The American Revolution had hardly been a goldmine for the Broadway musical. Since A Daughter of the Revolution in 1895, only five shows had dealt with the topic, only two of them -- Rodgers and Hart's Dearest Enemy in 1925 and the Robert Preston vehicle Ben Franklin in Paris (1964) -- running more than 200 performances. That didn't stop history teacher Sherman Edwards, however, from pursuing his dream, the creation of a musical about the Continental Congress that culminated with the framing of the Declaration of Independence. Edwards was already a successful songwriter with such hits as "Broken Hearted Melody" and "Dungaree Doll" when he took on the seven-year job of researching the show and creating the score. He read all he could about the founding fathers, even drawing on John Adams' letters to his wife for some of the songs' lyrics. Then book-writer Peter Stone signed on for another two-and-half years of writing and re-writing.
1776 opened on Broadway on March 16, 1969, to strong reviews and impressive ticket sales, leading to a three-year run and two-years of touring. It captured Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Ron Holgate) and Best Director (Peter Hunt). But there was some controversy. At the time, Tony categories were assigned on the basis of billing, and although he was clearly the show's leading man, William Daniels, who played John Adams, was put into the featured actor category because he was not billed above the title. He declined the nomination, forfeiting an almost sure shot at the award. More political were some objections from President Richard Nixon. He requested the show be brought to the White House, but then Secret Service members informed the production company that they would have to cut two numbers -- "Cool, Considerate Men," in which conservative members of the Continental Congress sang of their opposition to U.S. independence, and "Mama, Look Sharp," an anti-war song delivered by a young man recently returned from battle. The producers declined to make the cuts, and the matter was dropped. At the performance, however, the President stood and cheered at the end of "Cool, Considerate Men," a surprise to the production company.
Another surprise came when Jack L. Warner, a long-time Hollywood conservative, bought the film rights. Long since departed from Warner Bros., the studio he had founded with his brothers, Warner was then working as an independent producer, He had scored a hit with Camelot in 1967 and was looking to put his stamp on another film musical. When he announced his acquisition of the rights, he also announced that he had hired the original Broadway creative team to adapt the show to the screen. This was news to director Peter Hunt, who had attended the press conference, but he was glad for the opportunity to make his film-directing debut on such a prestigious project. Also joining Hunt were Edwards, Stone and several members of the original cast, including Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard, Holgate and Virginia Vestoff.
The film version of 1776 marked the first time Da Silva's vocals were recorded to disc. Just before the original Broadway cast album was recorded, he had suffered a heart attack, and his standby, Rex Everhart, had done the album instead. John Cullum, who had taken over the role of Edward Rutledge, also joined the film's cast, with Blythe Danner taking over from Broadway's Betty Buckley as Martha Jefferson. Danner's performance gives the film a footnote in Hollywood history. Twenty-three years later, her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, would play Martha Jefferson's daughter Patsy in the 1995 film Jefferson in Paris.
Although Warner had been drawn to the idea of producing a musical about the birth of the United States, however, he wasn't entirely sold on the play's political implications. During screenplay development, he would show up at meetings with Hunt and Stone with a script marked with paper clips at each passage he thought too liberal. For each one, the director and writer would explain the reason for the line, and he would back off. When Hunt asked him about this, he said, "He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day," which really didn't make a lot of sense at the time.
Hunt had hoped to shoot in Independence Hall, but aside from some establishing shots, 1776 was made almost entirely in Hollywood. The only problem this posed was for the final shot. Hunt wanted the camera to draw back as the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, re-creating a tableau that had garnered acclaim during the show's Broadway run. The sound stage wasn't large enough to accommodate the move, but since it was slated for demolition, they decided to take the shot after the rest of the film was finished and simply take out a wall of the soundstage. After 1776 was completed, however, plans to tear down the soundstage were dropped, so the production had to pay to have the wall replaced.
Hunt wanted to preview 1776 in San Francisco, but Warner objected, saying the town had "too many Jews and too many gentiles." This didn't make much sense, either, until Hunt realized that what Warner wanted to avoid were experts on the subject who might throw too much light on the film's factual errors. In truth, the Declaration of Independence was signed over the course of several months, not in the one day shown in 1776. Moreover, a key obstacle to Thomas Jefferson's (Howard) writing of the Declaration in the film is his loneliness for his wife. Ben Franklin (Da Silva) arranges for her to visit, which ends his writers block. In truth, no such visit took place. In fact, Martha Jefferson was so ill following a miscarriage, that she couldn't have gone anywhere in the summer of 1776. Afraid of complaints about such inaccuracies, Warner previewed the film in Phoenix, where it met with strong approval. Convinced he had a hit on his hands, Hunt took off on vacation with his wife, leaving the rest of the picture in Warner's hands.
When he got back, however, he learned that Warner had re-cut the film, eliminating most of the lines he had objected to earlier and two musical numbers, "Cool, Considerate Men" and "Mama, Look Sharp." When Hunt complained, Warner simply said, "He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day," which suddenly made more sense. According to Hollywood legend, Warner had screened the film for his good friend, President Nixon, and cut the numbers at his request. Other sources debate that version, suggesting that Warner cut "Cool, Considerate Men" for fear that a number featuring older, heavier actors dancing together would generate the wrong kind of laughter. "Mama, Look Sharp" was restored before the film's release, but "Cool, Considerate Men" would not be a part of the film until its 1992 laserdisc release.
1776 was the Thanksgiving attraction at New York's Radio City Music Hall, where it played to capacity crowds. When it went into national release, however, it bombed. That failure turned out to be the end for Warner. Although he continued looking for material for films, he never found another project that interested him. He passed away in 1978, with 1776 as his final credit.
Some historians have blamed the picture's failure on the times. The film musical was going through major changes in the early '70s. Bob Fosse's version of Cabaret the same year had made more traditional musicals like 1776 seem like dinosaurs. Politically, the film failed to unite audiences. Liberals were turned off by the reverential treatment of the founding fathers and the rationalization of their decision to strike any criticism of slavery from the Declaration of Independence. Conservatives found the contemporary humor, including jokes about irritable bowels and Jefferson's sexual relationship with his wife, in bad taste (as recently as 2004, the G-rated film was banned for showing at Fairfax County, Virginia, because there was too much "sexual innuendo"). And although critics were mixed, the negative reviews were so vehement they far outweighed anything positive written about 1776. In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael kicked off a review titled "Foundering Fathers," with the question "What could be more soul-curdling than a Broadway folk operetta featuring the founding fathers, and double-entendres, and national tragedy?" Her answer: "The movie version."
Yet the film also maintains a fervent group of supporters. Vincent Canby's original review in The New York Times may suggest its continuing appeal: "...1776...insists on being so entertaining and, at times, even moving, that you might as well stop resisting it. This reaction, I suspect, represents a clear triumph of emotional associations over material." Fans continue to buy new versions on DVD, watch the television airings of it and debate the film's historical accuracy on-line. The original show remains popular in local theatres and even schools, despite the objections of the Fairfax County school board. A 1997 Broadway revival, staring Brent Spiner of Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for almost a year (with Rex Everhart once again serving as standby for Benjamin Franklin).
Producer: Jack L. Warner
Director: Peter H. Hunt
Screenplay: Peter Stone Based on the musical by Stone and Sherman Edwards
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Jr.
Art Direction: George Jenkins
Music: Sherman Edwards
Principal Cast: William Daniels (John Adams), Howard Da Silva (Benjamin Franklin), Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson), Ronald Holgate (Richard Henry Lee), John Cullum (Edward Rutledge), Ray Middleton (Thomas McKean), Blythe Danner (Martha Jefferson), Virginia Vestoff (Abigail Adams).
C-166m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller