The Making of America's Musical- 1776: The Story Behind the Story
As America celebrates its 240th Birthday today, let's talk about what is probably one of the greatest musicals ever written, and it only came about 46 years before Hamilton. 1776 dramatizes the story of how John Adams was able to persuade his colleagues to vote for American independence as well as signing the Declaration of Independence. While the musical does dramatize the most important event in American history, the story behind the musical is probably just as interesting.
Sherman Edwards was a songwriter who started off writing pop songs at the Brill Building in New York City. He later left to write a musical after feeling that he wasn't into rock songs anymore. His interest in history inspired him to write a musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He had originally written the book, music and lyrics for the whole show. Whenever Edwards would audition the musical for producers, he played some of the songs he wrote which would then lead to the producers throwing him out. When producer Stuart Ostrow picked it up, he was very concerned that Edwards' bio wouldn't look so good for a musical about the Founding Fathers. When Ostrow learned that Edwards went in to substitute as a teacher for his son's history class for a few days in New Jersey, he decided to send out all these press releases stating 'Ex-History Teacher Writes Musical About The Declaration of Independence'. Those press releases were able to give the show some integrity as many people at the time thought it was the dumbest idea ever thought of. Ostrow also felt that while Edwards' book was good, it still needed a lot of work. So he brought in Peter Stone to re-write it.
Peter Stone was brought up from a family of screenwriters. He started out his career writing for television before transitioning into film. He wrote several films such as Charade, Father Goose (which won him an Academy Award), Mirage, etc. He then went into theatre as he felt he'd have more creative control in that medium. The first two musicals he wrote were Kean and Skyscraper. Stone was originally hesitant to work on the project before he met with Sherman Edwards. When Edwards played the opening number 'Sit Down, John', Stone realized that the musical wasn't going to be some history lesson. Instead, it was going to be a musical about real men fighting to build a country.
What Peter Stone was able to write into the book were two things that were never in the real Independence Hall, a calendar and a tally board. The tally board would be used to show the audience how the votes were going while the calendar would be used to let them know how close they are to the Fourth of July when everyone believed that the Declaration was signed. But the only thing they needed left was a director.
Stuart Ostrow had brought the musical to about sixteen big time theatre directors in New York, and they all turned it down. They all felt it was too long, they couldn't get through it, and they also didn't like Sherman's songs. Ostrow was working with Jerome Robbins on another project written by John Guare while they were having lunch together one day. Ostrow had asked Robbins if he knew some director who might be able to do 1776. Robbins responded "No, I'm a dance guy. I don't know directors." But it was later in the lunch when Robbins said "Wait a minute! There is this guy, I don't know his name, but he just did this show called Booth and I think he might be the person you're looking for." Robbins had met the young director, Peter H. Hunt, six months earlier at Lincoln Center where Hunt had directed a musical about the Booth family that was written by his friend Austin Pendleton and produced by Richard Rodgers. At that time, Robbins kindly gave Hunt notes on what he did right and what he did wrong.
Peter H. Hunt was a theatrical lighting designer who also directed some experimental theatre on the side. He was lighting Noel Coward's Sweet Potato when some kid came up to him outside the theatre one night and said "Stuart Ostrow wants you to direct his new musical. He wants to know who your agent is." Hunt never had an agent as a lighting designer, so he used the name Deborah Coleman, who he knew as Austin Pendleton's agent. After the kid left, Hunt went into the stage door and dialed the telephone. He got a hold of Deborah Coleman's office telling her that he really needed an agent right now. She responded "Oh honey, I'm so busy with my own clients. There's no possible way." She was about to hang up when Hunt said "Oh my gosh, I'm gonna be caught in a lie!" Coleman responded "What are you talking about?" Hunt then explained to her that he just told Stuart Ostrow's office that she was his agent because he was offered a Broadway musical. Coleman ended the call by saying "I'll get right back to you!"
When Hunt later met with Sherman Edwards, Peter Stone, and Stuart Ostrow to discuss the project, Ostrow admitted that he had no idea how to audition a director. So he suggested to Hunt that both he and Stone should go out to East Hampton during the weekend to cut the first act down to size. After they got back into town, Hunt and Stone read the first act out loud in Ostrow's office. Ostrow then suggested to both of them to go out next weekend to cut down the second act. When they brought it in again, Ostrow said "Thanks, we'll get back to you." Hunt then went home to his apartment, feeling he'd just been had. So he poured himself several scotches, before laying down on the living room floor figuring out what he was going to do next with his life. When the phone finally rang, it was Stuart Ostrow saying "We're at Sardi's! Come on up and join us! We're celebrating the fact that you're our director!" Hunt then hang up the phone after responding with "I'm too drunk! I can't move! I'll see you tomorrow!"
Peter Stone experimented with adding different songs in between the numbers 'The Lees of Old Virginia' and 'But Mr. Adams', but nothing worked, so it was decided not to use any. Thus making 1776 the longest time in a musical without a single note of music being played nor sung.
Stuart Ostrow's first choice for the role of John Adams was actor William Daniels. Daniels at the time made a name for himself as an actor of the stage. He had also appeared on screen in films such as Ladybug, Ladybug, A Thousand Clowns, Two for the Road, The Graduate, and The President's Analyst. When he was first offered 1776, he didn't think it would be a good time to be doing a musical like that during the Vietnam War. But his wife, Bonnie Bartlett, encouraged him to do it as she felt he could play the part. So Daniels went to the 46th Street Theatre (which is now the Richard Rodgers Theatre, home to Hamilton) to audition for the creative team. But the door was locked, which left him thinking that they already left. As he was about to get on a bus, Daniels felt he should call his agent. When he got a hold of his agent, she said "For God's Sake, where are you? They're waiting for you at the Ziegfeld Theatre! Take a cab, I'll pay for it!" When he got there, Daniels sang the song 'Wait Til' We're 65' from a musical he had done on Broadway titled On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
In the role of Thomas Jefferson was future Screen Actors Guild president Ken Howard. Howard at the time was a student at the Yale School of Drama who had left to make his Broadway debut in Promises, Promises. When actor/director Howard Da Silva was cast as Benjamin Franklin, Sherman Edwards promised him that he would direct the musical. Da Silva always thought that 1776 would be his to direct. He was very angered not only because director Peter Hunt wasn't well established, but also because he was a 28 year old kid who was just lighting Broadway shows prior to 1776.
One of the people who also auditioned for the show was a young girl who had just came off of a bus from Texas and went straight into the auditions. She wowed the creative team so much, she landed the role of Martha Jefferson. That young girl was 21-year-old Betty Buckley, years before making a name for herself as Broadway's original Grizabella in Cats. The rest of the original Broadway cast included Virginia Vestoff as Abigail Adams, David Ford as John Hancock, Paul Hecht as John Dickinson, Clifford David as Edward Rutledge, Ronald Holgate as Richard Henry Lee, William Duell as Andrew McNair, and Scott Jarvis as the Courier.
In the beginning, the show was having some choreographic problems, so Onna White was approached about taking on the job as choreographer. White had started out her career as a dancer before transiting into choreography. She choreographed the original stage (and screen) incarnations of The Music Man and Mame as well as the big screen adaptations of Bye Bye Birdie and Oliver!. Like everyone else at first, White originally turned down 1776 before finally agreeing to see a run-through. By the time the run-through was over, White stood up with tears in her eyes saying "I have to do this show!" What she was able to do with the choreography was keeping it to a minimum as the show itself didn't require much of it.
While the show was out-of-town in in New Haven, CT, there was a huge snowstorm which had delayed all the critics from attending until one of the final performances. There was an entire section that took place in New Brunswick with a bunch of Continental soldiers around a campfire. It was followed by another scene in a tavern where Ben Franklin had a number with a prostitute called 'Doozyland'. John Adams even had an moment with the soldiers as they hadn't eaten for several weeks and didn't think they would be capable of fighting the British. As ducks were flying over them, the soldiers got their riffles and fired them into the sky. After all the ducks fell to the ground, John Adams went down to the edge of the stage and gave a speech telling King George that they have fire power, and that they were coming to get him, which ended Act I. That whole sequence in New Brunswick was cut as the creative team felt that it really threw off the balance of the piece. It would be replaced with a line by Samuel Chase when he comes back and says "You should've seen what happened!"
When the Doozyland number was cut, Howard Da Silva was so angry about it, that he was gonna quit the show. Stuart Ostrow had quickly hired actor Rex Everhart to take over for Da Silva. One day in between shows, Howard Da Silva was talking to actor Alfred Drake (who was in the original cast of Oklahoma! with him) at a restaurant. Da Silva went on for twenty minutes complaining about how terrible the show was, how awful the director was, etc. When he ran out of steam, Alfred Drake told him "You know Howard? When we did Oklahoma!, you were one of the dumbest people I ever met, and you still are! This is the best show you've ever been in and this is the best you've ever been." Da Silva then said that his agent and lawyer were on their way to meet with Stuart Ostrow to get him out. Drake then said "Howard, RUN! Run down there and stop them!", which he did. So the creative team kept Howard Da Silva in the role of Benjamin Franklin with Rex Everhart as his standby.
The creative team also realized that they needed a new song as they were music short after cutting the Doozyland number. Sherman Edwards got the idea for a new song from looking at the poster of the show which consisted of an eagle holding an American flag hatching out of an egg with a British flag on it. That number would be called 'The Egg'. What was also originally cut was a number a lost boy sang around the campfire called 'Momma Look Sharp'. Sherman Edwards' inspiration for that number came from the Battle of Lexington where these kids were left in town before having their smithereens blown out by the Brits. This one little boy got lost in the bushes and his mother couldn't find him. Peter Stone later found a new place for the number by giving it to the Courier in Independence Hall with Andrew McNair and the Leather Apron after all the Congress guys had left.
After the try-out in New Haven, the musical went to Washington, D.C. with all the cuts they made with only one weekend of work. The reviews in Washington were coming in at the same time as the reviews from New Haven were finally coming in. While the reviews from New Haven were terrible, the critics raved about the musical in Washington. After the out-of-town tryout, the show made it to New York. In the middle of tech rehearsal, Howard Da Silva had suffered a minor heart attack. As the creative team had Rex Everhart to go on for him, Da Silva said "No, I will not go to the hospital. If I die on stage, I die on stage. But I'm gonna open the show, and then I'll go to the hospital." He made it through opening night, and the ambulance was waiting for him right outside the theatre. While Howard Da Silva was in the hospital recovering, Rex Everhart substituted for him as Ben Franklin. His performance was even preserved on the original cast album, which was recorded during Da Silva's absence.
The musical opened on Broadway with no advance on March 16th, 1969. The ticket racks were all full. The next day, there was a long line at the theatre that went all the way to eighth avenue. Stuart Ostrow even received a telegram from Harold Prince (who had Zorba playing next door at the Imperial Theatre) saying "Get your line out of my theatre!" Suddenly, the show that everyone thought was the dumbest idea ever at first became a hit.
Shortly after opening on Broadway, the original production earned five Tony Award nominations for Best Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Ronald Holgate, Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Virginia Vestoff, Best Direction of a Musical for Peter H. Hunt, and Best Scenic Design for Jo Mielziner. A sixth nomination was originally given to William Daniels for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, but he called Alexander Cohen (the producer of the Tony Awards at the time) and said "No, thank you, because who am I supporting?" At the time, producers decided on where an actor/actress would be eligible for Tonys based on whose name was above and/or below the title. If their name was above the title, they would be placed in Lead. If their name was below the title, they'd be placed in Featured. Daniels' name was below the title, thus putting him in Featured. But the role of John Adams is on stage almost the entire time, clearly making him the lead. So therefore, Daniels successfully requested to have his name removed from the ballots.
On April 20th, 1969, the 23rd Tony Awards were held at the Mark Hellinger Theatre (which is now the Times Square Church), hosted by Diahann Carroll & Alan King, and broadcast on NBC. The nominees for Best Musical that year were 1776, Hair, Promises, Promises, and Zorba. 1776 won three awards for Best Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Ronald Holgate (though some feel that Daniels would've won had he not withdrawn), and Best Direction of a Musical for Peter H. Hunt.
After the Broadway show became a smash success, the cast was invited to perform at the White House for President Richard Nixon. Nixon's speechwriter William Safire wrote to the creative team asking them to cut the songs 'Cool, Cool, Considerate Men' and 'Momma Look Sharp' because no president at the time had ever sat through an entire musical. The creative team then told Safire that if it was a matter of time, they should make the cuts. But they were then told "OK, come and do the whole show. We don't care." When the cast performed the whole show at the White House, Peter Hunt was nervously sitting next to Richard Nixon wondering what he was going to do after the 'Cool, Cool, Considerate Men' number was preformed right to him. When that number ended, Nixon stood up and yelled "Bravo!"
When Hollywood producer Jack L. Warner retired from his studio, Warner Brothers, he remained active in the film industry as an independent producer. For one of his final feature films, he went into business with Columbia Pictures to produce a film adaptation of 1776. When Peter Stone told a young Stephen Sondheim about the news, he responded by saying "Great, maybe now you could go fix the second act." A press conference took place at the Columbia building in New York City. Stone had invited Peter Hunt to it, thinking it would be fun. When the press asked Warner who was gonna direct the film, he responded with "Why the same guy who did it on Broadway, of course!" Hunt originally thought Warner was just joking before meeting in his office where it turns out that Hunt really was gonna be directing the film.
Warner's history with producing big screen adaptations of Broadway musicals have included The Music Man, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. He was always reluctant to use the original people from Broadway shows for their film adaptations. He may have used a lot of the Broadway cast for the film adaptation of The Music Man, but he was still the one held most responsible for turning down Julie Andrews for the film adaptation of My Fair Lady as at the time, he had his doubts about her being a draw for a major motion picture. For 1776 however, he wanted to do it right by bringing as many people from the Broadway show as possible and put them on the screen (or behind the camera). So a great deal of the actors from the original Broadway production got to reprise their roles in the film, including William Daniels as John Adams, Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson, David Ford as John Hancock, John Cullum (who replaced Clifford David during the Broadway run) as Edward Rutledge, Ronald Holgate as Richard Henry Lee, and William Duell as Andrew McNair. Actor James Noble, who had played Hancock while understudying John Dickinson, also got to be in the film as Reverend Jonathan Witherspoon (who is believed to be a ancestor of actress Reese Witherspoon). New additions to the cast included Donald Madden as John Dickinson, Blythe Danner (in one of her first film roles) as Martha Jefferson, and Stephen Nathan (a member of the original cast of Godspell) as the Courier.
Peter Hunt originally didn't want to have Howard Da Silva in the film because of how difficult he was to work with during the Broadway show. Hunt went out to find a new actor to play Ben Franklin, but with no luck. He then met with Howard Da Silva for lunch, and was so impressed with how Da Silva was such a different person there. Da Silva expressed to Hunt about how passionate he'd be to do the film and even promised he'd be on his best behavior. So Da Silva was cast in the film, and was a man of his word.
Peter Hunt did screen tests of everybody just so Jack Warner would be able to see them on the screen. While he was doing the screen tests, Hunt was able to learn a lot about filmmaking from his camera operator. It was after watching several screen tests when Warner said to Hunt "Jesus Christ, I'm paying for your education!" Hunt responded "Well Jack, somebody's got to." Warner then laughed just before saying "Don't worry, I did the same thing for Mike Nichols."
Since everyone knew their lines (and lyrics), rehearsal for the film was minimal as it was only a matter of adjusting to the new surroundings of the room, re-staging everything, and committing it to film. As a result, Peter Hunt almost always went with the first take as everything was going so well during filming. Though he still had to completely rely on his camera operator to see if each take was usable or not.
When post-production was completed, Peter Hunt went out of town while Jack Warner did a special screening of the film at the White House for Richard Nixon. When the lights came up after the screening, Nixon came up to Warner and said "It's wonderful Jack, you've done a great job! But could you do me a big favor?" Warner responded "Anything for you Mr. President." Nixon then said "Could you get rid of that 'Cool, Conservative Men' number? It's such a slam against conservatism." Warner then responded "Yes sir, I can take it out." So when Warner came back to Hollywood, he had the number cut from all prints of the film (as well as the trailers) and shredded the negatives so that history wouldn't second guess him (a similar thing he did on the 1954 remake of A Star is Born). Hunt didn't know any of this had happened until he got back. He spoke with the head of production at Columbia Pictures and said "What can I do? He shredded the negatives." He was then told "No, I don't think he has. You may not be able to find it, but I don't think he shredded it." Six years later when Warner was dying, the only friend he had left asked him if he had any regrets. Warner responded "Not really, but I do have one. Did I ever listen to that idiot Dick Nixon?" It was from that quote that Warner apparently realized that he made a big mistake by cutting the number.
When the film originally opened in November 1972, it was a big hit as the Christmas presentation at Radio City Music Hall, but flopped in movie theaters worldwide. It did receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture-Comedy/Musical and an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography (both of which it lost to the film adaptation of Cabaret). At the time, the era of Hollywood musicals were pretty much starting to die down with flops such as Paint Your Wagon, Hello, Dolly!, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and Man of La Mancha despite some successes with Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret. However, the film went on to gain such a cult following over the years that fans of the film consider it to be very underrated.
Bits and pieces that were cut from the film's theatrical release were later found in the vaults of Sony, including the 'Cool, Cool, Considerate Men' number which was believed to have been shredded, and were restored in subsequent releases on Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-Ray. With 'Cool, Cool, Considerate Men' added back into the film, 1776 is now one of the few film adaptations of a Broadway musical to have retained every single musical number from its source material.
1776 has since been revived on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company in the summer of 1997 starring Star Trek: The Next Generation's Brent Spiner as John Adams. The production was so successful that it ended up transferring to a commercial run at the Gershwin Theatre. This past spring, the musical was staged at City Center Encores utilizing the original orchestrations by Eddie Sauter. The production also took inspiration from Hamilton by featuring a multiracial cast and setting it in modern day.
Not only would I like to wish everyone a Happy Fourth of July today, but also Happy 240th Birthday to the United States of America!