1776 debuted on Broadway in 1969, just as Richard Nixon was taking up residence in the White House. The show won a Tony for Best Musical that year, beating out the naked hippie romp Hair, despite two astonishing facts: 1) there is a 30-minute stretch in the first act where no one sings a note, and 2) it is a musical about the Declaration of Independence.
These Broadway versions of the Founders, plucked from their solemn poses in John Trumbull’s famous portrait and forced to tread the boards, are fractious ideologues floundering in a fudged timeline as they squabble their way through the summer of 1776 at Philadelphia’s Continental Congress. The crusading John Adams, Sherman Edward’s lyrics remind us over and over, is “obnoxious and disliked.” A gloomy Gen. George Washington sends dispatches from the front, whining (in rhyme!), “Is anybody there? / Does anybody care?” Accusations of treason swarm like the flies John Hancock can’t shut up about, and everyone complains about the heat. (How many musicals could possibly have lyrics that revolve around the word humid?) The final vote for independence is an act of cowardice, not bravery, by a composite character who simply doesn’t want to be remembered as the guy who put the kibosh on American freedom from British rule.
The idea that a bunch of vain, self-obsessed, and frequently racist jerks could manage to forge a great nation grounded in a sincere shared belief in liberty must have been appealing to an American public stunned in the aftermath of the 1968 election, in which Alabama segregationist George Wallace took 13.5 percent of the vote while Nixon squeaked into office with 43.4 percent. Such a message might seem eternal, but the show’s positive reception has yet to be duplicated in the post-Watergate era.
The most famous song in a show full of decidedly non-famous tunes is “Egg,” in which John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin squabble over the appropriate avian emblem of the nation-to-be. They settle on Adams’ choice: the eagle. But not until Franklin has put up a staunch case for the turkey, and Jefferson a weak one for the dove. (“We’re waiting for the chirp, chirp, chirp / Of an eaglet being born,” they sing in unison. “On this humid Monday morning in this / congressional incubator.”)
But the best song is actually “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” a quasi-minuet in which the conservative faction vows to dance only “to the right, ever to the right / Never to the left, forever to the right.” The whole thing is horrifyingly anachronistic; the political usages of left and right have their origin in the National Assembly of the French Revolution of 1789, which took place many years after the events depicted in the show. But it wasn’t out of concern for historical accuracy that the song was cut by the time the show was made into a movie in 1972.
The film’s producer, Jack L. Warner, was a friend of Nixon and had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, naming a dozen screenwriters as Communists. After the musical hit the big time, the White House requested a special showing, only to demand the removal of that right-wing minuet, as well as the touching “Momma Look Sharp,” sung by a dying soldier. (As the Founders became increasingly human and complex, common soldiers are reduced to noble stereotypes.) Those White House demands resurfaced when the film was in post-production and Warner killed the song. It was restored in later laserdisc, VHS, and DVD releases.
But by the time the movie came out, America was in no mood for a lighthearted romp through American history. Burr, Gore Vidal’s 1973 runaway bestseller, offered a vision of Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and their ilk as hypocritical schemers, more in line with the mood of a nation about to face up to the realities of Watergate. The show that took the Tony three years before couldn’t even manage a Golden Globe, losing to Cabaret.
Now 1776 is back on tour. This spring it came to the historic Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., where the house was packed with tourists, not locals. But who can say what drew them there, or what resonates more with the current climate: the musical spectacle of enemies coming together to forge a new nation, or the bunting-draped box where Abraham Lincoln was shot?