1776: Good Drama, Bad Musical

Based on the Broadway musical of the same name which was produced three years earlier, 1776 (1972) was the final film of the legendary Hollywood mogul Jack L. Warner. The show was a huge hit, the film, not so much. The screen version came to Blu Ray just in time for the Fourth of July. Happy belated 239th birthday, America! 

[jump] The film version was shot with most of the Broadway cast intact. None of them were film stars, which may have affected ticket sales. Yet 1776 retains a modicum of historical significance, permanently preserving performances from a successful Broadway show. 

Both the play and film versions of 1776 were produced during an era that no longer exists, when New York City was home to many live TV dramas. Many of the industry's more serious actors, those who were interested in craft rather than celebrity, lived and worked in New York. They toiled steadily but without the trappings of stardom. They did soaps, theater, and occasional character roles in film. Most attended classes at the prestigious Actor's Studio — they took themselves and their work very seriously.

As its title suggests, 1776 chronicles the story of how the 13 colonies' delegates banded together to give birth to a new nation, featuring several amazing if forgotten actors like Howard Da Silva — who, as Benjamin Franklin, is spot-on. 

Lengthy dramatic sequences, such as when Congress argues over independence, suggest that 1776 could have been a great film. Brilliant actors like David Ford (as John Hancock) and Donald Madden (as John Dickinson, who eloquently argues against independence) chew the scenery as they exchange witty barbs about that era's political issues.

Unfortunately, many of the musical numbers are cringe-inducing. Most of these actors were known for their dramatic panache — with a few exceptions, they were not song-and-dance men. The musical numbers are therefore clumsily staged. And since there is sometimes as much as 30 minutes of dialogue in between songs, some numbers appear out of left field.

The exceptions are the performances by William Daniels and Virginia Vestoff as John and Abigail Adams. Vestoff, who died of cancer at age 42, was a Broadway veteran well-known for her operatic voice. She and Daniels bring some much-needed romantic chemistry to the proceedings. Duets such as Till Then and Yours Yours Yours are among the few songs which leave any emotional impact. In both songs the couple express their love for each other, and vent frustration over the long separations they are forced to endure. The lyrics represent their letters to each other: They stand face-to-face in their fantasies even though many hundreds of miles separate them. 

Other numbers fall flat. The Egg features Adams, Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson as they wonder what the fledgling country might be like, and what the country's official symbol should be. That's a good question, one that might have been better asked via serious dialogue. Daniels, Da Silva and Ken Howard (as Jefferson) are superb actors — acting, not singing, is what they're best known for. They spend a sizable portion of the song seated side-by-side at the bottom of a staircase. None of them sings particularly well — it's one of the dullest musical numbers on record. 

Sit Down, John, the film's opening number, is another example as to why 1776 works better as a drama than as a musical. The number begins with a powerful, spoken word speech by Adams. Daniels, displaying his years of stage training, demands that the Continental Congress debate his proposal, but his vehemence overwhelms the assembly, who remain seated while singing some uninspired lyrics. It lacks the excitement that a strong musical number requires.

By contrast, Cool, Cool, Considerate Men was the source of some controversy when the show first opened and at the time of the film's release. Apparently then-President Richard Nixon took offense to the lyrics “we'll dance together to the same minuet/to the right, ever to the right, never to the left.” The song was cut from the film upon its initial release, but has since been restored. 

Cool, Cool, Considerate Men has been available for a number of years on YouTube, where some comments have noted how well the song ties in with the values of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. 

Though the 18th-century costumes and settings are grandly sumptuous, 1776, at over two-and-a-half hours, is too damn long. Cut the musical numbers and you have a good, strong story with superb acting and wonderful period visuals. 

1776 is now available on Blu-ray. The disc offers the Director's Cut and an Extended Cut, which is two minutes longer.  The sparse extras menu offers a few screen tests, but no interviews or behind-the scenes documentaries are included. Commentary by Ken Howard, William Daniels and director Peter Hunt are available on the Director's Cut only. 
       

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