1776 is a musical film (based upon the 1969 stage musical of the same title) which dramatizes the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It has always been a 4th of July favorite in my family. What better way to celebrate the holiday than a musical about how American Independence was declared in the first place? However, I’ve found that until recently anyway, it’s a bit of a tough sell for people who think they don’t like history and/or musicals.
The story is framed around the Second Continental Congress with a focus on John Adams (as portrayed by William Daniels), Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), and Benjamin Franklin (Howard DaSilva). At first glance, it might seem incongruous to have chosen to treat the subject of the Declaration of Independence in a musical format, but it works surprisingly well. In fact, the recent – and continuing – success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton written about the same time period from a different perspective may well have reignited interest in 1776. (Virginia Rep did a production of the stage musical just last year.)
Interestingly, portions of 1776’s dialogue and some of the song lyrics are taken directly from things said or written by various participants in the Second Continental Congress. The songs and the way the plot is structured serve to highlight the drama and debate involved in the decision to declare independence from the British crown.
That being said, 1776 should not be read as any sort of documentary film. There is a lot of artistic license taken. For instance, since the action takes place entirely in Philadelphia and mostly indoors, we need an antagonist, and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania (portrayed in the film by Donald Madden) becomes the primary villain for dramatic purposes. Dickinson did take a much more cautious approach to independence and abstained from voting to ratify the Declaration, but his objections were much more nuanced than his film portrayal would suggest.
What 1776 does exceptionally well is to humanize the Founding Fathers and to unpack some of the major issues of the time. For example, we get this exchange between John Adams and Ben Franklin:
Adams: “Mark me, Franklin … if we give in on this issue [the question of slavery], posterity will never forgive us.”
Franklin: “That’s probably true, but we won’t hear a thing, we’ll be long gone. Besides, what would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We’re men, no more, no less, trying to get a nation started. First things first, John. Independence, America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?”
We also are shown that the Founders … gasp! … missed their wives and families and were separated from them for extended periods of time in service of the new nation. There are only 2 roles for women in the film — Adam’s wife Abigail (Virginia Vestoff) appears via dramatized versions of the letters the two exchanged, and Jefferson’s wife Martha (Blythe Danner) serves as muse to her husband making a(n entirely fictional) journey to Philadelphia to (*ahem*) encourage him to write.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie involves the Declaration Committee’s song, “But, Mr. Adams” which involves Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Roger Sherman (Rex Robbins) and Robert Livingston (John Myhers) bickering over who will actually do the writing of the declaration whilst dancing up and down on the staircase of what is now known as “Independence Hall” — a hilariously preposterous take on a serious subject.
Another scene that is anything but funny but no less powerful is the “Molasses to Rum” song performed by Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (as played by John Cullum), which indicts the hypocrisy inherent in the northerners’; opposition to the slave trade at the time since they, too, profited from the Triangle Trade. If you only know John Cullum’s work from Northern Exposure, ER or Mad Men, it’s well worth seeing his performance to hear what an amazing baritone voice he has and why he has been nominated for and won several Tony Awards over the years!
From a pop culture history perspective, it is also interesting to note that the fountain that makes an appearance in “The Lees of Old Virginia” (a comedic showcase that is essentially a long, punny dad-joke featuring Richard Henry Lee as played by Ron Holgate) can still be found on the Warner Studios back lot. You may also recognize this fountain from the opening credits of 1990s TV sitcom favorite Friends!
If you’re a fan of musicals, or of history, or of Hamilton, 1776 is worth taking the time to come and see at the Byrd Theatre this weekend!