by Jane, Anne, Brian and Bob Roser
“I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a congress.”
No, this isn’t a recent quote from The Washington Post, but from the 1969 Broadway musical 1776 which is filled with gems of dialogue like this. With music and lyrics written by former high school history teacher Sherman Edwards and book by Peter Stone, 1776 ran for 1,217 performances after it premiered and was nominated for five Tony Awards, winning three (for best musical, best direction and best featured actor in a musical). In 1972 it was adapted for film, retaining its original Broadway director and most of its original cast, including Howard da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, who is absolutely brilliant. Sadly da Silva suffered a heart attack while the musical was still on Broadway and was replaced on the official soundtrack by his less-formidable understudy Rex Everhart.
Based on the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the synopsis for 1776 sounds like a boring high school text book, but in actuality, is a nail-biting, hilarious, witty work of artistry that everyone should experience at least once in their life. My family and I have seen it multiple times, probably the only musical we can say that about.
William Daniels (St. Elsewhere and the voice of KITT on Knight Rider) plays the fiery John Adams with gusto and passion. One of the musical’s first songs he performs is the aptly titled “Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve” where he complains to God that:
“I do believe you’ve laid a curse on North America
A curse that we here now rehearse in Philadelphia
A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locusts everywhere
Or a cataclysmic earthquake, I’d accept with some despair
But, no, you sent us Congress
Good God sir, was that fair?”
The musical gives us a good education in American history (okay, there are a few inaccuracies which I’ll address later) which is sorely lacking in the U.S. and the entire production is first class. I especially love how the character’s personalities are portrayed. From Ben Franklin’s lovable perversions to the unabashed goofiness of Richard Henry Lee (Ronald Holgate), but what really strikes me looking back on it years later, is the awesomeness of Abigail Adams (Virginia Vestoff) who set a precedent for the First Lady to be a true partner to the (future) President and not just a matriarch or trophy wife. The libretto of 1776 does a beautiful job using text from the actual letters written by John and Abigail to convey the strength of their partnership, as well as their enduring love for one another. John really did call Abigail his “dearest friend” and they signed their letters “til then”.
In another stroke of genius, General Washington’s letters to Congress were used instead of having an actor portray Washington. The result is powerful and humbling: “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?”
“But, Mr. Adams” depicts an argument between members of the Declaration Committee as they argue who should write Declaration of Independence. Jefferson (Ken Howard) wants to go home to his wife in Virginia, Robert Livingston (Henry Le Clair) wants to go home to New York to see his new son and Roger Sherman (David Vosburgh) argues in possibly the best rhyme ever attempted in a musical number: “I cannot write with any style or proper etiquette, I don’t know a participle from a predicate, I am just a simple cobbler from Connecticut.”
Jefferson soon annoyingly discovers that not only is he the best man for the job, but the only man. Adams even tries to physically threaten him, like a chihuahua staring down a dire wolf.
One has to wonder, however, why did they create a committee where 80% of its members were unqualified for the task? Well, this is Congress. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“Cool, Cool Considerate Men” may be the only song in the history of movie musicals that was (allegedly) removed because a president was offended by it. The story goes that Richard Nixon was shown an advanced screening of the film at the White House and was afraid that audiences would think this song was a criticism of his presidency, so he asked producer Jack Warner to remove it. The footage, which was thought to be destroyed, was later discovered and restored for the DVD’s 2002 director’s cut. You can hear it on the soundtrack, including my favorite line “but don’t forget that most people with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor.” A fact that surely does not escape most of our current pig-headed members of Congress.
Besides the laughs, however, are several poignant and gut-wrenching songs, including “Momma, Look Sharp”, sung by one of Washington’s couriers (Scott Jarvis) as he recounts how his young friends are dying on the battlefield and later found by their mothers. “Molasses to Rum” is the show-stopping song, however. It powerfully depicts Edward Rutledge (Clifford David) calling out the hypocrisy of New England delegate’s objections to the Southern state’s slaves as they themselves continue to participate in the seedy Triangle Trade.
Of course, the production does have its historical inaccuracies. Not all members of Congress signed the declaration on July 4th, Thomas Jefferson did not resolve to free his slaves, Richard Henry Lee was not a buffoon, James Wilson was not a milquetoast and John Dickinson’s Quaker heritage had much to do with his decisions, as he was vehemently opposed to violence as a way to solve disputes.
It’s both amusing and disturbing listening to the music of 1776 while realizing that today’s Congress still piddles, twiddles and does not resolve. In fact, take out the reference to the British and this lyric is terrifyingly relevant today:
“If you don’t want to see us hanging from some far-off British hill
If you don’t want the voice of independency forever still
Then God, sir, get thee to it; for Congress never will”