Happy 4th of July! Welcome to an encore installment of Reissue Theory, where we take a look back at notable albums and the reissues they could someday see. In 1969, a Broadway musical about a most unlikely subject became the toast of New York. Three years later, a movie mogul in the twilight of his years shepherded it to the big screen, and while the film has lived on, its soundtrack album has all but disappeared. This Reissue Theory, pulled from The Second Disc archives, imagines a long-overdue expansion of the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack of 1776. While such a release has been rumored many times over the years, it has yet to come to fruition. Perhaps there’s still time; the 50th anniversary arrives in 2022…
In April 1969, the counterculture was in full swing. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was just a few short months away, and the sounds of rock and pop had invaded Broadway with two very different yet equally contemporary musicals, Hair and Promises, Promises. But in this au courant year, the most truly countercultural musical may have been the most seemingly traditional. It picked up three trophies, including Best Musical, at the Tony Awards on April 20, 1969. The musical involved a group of young, spirited radicals seeking to overtake an oppressive government, and even featured a powerful ballad – a protest song, even – about the ramifications of war. I’m, of course, talking about 1776.
1776 hardly seemed the stuff of a theatrical success story. Its librettist, Peter Stone, had the books to two flop Broadway musicals (Kean and Skyscraper) to his credit. Its composer and lyricist, Sherman Edwards, was a former history teacher who had scaled the pop charts years earlier with “Wonderful! Wonderful!” and “See You in September,” but had never written for the stage. Edwards had conceived of the idea of bringing America’s founding fathers to Broadway, but after initial attempts at writing the musical’s book himself, he turned to Stone. The writer had penned the screenplay to Stanley Donen’s Charade, was an Emmy winner for The Defenders and an Oscar winner for Father Goose, but was not yet an accomplished writer of musicals. Edwards convinced his new collaborator that the members of the Second Continental Congress could be presented in a flesh-and-blood manner, and that the familiar story of American independence could be rendered in a thrilling, even suspenseful way. Nobody wanted 1776 to be a mere history lesson. While he of course took artistic license, Stone drew on countless original texts, letters and documents to give the characters’ dialogue as much verisimilitude as was possible. Stone must have exceeded Edwards’ fervent hopes with his ingenious, unconventional libretto, undoubtedly one of the finest ever written for a musical. Put simply, 1776 broke many of the rules. For one thing, there is no chorus or ensemble. For another, choreography is minimal. And then there’s a 30+ minute long stretch of dialogue with absolutely no music whatsoever, which would appear to break a cardinal rule of writing for the musical theatre. In addition, the show was originally written and performed without an intermission.
Edwards’ score is quite odd, too. Not one song is written in standard A-A-B-A style, and its music doesn’t sound anything like the hits Edwards had churned out for Johnny Mathis (“Wonderful! Wonderful!”), Joanie Sommers (“Johnny Get Angry”), or The Tempos (“See You in September”). Its unique style occasionally borrowed from operetta but also from traditional musical theatre. Orchestrator Eddie Sauter, a prominent name in jazz circles, even brought a baroque sensibility to the score with his use of instruments such as the harpsichord. (There were naturally very few contemporary covers, but Cher did take a crack at “Momma, Look Sharp,” delivering in underrated fashion.)
Starring William Daniels (John Adams), Howard Da Silva (Benjamin Franklin), Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson) and Betty Buckley (Martha Jefferson) and directed by Peter Hunt, 1776 opened to near-unanimous raves on March 16, 1969. Clive Barnes in The New York Times praised its “style, humanity, wit and passion.” Walter Kerr, also writing for the Times, called it “the most independent new musical in years,” noting that it avoided becoming a “Channel 13 [now PBS] television show” by presenting the story “without compromise, apology, self-consciousness, piety or fear.” John Chapman of the Daily News asserted that it was a “magnificently staged and stunningly original musical…far, far off the Broadway path.” Only Martin Gottfried in Women’s Wear Daily dissented, declaring 1776 a “wooden replica of souvenir-shop patriotism.”
With reviews like those, is it any surprise that Hollywood came calling? Jack L. Warner had sold his controlling interest in Warner Bros. Pictures to Seven Arts Productions in 1967, and in 1969 the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts company was sold itself to Kinney National, a parking lot company that had already counted among its assets National Periodical Publications (the future DC Comics) and Atlantic Records. Warner retired from his role at the studio in 1969, but established himself as an independent producer. In that capacity, he snapped up rights to 1776 from its stage producer Stuart Ostrow and set up production at onetime rival Columbia Pictures.
Warner smartly retained Peter Stone to adapt his own libretto for the screen, and most of Edwards’ score was kept intact for the screen adaptation. Peter Hunt again directed. Many veterans of the Broadway production reprised their roles in the film, among them Daniels, Da Silva, Howard, Virginia Vestoff (Abigail Adams), William Duell (Andrew McNair) and Ron Holgate as Richard Henry Lee, the role that won him a Tony Award. The winsome Blythe Danner took the place of Betty Buckley as Martha Jefferson, and John Cullum, a replacement for Clifford David’s Edward Rutledge on Broadway, took David’s role in the film.
Despite its fidelity to its source material, the 1972 movie version wasn’t received as warmly as the stage version. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times groused that the movie was “an insult to the real men who were Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest,” adding that the performances were “fairly dreadful.” Vincent Canby, whose theatrical colleagues had raved about the musical, used his New York Times platform to denounce the original show as “gagged up and paced to Broadway’s not inspiring standards,” before proclaiming the movie “insists on being so entertaining and, at times, even moving, that you might as well stop resisting it.”
As Canby grudgingly realized, the film indeed has much to offer, including the chance to see the Broadway veterans recreate the roles that they embodied so fully by 1972. If the movie has a central failing, it’s that the suspense so carefully established onstage is all but missing. While watching the stage musical, it’s almost impossible not to wonder, “How will Adams possibly convince the others to sign the Declaration?” even though you know the outcome. Much of this is due to the looming (and inherently theatrical) presence of a page-per-day calendar and tally board on the wall of the single set. Both are constant reminders of just how far the colonists had to go, and in how little time! More than once, it simply seems an impossibility that Adams will get the requisite number of votes! As Otis Guernsey reflected in his volume selecting the Best Plays of 1968-69, “When you entered the theater, you knew how it was going to turn out. After a half-hour, however, you weren’t so sure.” The camera only occasionally directs us to these elements, and so the tension is less palpable throughout.
Also detrimental was Jack Warner’s decision, reportedly at the urging of President Richard M. Nixon, to cut the rousing “Cool, Considerate Men” for Donald Madden’s John Dickinson and his fellow loyalists. Nixon is said to have felt the chilling song was an unfair indictment of conservatives. (When the musical played a special performance at the Nixon White House, it was requested that “Momma, Look Sharp,” the impassioned and relevant war ballad, be cut. The production stood firm, and if a similar request was made for the film version, it again fell on deaf ears.) In fact, “Cool, Considerate” was just one of some forty minutes of cuts made by Warner to Hunt’s 3-hour motion picture, reportedly to accommodate additional screenings each day.
1776 was first reborn on a 1991 Pioneer laserdisc. That version reinstated “Cool, Considerate Men,” the Overture and Intermission Music, full opening credits and additional music and film sequences, bringing it back to its original 180-minute length. 1776 was finally released on DVD in 2002 in a Director’s Cut, and while the video quality is superior to the laserdisc, Hunt chose to edit the film (again!) to a 166-minute length. The Overture and Entr’acte music were out, as was the reprise of “The Lees of Old Virginia.” “Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve” was edited back down to its original 1972 length after being expanded for the laserdisc. Footage following “Cool, Considerate Men,” however, made its first appearance on the DVD.
The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack on Columbia Records, the same label which released the Broadway Cast Recording in 1969, has never seen the light of day on CD or even digital download. It’s notable for being the only audio document of Howard Da Silva’s Benjamin Franklin. (Da Silva was ill at the time of the Broadway cast album recording session and Rex Everhart is heard in his place on that album.) Ray Heindorf, who conducted many of Warner Bros.’ biggest movie musicals, again was in charge for Jack Warner’s lavish film, and the orchestra is expectedly lush and rousing. Not every performance is the equal of the original (such as Danner’s filling in for the zestier Buckley) but some are even better (John Cullum’s Rutledge in “Molasses to Rum,” surely the most gripping song ever written about the Triangular Trade!) and it’s delicious to compare Daniels on both discs. His unmatched performance as the irascible, volatile Adams was even more intense after he had lived with the character for so long.
Columbia’s original soundtrack was produced for records by Andrew Kazdin. It, of course, lacked “Cool, Considerate Men,” as well as some of the other music that is unique to the film, such as the grand Overture/Main Title and Intermission Music. (The original stage musical was written and performed without an intermission. Revivals have added one following “Momma, Look Sharp,” and the film originally added one after “He Plays the Violin.”) For our hypothetical reissue, we have expanded that original LP to take advantage of the extended running time on a CD, adding a couple of tracks of underscore plus the reprise of “The Lees of Old Virginia” and the brief song “Compliments.” We have lengthened other tracks such as “Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve” and “Is Anybody There?,” both of which had music cut for the LP. (You can find all of the music referred to below on the laserdisc and DVD, and presumably an official release could present the underscore tracks sans dialogue.)
Many of the original elements for the recording were found when Pioneer was working on the laserdisc in 1991; for that project, Columbia Records and Columbia Pictures both supplied multi-tracks which could be utilized for a soundtrack reissue. Such a release is long overdue, as is a CD reissue of the Original London Cast Recording of the musical. As one can imagine, that British production had a very different flavor, and perhaps unsurprisingly, 1776 didn’t last long in its West End incarnation.
As we today celebrate the anniversary of American independence, there’s no better time to resolve (you can skip the piddle and twiddle) to enjoy Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’ 1776. On stage, on film and on record, it remains an enduring testament not only to the power of American musical theatre but to the ideals set forth all those years ago by our founding fathers. Once more with feeling: “Sit down, John!”
1776: The Complete Original Soundtrack Recording (original album released as Columbia S-31741, 1972)
- Overture and Main Title *
- Sit Down, John
- Piddle, Twiddle, And Resolve/Till Then *
- The Lees of Old Virginia
- The Lees of Old Virginia (Reprise) **
- But, Mr. Adams
- Underscore (John Visits Abigail) **
- Yours, Yours, Yours
- He Plays the Violin
- Intermission Music/Entr’acte **
- Cool, Considerate Men **
- Momma Look Sharp
- The Egg
- Molasses to Rum
- Underscore (John and Abigail in the Bell Tower) **
- Compliments **
- Is Anybody There?*
* denotes track expanded from LP presentation
** denotes track not on original LP