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The viewed copy was a restored DVD version, released in 2002, which, according to a Los Angeles Times article at the time of the DVD release, reinstated twenty-five minutes that had been cut from the original release. Within the story, the passage of time is conveyed by the "custodian" tearing each day's page from a large calendar hanging on the wall in the assembly room. A tally board on the wall listing the names of the colonies is used to clarify each colony's vote on the various issues depicted in the story, by sliding the name of the colony either to the left or right to indicate an affirmative or negative vote. In the assembly hall, whenever Gen. George Washington's reports are read aloud to the Congressman, the reading ends with a drum roll in the soundtrack.
Peter Stone, the play's author, as well as the film's screenwriter, was the son of former history teacher-turned-writer and producer John Stone of Fox Studios. Songwriter Sherman Edwards, a former high school history teacher, was credited with conceiving the play as well as writing the music and lyrics. Edwards and Stone researched events prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and endeavored to maintain historical accuracy. However, some liberties were taken, such as the timing of the signing of the document, which actually occurred over several months rather than on one day. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, Roger Sherman and Thomas Jefferson formed the Committee of Five to draft the document Jefferson wrote, which was also depicted in the film. Personal details in the film and play, such as "Benjamin Franklin's" napping and gout, were true. According to modern historical sources, Jefferson did wish to return home to see his wife, but, according to modern sources, she May have been ill at the time. Although the real Caesar Rodney suffered a form of skin cancer and made a last-minute ride from Delaware to Philadelphia, an event depicted on the 1999 Delaware commemorative quarter, he became mortally ill several years later than the period depicted in the film. Judge James Wilson changed his vote, as shown in the film, although his reason for doing so is not known. As shown in the film, the real John Dickinson did not sign the declaration and he did fight in the Continental Army, as he promises in his last speech in the film, and later helped to write the Constitution of the United States.
Much of the film's dialogue was taken from the writings of the historical figures. For example, the running joke describing "John Adams" as "obnoxious and disliked" were words the real Adams reported to his wife Abigail in his letters. Jefferson's defense for a written document declaring independence, several of Franklins' aphorisms and Adams' comment to Franklin that it would be wrong to remove the anti-slavery passage from the Declaration were lifted from actual writings. The quibble between Adams and Jefferson about the words "inalienable" vs. "unalienable" was also based on fact.
Stone's musical play opened in New York on March 16, 1969, and ran for 1,217 performances. The play won several awards, among them, the Tony Award and New York Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical and a Grammy nomination for Best Cast Album. Peter Hunt, who made his directorial debut with the Broadway production, won a Tony Award for Best Director. To some contemporary observers, the success of the play, which had a patriotic theme, came as a surprise, as it opened when the country was divided over the Vietnam War. The London production, which Hunt also staged, was named "Best Play of the Year" by British critics.
According to an April 1969 Hollywood Reporter news item, four unnamed, major film companies showed interest in obtaining the film rights for 1776, for which bidding would begin in May. In November 1970, a Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Jack L. Warner purchased the rights for the play, which was still running on Broadway and had two touring companies, for $1.25 million plus percentages. A March 1971 Daily Variety article reported that Warner, the long time president of Warner Bros. who had retired from the studio, bought the film with his own money.
A March 1971 LAHExam news item reported that Warner and Columbia Pictures were teaming up to produce the picture and planning to cast mostly actors from the Broadway production and the national company. Actors who reprised their roles for the film included William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard, Roy Poole, David Ford, Ron Holgate, Emory Bass, Ralston Hill, Charles Rule, William Duell, Jonathan Moore and Virginia Vestoff. Noted stage actor John Collum, who portrays "Edward Rutledge," had been a cast replacement on Broadway in late 1969 and remained in the same stage role for two years. Rex Robbins, Patrick Hines, James Noble, Daniel Keyes, and Leo Leyden had also worked at various times either on Broadway or in touring productions of the show before reprising their roles in the film. New to the film were Blythe Danner as "Martha Jefferson," Donald Madden as "John Dickinson" and Stephen Nathan, who made his film debut as the "courier" and later became a writer and producer. Hunt, Stone, choreographer Onna White and costume designer Patricia Zipprodt, who had served on the stage production, also worked on the film.
As noted by New York magazine film critic Judith Crist, the film was a faithful adaptation of the play. However, filmmakers were able to open up outdoor scenes depicting the gardens and city streets of Philadelphia and Adams' Massachusetts farm. More detailed representation of Independence Hall's anteroom, staircase and bell tower are presented in the film. Instead of opening with Adams' speech before the curtain, as in the play, the film opens with Adams in the bell tower and climbing down several staircases to confront his colleagues in the assembly room. Sequences depicting the correspondence between Adams and "Abigail" that are presented in the songs, "Yours, Yours, Yours" and "Is Anybody There?," which were based on actual correspondence between the real-life couple and Adams' other writings, were set, according to the play's libretto, in "certain reaches of John Adams' mind." Within the film, a transition was devised to emulate the technique used onstage, wherein the couple is initially shown talking directly to each other, but in their respective locations, Adams in Philadelphia and Abigail in Massachusetts. However, as the songs progress, the couple is shown together in the same setting, but never touching each other.
A major difference between the libretto and script was the removal of the song, "Cool, Considerate Men," which was filmed, according to a September 2001 Los Angeles Times article, but was removed by Warner, who was a friend and campaign supporter of then president Richard M. Nixon. According to the article, Nixon had seen the stage show at a special White House performance in 1970 and, concerned about its negative portrayal of political conservatives who served as antagonists in the story, urged Warner to remove it from the released film. According to the article, Warner wanted the removed footage shredded, because he "did not want history second-guessing" his action; however, editor Florence Williamson surreptitiously kept it intact and placed it in storage. A July 2002 Los Angeles Times article stated that, according to Hunt, Warner told one of his closest friends before he died that he regretted cutting the song.
According to studio production notes, Independence Hall was built on a Columbia sound stage. The art director, Philadelphia native George Jenkins, used William Birch engravings and other research from the Independence Hall archives to reproduce the building faithfully as it stood in the year 1776. The following information is taken from Hunt and Stone's commentary on the 2002 DVD version: The Independence Hall staircase was built at Columbia's Gower Studios and these scenes were some of the last to be shot there before Columbia moved from Hollywood to Burbank. Columbia's Burbank ranch was the location where the cobble-stoned sets representing Chestnut, and intersecting Fifth and Sixth Streets, Independence Square, High Street market and Jefferson's apartment, all set in Philadelphia, were shot. The Adams farm was shot at the Disney ranch, and many items, such as Jefferson's actual writing desk, were replicated for the film. Although the large calendar was a facsimile of the calendar hanging in the assembly hall in the year 1776, the tally board, a device used to heighten suspense that was displayed prominently in the play and the film, was not in the original hall. Although the film was originally recorded on multi-track, Warner released the film in monoaural. (However, the DVD restoration combines the original stereo tracks with modern technology.) According to an October 1992 Los Angeles Times article, the film was shot in forty-four days on a $4,000,000 budget.
Despite a generally lukewarm critical response of the film, the New York Times reviewer credited 1776 as the first that he could recall that "treated seriously a magnificent chapter in American history." According to the Los Angeles Times review, the film was shown at a benefit performance for University of Southern California on the night before the film opened in Los Angeles. Harry Stradling, Jr. was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The film was nominated for Golden Globe Best Motion Picture-Musical Comedy and the Daughters of the American Revolution named 1776 the most outstanding picture of the year.
As noted in the October 1992 Los Angeles Times article, 1776 was restored for release on LaserDisk by Joseph Caporiccio. The article reported that among the forty minutes cut before the theatrical release of the film was the overture (which included removing all the opening credits except for the title, according to the DVD commentary) and three verses of the song, "Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve." According to Hunt and Stone in their DVD commentary, the title sequence that was restored for the DVD release was shown theatrically only at a Phoenix preview and cut prior to release. They added that, at its release, the only opening credit was the title "1776", which was possibly placed just as Adams runs down the steps from the bell tower. In the background of the restored title sequence is a panoramic sketch by artist Mentor Huebner that depicts a bustling Colonial street scene, incorporating caricatures of himself and Hunt among the crowd of people.
1776 marked the final film of Warner, although his film Dirty Little Billy (see entry above), which was produced early in 1971, was released around the same time. Warner died in 1978. In 1973, Hunt and Stone produced, and Hunt directed, the television series Adam's Rib, which reunited Howard and Danner in the starring roles and was based on the 1949 M-G-M film of the same name. According to Hollywood trade publications as of September 2006, producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan were planning a 120-minute adaptation the play 1776 to be aired as part of The Wonderful World of Disney television series. A television mini-series titled 1776 was also in preproduction in 2006, to be produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman for HBO. That project, however, will focus on twelve months of George Washington's military campaign and is based on David McCulloughs' bestselling non-fiction book 1776.