever seen.

Devotees of Gypsy will cite that as Broadway's quintessential libretto, but as great as it is, an amazing amount of the plot, characters, and situations came directly from Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir. Indeed, Lee even breaks her book into "acts" and literally ends Act One with June's leaving and Rose's determination to continue. Stone and Edwards had the more difficult task of poring over congressional transcripts, letters, journals, and biographies, and then making a musical out of them. They had to decide which of the 56 delegates should be kept, eventually whittling the number to 20--sometimes combining many characters into one. How's that for "E pluribus unum?"

Edwards, a high school history teacher and successful pop songwriter ("See You in September," "Wonderful, Wonderful"), for years told anyone who'd listen that the struggle to get the Declaration of Independence written and signed would make a good musical. He did eventually write the score and the script, but soon he found he needed a real book writer. He filled Stone in on the important plot points and the essential tone of the piece, stressing that these hitherto dry-as-dust historical characters must be passionately and three-dimensionally human. Thus, Richard Henry Lee is egomaniacal, Samuel Chase is gluttonous, and Rhode Island delegate Stephen Hopkins keeps confusing one Carolina with another. Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, craves sex with wife, Martha, and Ben Franklin craves it from any fair lady.

It takes a witty man to write a witty man, and Stone was up to the task of recreating Franklin, the Dean of Aphorisms. But he didn't make the mistake that the Baker Street authors made with Sherlock Holmes four seasons earlier: They had their detective say the inevitable "Elementary!" before Act One, Scene One was over. Stone, instead, has Franklin say a line in his first scene that sounds like vintage Ben, but one with which we're unfamiliar: "Treason is a charge invented by winners as an excuse for hanging the losers." Adams then expresses what we felt when we entered the theater--"I have more to do than stand here listening to you quote yourself"--but that gives Stone's Franklin the chance to disarm us with, "No, that was a new one!" It's not until there are only three minutes left in the show that Stone finally has Franklin say a line with which we are familiar: "If we don't hang together, we shall most assuredly hang separately." By that point, 1776 has us in the palm of its hand, and we find ourselves delightedly saying, "Oh! Is that where that comes from?!" Had it come up in the first 10 minutes, we would have rolled out eyes heavenward and heaved a sigh of disgust.

Smart of Stone, too, to postpone Franklin's first appearance until the second scene. Had the immediately recognizable Ben been in Scene One, we would have noticed and watched him, which would have taken the focus away from the character we most need to know: John Adams. For those unfamiliar with 1776 (and American history), Adams was the mover and shaker behind independence. Stone created a galvanic character who doesn't mind that Franklin, Jefferson, and Lee tell him to his face that he's "obnoxious and disliked" because, he retorts, "I'm not promoting John Adams; I'm promoting American independence."

Most delightful: When Adams is stalling and suggests the writing of a declaration as a time-killing measure, he's asked, "What sort of declaration?" Our eyes half-close as we await his inevitable response: "A declaration of independence!" But no. Stone instead has Adams say, "Oh ... you know ...," fudging because he doesn't himself know. It's one of the few times the resolute Adams waffles on anything. How thrillingly Stone writes him, especially when Adams's own allies stress there's no time, the vote on independence is tomorrow, they're still many colonies short of unanimity, it's hopeless. A great man knows there's enough time if he uses it correctly, and that's what Adams does against arch-enemy John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who is resolutely against independence.

The cast recording of the 1997 Broadway revival
To make Dickinson even easier to hate, Stone gives him the worst joke in the show. When the congressional secretary, wondering where a certain delegate is, asks, "Where's New Jersey?" it's the villain Dickinson who makes the groan-inducing quip, "Between New York and Delaware." (To be fair, he later one-ups Franklin after Ben zaps him.) But Stone never makes Dickinson a fool, knowing the musical would be stronger if the man gave good reasons for not wanting to break from England. We see Dickinson's point when he roars, "Would you have us forsake Hastings and Magna Carta, Strongbow and Lionhearted, Drake and Marlborough, Tudors, Stuarts, and Plantaganets?" When he lists the seemingly insurmountable odds--"No army, no navy, no ammunition, no treasury, no friends"--we find ourselves nodding our heads, even though we want Adams and independence to prevail. Stone makes it a fair fight between worthy opponents, and that's a great ingredient in his achievement.

Let the authors also be congratulated for creating two vital components in 1776's success: The day-by-day wall calendar that shows us how many more days there are until July 4 and the tally-board that tells exactly how many colonies are now voting for independence and how many aren't. We sit there seeing that it's June 28, only seven out of the must-be-unanimous 13 have voted "Yea," and yet we know everything's going to be wrapped up in six days--but how? As Otis Guernsey so wisely said when naming 1776 to his Best Plays of 1968-69, "When you entered the theater, you knew how it was going to turn out. After a half-hour, however, you weren't so sure." Indeed, while sitting in the theater, you begin to think, "There IS no United States of America! They're breaking the news to us as gently as they can by telling us through a marvelous musical!"

The calendar and tally board are the reasons that the 1972 movie version, despite the fact that it sports virtually all of the original cast, doesn't work as well. Because the cinematographer only occasionally takes us to those score-keeping devices, we don't know how near or far the Declaration is from being ratified. No, each theatergoer must be able to check the score when he needs to, not when Hollywood thinks it's a good idea. Given that we're in an age of DVD and "Special Features," I would have liked the disc to have a function where you could press a button, and, below the picture in the black line left by letterboxing, you could see the date of the scene you're watching and how many "yeas" and how many "nays" there are at that moment. That would somewhat replicate the theatrical experience of checking in to see how near or far the declaration is from being ratified.

Still, the new DVD does have an extraordinary special feature: Stone and Peter Hunt, who directed both the film and the stage show, musing on their baby. Almost immediately, Stone grabs us with the information that Edwards wrote 25 songs and that only 10 wound up in the show. (I'd love to hear those other 15!) How fascinating, too, to hear Stone say that colonial Philadelphia was replicated in the San Fernando Valley. He notes that, for all the talk about how hot as hell it was in Philadelphia, it was so cold when they were filming that William Daniels put ice in his mouth in at least one scene so that his breath wouldn't create a fog-burst that would reveal the chilly weather.

I was also interested to hear the creators say that Howard DaSilva, the original Franklin, quit a number of times before the show opened but eventually came around and played the opening week despite severe heart problems; that the tote board was purposely constructed so that the yeas were on the left (just as the "yea" advocates were politically leftist) and the "nays" were to the right, ever to the right, never to the left. Though Stone doesn't credit producer Stuart Ostrow by name, he does mention that the producer gave him the idea for a good joke. (Just another reminder of how we had producers then.)

The poster for the original Broadway production
While Stone mentions in his afterward in the published stage script of 1776 that there had been scenes in New Brunswick, New Jersey, he's more specific about them here, informing us that John Adams and Ben Franklin had shared a bed in an inn and that a hooker came to visit them in the middle of the night. New Brunswick was also the place where a soldier originally sang "Momma, Look Sharp." And how fascinating to hear that "He Plays the Violin" was written late in the creative process...but not as late as "The Egg." Stone mentions that people are surprised to hear that when Edwards sat to write a new song in New Haven, he was inspired by the show's logo; indeed, I (like everyone else) assumed that artist Fay Gage had read the script and was spurred by "The Egg" to create her whimsical logo. Let's give her credit for coming up with it on her own.

There's the temptation to say that 1776 didn't need a score; it would have made a great play. Exhibit A is the 36-minute scene in which not a note of music is sung--from "The Lees of Old Virginia" to "But, Mr. Adams"--which will now and forever be the longest non-musical stretch in the history of musicals. And Edwards, it must be admitted, wrote a very odd score: The music is angular, often dissonant, with atypical rhythms and structures (it has not one single A-A-B-A song). The lyrics, too, are problematic, with some imperfect rhymes (views/mute). There are also many false accents (compro-MISE, independen-CY, parti-CIP-le) and, in fact, the humor of one song totally depends on them: Lee enjoys adverbs because each ends with his name, for example, immediate-LEE and short-LEE.

Still, 1776 emerges as the most gripping and palatable history lesson ever taught. Interesting that it's a show that deals with a cause that seemed hopeless a scant six days before it succeeded, for the musical itself almost closed in New Haven after a disastrous premiere. But, a mere month later, it opened in New York to unanimous raves. In a way, history repeated itself.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]