Saturday, November 14, 2009


"1776" (Peter H. Hunt, 1972) Reasons To Hate Musicals #1776 (Collect them all!) To hear this tell the story, the 2nd Continental Congress was split on breaking off from England, so, in a series of half-step measures, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson endeavor to draft a document stating their goals and intentions, having the Congress vote on it and sign it, and it happens on July 4th, 1776.

Okay. They actually voted on independence on July 2nd, not July 4th. They signed the Dec. of I. in August. They did NOT vote on the document FIRST and THEN declare their independence. The Southern senators did NOT walk out over a slavery clause in the Declaration (they didn't walk out at all), and
Martha Jefferson did NOT make a conjugal visit to her husband Thomas (Ken Howard) in Philadelphia, while he writing it for the simple fact that she was stricken with complications from a miscarriage. Congressman Dickinson was the one with the unpopular opinion—that being not to revolt against England—not John Adams. Congressman James Wilson did not cast the deciding vote, nor was he yet a judge (nor was he non-committal about independence). Jefferson did not release his slaves, nor did Benjamin Franklin belong to an abolitionist society (until after the war).

Other than that, it's "perfectly" accurate.

But as Franklin (
Howard Da Silva) says to Adams (William Daniels) at one point, "Don't worry, John. The history books will sort it all out."

They damned well better. If
a Broadway musical can't hold true to George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," it's self-evident they wouldn't to the events of the Philadelphia Congress' vote for independence from England. But if a musical's purpose is to show us the process of sausage being made, it would be nice if it hewed to the actual facts of the manufacturing of sausage.

One shudders to think there might be someone who believes that this presentation reflects how the matters were actually resolved because nothing could be further from the truth, and as if getting the facts wrong weren't enough, there is an air of needlessly cute lasciviousness throughout the whole thing. Blame that on Peter Stone's book. Yeah, the Founding Fathers had their quirks (or they wouldn't be fathers), but I doubt they were as coy in their coylessness, as they are here.

Some of the songs are powerful: the anti-war "Mama, Look Sharp;" the sarcastic rebuke of high minded Northern hypocrisy, "Molasses to Rum," (which, frankly makes you uncomfortable and want to leave the room—and you're merely watching the thing, rather than, say actually transporting slaves). But, some of them are just excuses to romp and show the statues and paintings in the rotunda as silly high-steppers. Drinkers, sure. Slave-owners, damned right. Petty men, sure. But not small-minded, thank you very much. And not egregiously single-minded and goofy as Richard Henry Lee (
Ron Holgate) is portrayed in "The Lee's of Old Virginia." The low point may be "He Plays the Violin" sung by Martha Jefferson (a dubbed Blythe Danner), which, after a night of connubial bliss, sounds like a dirty metaphor for forming "a more perfect Union" (nudge, nudge). Even without the consideration of the emotional and physical pain the real Mrs. Jefferson was enduring at the actual time, being confronted with such a display, I think Jefferson would have viewed it a salacious affront, tightened his jaw-muscles accordingly, and, lost for words for the first time in his life, merely handed over—at full arm's stretch, not having a ten-foot pole—a copy of his "Jefferson Bible,"* after being strongly tempted to thrash you with it.

I guess finally what I object to in the whole flummery is a musical phoniness that pervades the whole thing, right down to the clapboard sets and the processional set-pieces, to the peacock finery of the costumes and the strutting of the performers. And the music and lyrics tend to dumb them down to types—uni-dimensional men with one categorizable "opinion," that informs their entire purpose. It may have been the goal of the creators to not treat the Congress as cardboard figures, but they hardly expanded them to recognizable humans beings but merely to dramatic conveniences. There's nothing like a revolution now and then, but not everything needs to be choreographed, set to music, or photographed with falsley festive swooping cranes.

"1776" enjoys the distinction of being the first musical to benefit from a sitting president's line-item veto. Producer
Jack L. Warner (whose last production this was) showed it to then-President Richard Nixon, who objected to one of the numbers and coerced Warner to have it cut. Here is that number (showing ample evidence of the clunkiness and smugness of this film); "Cool, Considerate Men."

* Jefferson's personal editing of the Bible, which he did as an exercise, takes out the stories, the improbable and the scientifically unprovable—leaving, basically, the teachings of Jesus Christ. No miracles. No flood. No rising from the dead. A practical, moral and irrefutable Bible.

No comments: