Monday, March 16, 2015

Musical Spotlight: 1776

It was about time for me to tackle another musical spotlight blog, but I couldn't decide what to go for next. I like a lot of musicals, and none were speaking to me especially these days, so I decided to let history decide. On this day in 1969, the musical 1776 opened on Broadway, starring William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard, and Betty Buckley (in her Broadway debut). The book is by Peter Stone, the music and lyrics are by Sherman Edwards.

I've sincerely enjoyed this show for a very long time. I grew up watching the movie version (which preserves many of the original Broadway cast members). It's a musical version of how the Declaration of Independence was written and signed, and it's known for being fairly decent in terms of accuracy. There are definitely a few things that got rearranged, played up, or created entirely for dramatic effect, but a great deal of research went into it and much of the dialogue is inspired by or directly taken from letters written by those involved.

It's a funny, fascinating show that seems more like a play with music than a musical. In fact, the show holds the record for the longest stretch between songs in a musical -- nearly thirty minutes pass between "The Lees of Old Virginia" and "But Mr. Adams." I think the songs bring a lightness to the show that wouldn't have been the case otherwise. There's a lot of almost-cynicism in the story, and without the songs it would have been very easy for that to overshadow everything.

So since the songs are important for the show, here are my five favorites, in order of show appearance!

1. The Lees of Old Virginia

There's no good clip of this from the movie, so I'll have to settle for the movie soundtrack. At this point in the musical, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin want to propose independence, but Adams is extremely unpopular in Congress and he knows if he suggests it it'll never get discussed at all. They approach Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, and ask him if he'd be willing to. He enthusiastically agrees to go get authorization to do so, and on his way out he sings this fun song about how his family heritage is sure to get him the support he needs.

2. But, Mr. Adams

After Lee proposes a vote on independence, the vote is split, and the "pro" group is given the opportunity to write up a declaration explaining the reasons for choosing independence, in the hopes of winning over the other side. In this song, the declaration committee tries to decide who should write the declaration. They all have their different reasons they shouldn't -- especially Thomas Jefferson, as he has planned a visit to his wife, whom he hasn't seen for six months. The song is a silly back-and-forth between Adams, pressuring each member of the committee in turn, and the rest, protesting that they shouldn't be the one to do it.

3. Mama Look Sharp

One of my favorite songs from any show, this is a suddenly dark song in the middle of a fairly lighthearted story. A few of the messenger boys are sitting around chatting about what it would be like to be in the war and sharing stories of their friends and family members who have been. That yields this haunting tune sung from the point of view of a boy who is dying on the battlefield, and his mother is searching for his body.

4. The Egg

As Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson eagerly wait to find out whether the Declaration of Independence will be accepted by Congress, they sing about the excitement of forming a new nation and debate what bird would best represent it by being the national bird -- Adams votes for the eagle, Jefferson for the dove, and Franklin for the turkey (which he did advocate for in real life). This song is back to the show's more lighthearted tone, and it's great fun.

5. Molasses to Rum

The part of the show that takes the most liberties with history for dramatic effect is this bit toward the end, where the vote for or against independence hinges on a clause in the Declaration that denounces slavery. This leads to a dramatic walkout of every delegate from the South, who refuse to sign unless it is removed. While this passage was indeed removed from the final engrossed copy of the Declaration and it is said that two of the states opposed it, it was much less dramatic than this -- independence had already been voted in by the time this debate happened, so it was simply the wording being challenged, not the cause of independence itself.

However, that doesn't make this song any less interesting. The key player for the South in the musical version is South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge, who in this song points out the North's complicity in the slave trade and accuses them of hypocrisy. It's a dark, unsettling tune, performed here on the movie's soundtrack by five-time Tony nominee John Cullum.

And that's 1776! I highly recommend the movie version and any of the recordings.

Also, if you have a movie you'd be interested in hearing my take on for a Musical Spotlight post, let me know! I like a lot of musicals, so it's hard for me to narrow down my choices sometime.

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