Book by Peter Stone
Music & Lyrics by Sherman Edwards

INFO:

Opened at the 46th Street Theatre    March 16, 1969    1,217 Performances
Original Director: Peter H. Hunt
Original Choreographer: Onna White
Original Producer: Stuart Ostrow
Original Leads: John Adams: William Daniels   Thomas Jefferson: Ken Howard    Ben Franklin: Howard Da Silva    Martha Jefferson: Betty Buckley    Richard Henry Lee: Ronald Holgate
Cast Size:  Male: 23-24    Female: 2    Ensemble: 0    Total Cast Size: 26
Orchestra: 17
Published Script: Penguin Plays ISBN 0140481397
Production Rights: MTI (Music Theater International)
Recordings: The original cast is great, 1969. The 1997 version starring Brent Spiner is good.
Film: A quite good and true-to-the-play movie was shot, also directed by Peter Hunt, with much of the original cast.
Other shows by the authors: None by Edwards. Stone wrote the book for various musicals.
Awards: Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actor (Ronald Holgate), Best Direction, Drama Desk Award Outstanding Book.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

1776 is a remarkable show. It is extraordinarily literate for a musical, with a book that presents history in the smartest and most interesting manner, and yet the show is entirely accessible. It is one of the most feared things, a show about history, but it’s warm, funny, endearing and alive. It is a marvelous show if your company is equipped to do it, particularly around patriotic holidays. But 1776 will work year round. The score soars with emotion, and adds enormously to the accessibility of the show as a whole.

Jr. Highs can forget this show. High Schools might try it, but honestly, most High Schools and private schools have far more girls than boys in their drama department, so why would they want to do this show? (Recently an all-female company tried the show. I think this is courageous, but misguided. The characters are historical personages, and they were men. Way it is.)

Colleges might consider 1776, as well as Little Theaters. But this is the show to look at when you find yourself in that unusual position of having a lot of men and not too many women to work with. It’s perfect for professional companies looking for a large production with great dramatic and production values. But this is a large show.

A thought – 1776 could work well in rep opposite a largely female show, say the straight play “The Women”, or “Stage Door.” Perhaps the musical “Quilters” would make a good piece to rep with, with its cast of 7 women and the subject of American pioneers. The musical “Little Women” would also provide a nice counter. Anything with an American theme and preponderance of women.

Be Warned:

The demands of 1776 are not at all well-suited to small companies. If for no other reason, you’ll need too many singing and acting males. The set can be handled by most groups – but the costuming is entirely period, and could be a big load. I suppose you could go the modern dress route, and do the show as if it were a rehearsal for 1776. I think this might kill some of the grand sense of historic characters coming to life before our eyes. However, it might also serve to make the characters and message more accessible. After all, in modern dress, they are us. It might prove to be an interesting experiment, and would be far cheaper to pull of. You could even eliminate much of the set with this approach, use chairs and a dais. You will need the board that shows how votes are going, but all of this would drop the cost considerably.

The score will not work with just piano (harpsichord, in this case). T^he opening of the show is a snare drum only, and piano can’t do that. The minimal piano/drums/bass would almost barely suffice, but really, the patriotic rumbles and romantic ballads need more. The score borders on operetta, and operetta needs serious musical support. Seems to me some traditional orchestration, or very clever and real-sounding synths, are a necessity.

The show requires almost an all-male cast. (There are two female roles, one lead, one supporting.) All of the men must sing fairly well, as the score does border on operetta rather than, say, pop. You’re going to need an awful lot of talented men. What’s more, they must be able to be made to look as though they belong to each role, as members of the original Continental Congress. These are actual historical personages, and many people know what they looked like. You do not need to get them to look exactly like the originals, of course. But Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams are sufficiently well-known that with these characters, you’ll need to get reasonably close to the right look with them.

More – the script IS very literate, and you’re going to need actors, particularly for John Adams and Ben Franklin, who embrace and control language with facility.

Also, 1776 is a deeply American show, and may not play as well in other countries. That said, the theme of this show has to do with man’s drive to be free despite not only opposition, but the drag created by those around him, and by one’s own personal needs. It is a show largely about selfless action on behalf of an ideal. As such, it may be appealing to people anywhere who are concerned with their own freedom, and the value of freedom itself.

THE STORY:

ACT ONE: John Adams irately confronts the world and complains about the do-nothing Congress he’s a member of, and their inability to recognize that they’re already at war.

The lights jump up, and we see the Continental Congress, begging him to “SIT DOWN,JOHN,” and debating fervently whether or not they should open a window. In his mind, Adams complains incessantly about Congress as they deal with ridiculous trivia. (“PIDDLE, TWIDDLE AND RESOLVE”) In Adam’s mind (as he reads her letter), he speaks to his wife, Abigail.

They share depressing family news (a regular feature of their letters), and lovingly argue over his request for the women at home to make gunpowder, as she asks him to send pins. (‘YOURS, YOURS, YOURS)

Adams approaches Franklin, pushing as ever for Independence.

Franklin begs John to allow someone else to ask for the vote – someone more likeable than Adams, and someone from the South, so the South will stop objecting to the vote. Adams is suspicious as Richard Henry Lee of Virginia approaches, summonsed by Franklin. Lee is a tremendously enthusiastic, energetic, none-too-bright delegate. Over Adam’s disgusted objections, Franklin not only cons Lee into being the one to ask for the vote on Independence, but he also convinces Lee that he thought of the idea himself. (“THE LEES OF OLD VIRGINIA”) Lee is off to Virginia to get the support he needs to demand the vote in Congress.

The Chamber is empty. Enter Dr. Lyman Hall, a new delegate from Georgia. Various other representatives file in, as various characters are established. One is Edward Rutledge, hardcore southerner and hater of Adams and independence. Caesar Rodney speaks to Hall, discovering he is both a medical doctor and a Dr. of theology, and asks for his assistance with his illness. Franklin enters with gout, in pain, followed by Adams who stridently demands Lee show up and call for the vote. Dickinson, leader of the Conservatives and those opposed to independence, wonders that Franklin can stand Adam’s voice. Hancock starts the session. It is noted that New Jersey’s delegation has been missing for some time. Jefferson announces he will soon go home to see his young wife. A communique from Washington is read, and as always, it is all bad news. Suddenly, Lee enters, and he’s won Virginia’s support. Dickinson states that now the debate must happen, as it’s been called for by a Southerner. The debate, largely between Adams and others (Rutledge, Dickinson), brilliantly establishes both side’s point of view. A vote is about to be taken when Dickinson insists the rules be changed from a simple majority to a unanimous vote, stating that no state should be dragged into a war against their will. Adams cries out that it will never be unanimous, and Dickinson smugly agrees. The vote on this amendment is tied, and Hancock must make the deciding vote. Against his better angels, he agrees with Dickinson. (This is the ½ hour without a song, by the way.)

It is decided that a document should be authored to explain to the world why the states would want independence, and a committee assembled to write it – Adams, Franklin, Jefferson (who is determined to go home to his wife), Sherman and Livingston. The committee debates who should write it, each one begging off, until only a very unwilling Jefferson remains. (“BUT, MR. ADAMS-”) Jefferson is ready to kill Adams for forcing this upon him.

John and Franklin show up at Jefferson’s apartment to see how the Declaration of Independence is progressing. It’s not, and Jefferson doesn’t care much…because his wife, Martha, shows up. Franklin and Adams are quickly dismissed from the room. Franklin goes off on a date. Alone, Adams speaks to Abigail again, in his mind. (YOURS, YOURS, YOURS) They are each tired of being alone, but will continue to do what must be done. The next day, Adams and Franklin meet before Jefferson’s door. Jefferson has written nothing (not surprising). His wife joins the two men on the street, and utterly enchants them. When asked how a stiff Virginian like Jefferson won such a beauty, she informs them that “HE PLAYS THE VIOLIN.” They dance with her, and both men understand why the Declaration is not progressing.

ACT TWO: (There is no act break indicated in 1776. This is my proposed act break if one is desired.) Congress goes about its useless business. Adams stalks in and demands that Franklin get to wort on unanimity for independence. They know they must get Rodney back to vote, even if he’s dying, and send for him. They work on various members of Congress when Dickinson intrudes, leading his “COOL, COOL CONSIDERATE MEN” ever to the right, away from “treason.” The news from George Washington is as depressing as ever, and the cause is looking hopeless. The chamber empties out. A courier from Washington arrives with another message, but no one to receive it. The courier, a young man, sings of what he’s seen on the battlefield, other young men dying. (“MAMMA, LOOK SHARP”)

Another day, and Jefferson’s masterpiece, the Declaration of Independence, is to be read to Congress. Adams, Franklin and Jefferson celebrate “THE EGG” that’s about to hatch into a new nation. But once it’s read, there’s hardly a member of Congress who doesn’t wish to amend it in a hundred ways. Jefferson must approve each change, and does so with increasing sorrow. Finally, Rutledge, from the deep south, demands Jefferson’s anti-slavery section be removed. Jefferson states that a free country can hardly be free maintaining slavery. Rutledge powerfully points out the hypocrisy of the North, who profit from the slave trade in their own way. (‘MOLASSES TO RUM”) Then he departs, and takes much of the South with him. Though we see other delegates and states falling in line, unanimity is sunk unless slavery is left alone. Franklin argues with Adams that the anti-slavery wording will need to be dropped, and handled at some other time. Adams, alone, again speaks to his wife in his mind (“YOURS, YOURS, YOURS reprise”) even as the gunpowder she promised arrives. He rushes about to find pins to send her. But the chamber empties as night descends. Alone, Adams wonders if his life’s work will mean nothing, if anyone actually cares about independence, and his vision for America. (“IS ANYBODY THERE?”) He is interrupted by a representative from Georgia, Dr. Lyman Hall, who has searched his conscience and decided that he was chosen for the Congress to act upon his own opinions, that he owes his best thoughts and efforts to the people – and that means independence, moving Georgia of the deep South into the yea column, for independence. There is hope.

Next day, the vote is taken. All is going well, as Rodney returns to vote yea, even if it means his death, to the universal admiration of the Congress. But it all stops with Rutledge and South Carolina, who insists slavery be untouched. Jefferson very reluctantly concedes, and South Carolina votes yea. Then we arrive at Pennsylvania and Dickinson, a delegation on three. Dickinson is about to confidently vote when Franklin demands the three members be poled. Franklin votes yes, Dickinson nay, certain that the third, Wilson, will vote nay as well. But placed in the spotlight, Wilson does not wish to be remembered as the man who killed liberty and votes yea. Appalled that such a decision would arrive in the hands of a coward, Dickinson leaves Congress to join in the war-against England, to universal admiration. It is done, and even as another extraordinarily depressing letter from G. Washington is read, and doom and the gallows hangs over their heads, the members of the Continental Congress rise one by one and place their names on that treasonous document, the Declaration of Independence.

THE SONGS:

“Sit Down, John”; “Piddle, Twiddle And Resolve”; “Till Then”; “The Lees Of Old Virginia”; “But, Mr. Adams-”; “Yours, Yours, Yours”; “He Plays The Violin”; “Cool, Cool Considerate Men”; “Momma, Look Sharp”; “The Egg”; “Molasses To Rum”; “Yours, Yours, Yours (reprise)”; “Is Anybody There?”

MY OPINIONS:

As always, you may elect to ignore the section offering my opinion and ratings.  After all, it’s a free country…

I absolutely love 1776. It is funny, touching, and can be breath-taking. In my own mind, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Adams after William Daniels handled it so definitively in the original Broadway production, but that’s my problem. The script is inspired and so alive that it demands the audience’s attention and participation. The score unanimously works, every song opening up not only our understanding of this critical time in history and it’s players, but also our enjoyment at the great craftsmanship that can go into the authoring of a musical.

It is an unusual musical in many ways. There is a long stretch without song, almost ½ an hour, in Act One. This is unheard of in most musicals. It is not a short show, yet it is written to be done without Intermission. This is, I believe, a mistake. I understand the desire to keep an audience glued to their seats and committed, and I get that every Intermission is a chance for people to leave, or to step away from their emotional involvement with the show. However, people have to use the restroom, it’s just a simple fact of life. And your audience will not have their attention on your show once the call of nature whispers in their ear. The end of Scene 4, with the end of “HE PLAYS THE VIOLIN”, is probably the best place to withdraw for 10 minutes. “COOL, COOL CONSIDERATE MEN” is a raging, powerful way to start Act II.

As to the timeliness of the show, when has the fight for freedom not been a timely subject? A look at today’s world reassures me that this show will have an audience always. Perhaps the audience that will respond with the most urgency will be found in an emerging nation in Asia or Africa, one where the people are already in rebellion. The American Revolution was the first war where a people declared and won their independence from government. Many countries have followed in a march toward personal and national independence. This show speaks to that desire, that historic march. It does so with clarity, wit and passion. I cannot imagine a time when it will not be relevant.

MY RATING: *** (An exceptional show, bordering on (if not) perfect, and one of my personal favorites.)

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:
1776 begs for an orchestra. It is not like most shows, where it might be adapted to limited orchestration and not lose much in the way of power. The music is reminiscent of Sousa sometimes, of Gilbert and Sullivan at other times, of Viennese operetta at other times – and yet, it is never less than it’s own thing. At the absolute least, you’ll need a serious percussionist, a very strong violin, and some brass to go with the harpsichord (a synth, probably, as there is no piano in the score), along with a string bass or cello to carry the bottom.

Overall, vocally, the music is not that hard to learn. But it borders often on legit, and much of it needs trained, hefty voices to pull it off. Adams, interestingly enough, does not require an operatic voice. Neither does Jefferson or Franklin.

Adams is “obnoxious and disliked,” and his voice must have some edge to it, it must almost grate. Daniels’ voice did, and we loved him for it. We could hear the honest desperation and disgust for his fellow men in his nasal pronouncements, and it was perfect. The role calls for a tenor with a strong voice, but not necessarily a beautiful one.

Franklin is a baritone. He does a fair amount of singing. His voice must be clear, musical, able to carry a tune with ease. But it is more important that the personality of the man carry the day. Franklin is witty, intelligent, bursting with life, interested in almost everything. Usually a baritone.

Jefferson doesn’t do much singing, and he just requires a serviceable voice. Cast the tall, brilliant red head for acting chops, so long as he can carry a tune. A lyric baritone or tenor.

There are some huge baritone roles, including Richard Henry Lee (bass-baritone), John Dickinson and Rutledge (bass-baritone). They each have a very big song, and these voice must be thoroughly trained and competent to sing near-operatic music.

Abigail Adams must have a real voice, a full-throated alto with some soprano notes. She does a fair amount of singing, so you’ll need a trained voice and again, one comfortable with near-opera.

One unusual singing voice the show calls for is for the Courier, who sings the most moving song in the show, “MOMMA, LOOK SHARP.” The song is almost a folk song in its simplicity, and the singer must bring strong emotion, as well as a strong, clear tenor voice. A young man, he is usually portrayed age 20 or so. But knowing the Revolutionary War, it might be interesting and daring to cast a younger actor, age 14-15. It does require a trained, beautiful voice with a falsetto under fine control.

Martha Jefferson is a soprano, fairly legit and requiring a trained voice. She must be vivacious, utterly winning, beautiful. Men must fall for her at first sight. And her voice must not disappoint or detract from that effect

The other men of Congress vary wildly in age, type, and vocal range. Obviously, you’ll want to cast a healthy mix of baritones, tenors, a few basses. Most of them have some dialogue, but not much. So you’ll be looking for competent actors who look the parts, and who generally sing pretty well. Movement will not be an issue, as there is only one number that even gets close to resembling real dance, and it’s done with Adams, Franklin, and Martha Adams, a waltz. So do not cast for dance in this show! Cast voices and types first, and then competent actors in these roles. If they move decently (if they can walk and not look awkward), you’ll be fine.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

There is almost no dance in 1776. That said, movement must be coordinated and involved in “SIT DOWN, JOHN”; and “COOL, COOL CONSIDERATE MEN”. There are character-driven, comic numbers for small groups that must be staged cleverly and rhythmically to take advantage of the humor and the character’s conflicts. These include “THE LEES OF OLD VIRGINIA”; “BUT, MR. ADAMS-”; “HE PLAYS THE VIOLIN” (requires a little bit of waltzing); and “THE EGG”. These numbers will occupy your choreographer, but could all of them be done by a good director with choreographic experience.

You will not want to make any of the dancing difficult, as you are not looking for dancers when you cast. This is not to say that the movement if group numbers should be flat or uninteresting. The numbers are motivated by the character’s inner and outer conflict, and their movement should reflect those pressures ably.

There is a love duet, “YOURS, YOURS, YOURS”, but as Adams and Abigail are reading letters, making them physically touch might ruin the illusion. Up to you as to how you handle this, but remember, she is never actually there with Adams.

Solos are powerful statements of emotion in 1776. “PIDDLE, TWIDDLE AND RESOLVE”; “MOLASSES TO RUM”, “MOMMA, LOOK SHARP” (essentially a solo, but you could show dozens of dying soldiers in relief if you like) and “IS ANYBODY THERE” are critical moments in the drama. Movement should not get in the way of the emotion to be expressed in these numbers. Too much movement, especially movement just to get the character in motion, will damage the effectiveness of these numbers. I’d let the actors singing each number feel their way through as far as staging, and then refine their instinctive choreography with them. It is most important in these songs that the actor is comfortable, that the expression be profound and personal.

CASTING CONCERNS:
Look over what I said about the difficulty in music, I covered everything there. Outside of your three principals, you’re mostly looking for actors who are very strong, and who look their parts. Then, you need strong voices (outside of Jefferson) unique to each role.

Where will you find all the men needed for this show? Well, if you’re asking that question, there is a strong likelihood that this is not the right show for your group.

SETS:
Usually, 1776 is performed with a “unit set”, a single set that is meant to represent all the needed locations. Those locations include the Chamber of the Continental Congress; The Mall; Thomas Jefferson’s room and High Street; and a Congressional Anteroom. Not too many settings, reduced to one by a clever designer and director.

This show will beg you for wood tones, dark features on the set. You can locate pictures of the hall where the events actually transpired, and you will need to design a representation of Liberty Hall. When you make the all-important board that shows how the vote is going, find a way to somehow place the vote results in relief, so they stand out. You’ll need a seat and small desk for each representative to the Congress. Fortunately, the show is limited to a percentage of the actual number. But unless you have a fairly large stage, things are likely to get crowded. You may want to create desk/chairs that are a portion of life size. This will also make the actors appear larger than life, if the rest of the set is equally scaled. It may also make them very uncomfortable in those chairs…

If you go for several sets, scenes that can be played “In 1” (in front of the main drape) might include any scene not taking place in the Continental Congress chamber. You can get creative with this if you like, but it isn’t necessary. The audience will not mind seeing the chamber throughout – that is what the show is all about, the fight for liberty taking place in that room. A creative staging might make terrific use of that single set.

COSTUMES:
The show is definitely written to be a period piece, circa 1776. Duh. You will want to see paintings of the men and women involved. You will also want to try to get some color into the show. That’s easiest with Martha Washington, and she can glow in a brighter dress where the rest of the world seems to fester in shadow. But I would not wait for her to get some color on the stage. Most of the men will wear white shirts and ruffles, of course, which will help them stand out against the dark set. Franklin might dress more interestingly, and might Jefferson. They were not of the grim and restrictive religious views that Adams held about dance and the like. As these men spend a fair amount of time on stage with Adams, and they should already be a physical contrast (Adams, short; Jefferson, tall and thin; Franklin, large and stout), their clothes might reflect some difference, too.

PROPS:
Again, the period of time will dictate the look and feel of your props. The props should feel as real as the costumes, for 1776. Chairs and desks, if considered props, will need to look like those used by the Continental Congress. Tin cups for Rum, quill pens and ink wells, guns or muskets when called for, documents from General Washington addressed to the Congress, are some of the props you’ll need to come up with. Tom Jefferson will need a violin…and it would be best if it works and he can play it a bit. Franklin will need a cane – he has the gout. Adams will need a walking stick. Candles and candlesticks. Hancock’s gavel. And there’s the all-important Declaration of Independence, ready to be signed at the end of the play.

Other members of the Congress will need walking sticks, as they use them almost like swords when they lose their tempers. Each desk should look active, busy with some sort of work. Many of your props will be able to be purchased, but some will need to be built. Here’s a site with many of the needed props, ready to go, and a lot of photos! (I hope it’s still there when you take a look.)

LIGHTING:
Given the monochromatic tendency of the sets, costumes and even the props, it’s going to be important to get some color and “pop” into the lighting. This is a moody show, and the lighting will need to be sufficiently versatile to enhance the changing emotions.

The show starts with a large number, almost the full cast, in the Chamber. You’ll want to be able to isolate Adams at the start, before the others sing. A dedicated lamp in a given area (say center) might accomplish that. As the show is not as presentational as many other shows, follow spots might feel a bit too “showy” and blatantly theatrical. If you can isolate solos without a follow spot, using set lamps (or smart lights), it might be best. You will not want the lighting to remind the audience that this is “theater.” You’ll be generally looking for subtle effects.

There are a few places where gobos and effects might be useful in helping to create a mood. A gobo of shadows demonstrating a battlefield littered with bodies might be interesting during “MAMMA, LOOK SHARP.” It might also be too hard to do, and too blatant. A shadow shaped like the Liberty Bell might be effective behind Adams as he sings “IS ANYBODY THERE?” Again, these are just ideas of a few places where you could get a bit creative. Overall, you’re going to want to effectively illuminate the scenes, subtly enhance emotion, focus attention, and stay out of the limelight.

MAKE-UP:
The two women should be lovely. Abigail is more a working girl, and can look a bit worn. The men are generally elders, and you should not try to hide that fact. In fact, if your cast is too young, you’ll need to BELIEVABLY age them. Yes, this is a musical, but don’t go for popping features and apparent make-up.

Some of the Congress can be younger than others. A little research will let you know who was what age in 1776. Do the research, and work accordingly. But don’t make the make-up obtrusive or obvious in any way.

One specialty will be Caesar Rodney, who is dying. You should read up on him to see what he died of, and then make him up accordingly.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):
Director, Set Designer, Music Director, Harpsichord player (probably a synthesizer), Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Rutledge, Dickinson, Abigail Adams.

MY THOUGHTS:
1776 is a beautiful show, and I believe it’s themes are universal and will always be timely. It is more than a history lesson, it happens to be good theater. The characters are well-drawn, entertaining, and the story is compelling and tense. It is not the easiest or cheapest show to do, but if your group can handle it, there are few more rewarding shows to do.