How can political stability exist when the people don’t know their own history? What society can plan a future without an intimate knowledge of its own past? – Peter Stone, Book Writer, 1776
1776: “The Worst Idea That Had Ever Been Proposed for a Musical”
When 1776 premiered on Broadway in March 1969, the same year Richard Nixon became president of the United States, the country was plagued by nasty partisan conflict, a controversial war, and civil unrest. Seeking diversion from the strife, many Americans turned to lighthearted fare such as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which became the highest rated show on television. In that environment, 1776 seemed an unlikely source of entertainment. A musical based on the Founding Fathers’ political machinations sounded like a stodgy history lesson no one wanted to study. Multiple producers and theatre directors turned it down. William Daniels, who originated the role of John Adams, had to be cajoled into taking the part. “We’re in the middle of Vietnam, for Christ’s sake,” he remembers thinking, “and they’re waving the flag?” Even Peter Stone, who wrote the highly acclaimed book, initially thought the play “sounded like maybe the worst idea that had ever been proposed for a musical.”
1776: “A Musical with Style, Humanity, Wit, and Passion”
1776 was an immediate, colossal hit, appealing to theatre critics, diverse audiences, and political figures across a range of parties and positions. Clive Barnes of the New York Times called it “a musical with style, humanity, wit and passion. . . . consistently exciting and entertaining.” President Nixon invited the cast to perform a fully staged show at the White House, an unprecedented event. On its first national tour, 1776 attracted large audiences in both liberal and conservative communities. Explaining its crossover success, theatre critic Dudley Saunders suggested that “the patriotism evoked by 1776 . . . divides no one” because the play focuses on creating a document that affirms principles and values we still want to live by. Contrary to the expectation that the play would fail because of the country’s social and political turmoil, Stone believed it succeeded precisely because it arrived during “a period of national humiliation and despair when Americans wanted desperately to be reminded of an earlier, prouder time.”
The “Secrets” of 1776
That 1776 was not a polarizing show is remarkable given that key members of the creative team, including book writer Peter Stone, were left-leaning Democrats who were drawn to the anti-establishment, rebellious spirit of the Founding Fathers. As producer Stuart Ostrow revealed in his memoir, “The reason I thought that producing 1776 was so timely then was its relevance to the protest to end the war. . . . It was my secret.” Another secret he’d kept was that Nixon’s staff had (unsuccessfully) demanded the omission of three songs from the White House performance: “Cool, Cool Conservative Men¹,” “Momma Look Sharp,” and “Molasses to Rum,” which in Ostrow’s mind were “anti-conservative, anti-war, and anti-race hypocrisy, respectively.” (Nixon would later convince producer Jack L. Warner to excise “Cool, Cool . . .” from the 1972 film version; it was restored for the 2002 director’s cut.) But Peter Stone had deliberately written a book that enables audiences of all stripes to view the play through the lens of their particular ideologies and see their own beliefs and values reflected back at them. His aim was for Americans to learn their own history, connect their past to their present, and come to understand the need for a more stable and just society—an objective that resonates in our fractious times.
Audiences of 1776 typically ask, Is it true? Did it really happen that way? In “Historical Note by the Authors,” published in Penguin’s 1976 edition of the play, Peter Stone and composer/lyricist Sherman Edwards wrote, “The answer is yes.” But they qualified their response:
Certainly a few changes have been made in order to fulfill basic dramatic tenets. To quote a European dramatist friend of ours, “God writes lousy theater.” In other words, reality is seldom artistic, orderly, or dramatically satisfying. . . . Therefore, in historical drama, a number of small licenses are almost always taken with strictest fact . . . . But none of them, either separately or in accumulation, has done anything to alter the historical truth of the characters, the times, or the events of American independence.
Hair and 1776
When 1776 appeared on Broadway, the rock musical Hair was already a year into its highly successful run. A product of the hippie counterculture and anti-war movement of the late 1960s, Hair was seen by many conservative fans of 1776 as a polar opposite vision for the country. But the show’s young actors didn’t necessarily see it that way. In San Francisco, on a Monday night in 1970, when the theater staging Hair was dark, the entire cast went to see the national tour production of 1776. Stuart Ostrow said “they were so moved that they stood at the stage door and formed a canopy for our cast as they came into the street and held them there singing ‘America the Beautiful.’”
Hamilton and 1776
The musical Hamilton, which opened on Broadway in August 2015, starts just before 1776 ends, in 1775, when college student Alexander Hamilton joins the New York volunteer militia. In an interview, Hamilton’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda emphasized that 1776 had paved the way for his show, “not just in that it’s about our founders, but also in that it engages fully with their humanity.” Hamilton emphasizes the role of immigrants in creating the nation. While the original cast of 1776 was white, as were the Founding Fathers, the cast of Hamilton is multiracial and multiethnic, reflecting Miranda’s desire for audiences to experience history through the voices of Americans as they look today.
Miranda’s choice to integrate the cast has been poignantly reinforced by Ancestry.com’s recent “Declaration Descendants” campaign. The campaign gathered together twenty-nine living descendants of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence—a group of multiracial and multiethnic men, women, and children. Standing in for their respective ancestors, the group recreated John Trumbull’s iconic painting depicting Thomas Jefferson’s presentation of the Declaration’s first draft to the Second Continental Congress. In the companion video, several of the descendants recite lines from the Declaration, movingly reminding us not only of the import of those words but also of our universal human connection across time and race.
After out-of-town tryouts in New Haven and Washington, D.C., 1776 opened on Broadway in 1969 at the 46th Street Theater (now Richard Rogers Theater, home of Hamilton), ran for 1217 performances, and won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It premiered in London in 1970, Sydney in 1971. Peter Stone adapted the play for the 1972 film of the same name. 1776 had a Broadway revival in 1997 at the Roundabout Theater Company. In 2014, an all-female cast performed the show at the Tabard Theater in San Jose, California. In 2016, an Encores! City Center production in New York featured a racially diverse cast, in modern dress.