Every July 4th Keith and I fire up the big screen TV and we watch a movie that has become a tradition for us, and that is the musical 1776. However, as I started to think about writing this for today’s publication I began to ask myself, “Why do we watch this?”
Based on the title it’s easy to deduce that this musical is based on the events that led to the signing of the Declaration Of Independence, which of course signifies the birth of the United States. I’m sure at one time this might have seemed like an odd subject matter to create a musical, but when you look at the musicals that have taken the world by storm, most notably Hamilton, seeing that this older show is around isn’t a surprise. It is taken from a Broadway musical that premiered in 1969, it saw an adaptation to the big screen in 1972 and brought many of the original cast back to reprise their roles, including Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, John Cullum as Edward Rutledge, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson (he would later return to play the ghost of Jefferson in a short film titled Independence from 1976), and most notably William Daniels as John Adams.
The story opens with Adams expressing yet again his frustration with the Continental Congress at trying to get his resolution on Independence voted on, or in his words, having the courtesy of open debate. Instead all of the representatives in attendance simply “sing” back at him “Sit Down John!” When the next day arrives he meets up with Benjamin Franklin who suggests that someone else needs to propose the resolution simply because Adams is obnoxious and disliked. Enter Richard Henry Lee of Virginia who agrees to put the resolution through. During the debate representative Dickinson (Donald Madden) of Pennsylvania resolves that any vote on the issue of Independence must be unanimous by reason of no colony should be forced to divorce itself from the parent country without its own consent. To stall Adams proposes that a proper declaration be written up, which gets the approval of the Congress.
Unfortunately the task to write it is given to Jefferson, who can only think about going back to Virginia to be with his wife. Adams, after a week of no results from Jefferson, has Martha Jefferson (Blythe Danner) brought up to Philadelphia, thereby solving Jefferson’s more immediate problem, which in turn solves Adams’ and Franklin’s problem of getting this declaration written.
After that it faces a rigorous debate and appears to be blocked by Rutledge only because of a slavery clause that Jefferson doesn’t want removed, which causes a split in the Congress. Even Franklin and Jefferson have walked out on Adams. With no one to talk to, Adams turns to the one person he trusts more than any one else; his wife Abigail through their “correspondences.”
As with many movie adaptations of historical events, this one has what I call that “Hollywood sheen” all over it. Even after Adams refers to Philadelphia as “filthy,” everyone still manages to look absolutely spectacular with his or her excellent costumes and wigs, despite being in the middle of summer. Even with the heavy dress that Martha Jefferson wears, she looks absolutely stunning, and yet anyone who has studied history would have to assume that what this movie shows is barely an accurate representation of the conditions at that time. Still, it’s more about the story, but unfortunately even that isn’t precisely 100% accurate. Many liberties are taken regarding some of the individual players, most notably that of Dickinson who is portrayed as quite the antagonist to the idea of Independence, and while that may be true in the beginning, history shows that he did have a change of heart and became quite the stalwart champion for the cause. Then there is the music. With music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, some of the songs have little hooks here and there, and one or two of the songs are quite singable, but the majority of them have odd sentence structure with key signatures that would give any accomplished musician a headache. One such song that Adams sings (“Is Anybody There?”) is something of a showstopper. It’s not because of the strength of the song, but because of the conviction when performed by William Daniels. At times he’s practically shouting the lyrics (appropriately so), but the meter of the song is at times absolutely baffling making it difficult to appreciate. And there are songs that make listeners want to like them, but their subject matter might make it a bit difficult. Two of these do stop the show with their power, the first being performed by a courier when he talks about seeing his two best friends shot dead (“Momma, Look Sharp”), and the second sung by Rutledge regarding the Triangle Trade (“Molasses to Rum”). In the second one there is a line sung by Rutledge that is horrifyingly offensive, especially when accompanied by a small hand gesture as he sings it, and yet the enormous power that Cullum possesses (he is a truly remarkable baritone) is without a doubt a total highlight of the entire musical that can leave the audience breathless, if you can get past that one disturbing moment in the song.
1776 is not the kind of movie to watch if you’re looking for either historical accuracy, or if you’re seeking after musical beauty. Nonetheless, it falls somewhere in the middle providing an entertaining look at the most significant moment in US history, with songs that at times might at least make you think, and perhaps even help a person to take a look at today’s system of government from a slightly different point of view. So going back to my beginning question, why do we watch it? We will be watching it for the love story subplot between Adams and Abigail, two people who loved this country almost as much as they loved each other.