The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Monday, June 23, 2014


November 9, 1972   Warners   166 minutes
1969 was a year of rupture in many ways, not least by our relocation from Southern California to Cupertino one year short of my high school graduation. But an overwhelming shift in the culture was apparent as well. TV was still a bit behind the curve, but popular music was now dominated by a younger generation not attuned to Tin Pan Alley. Hlwd was testing all manner of boundaries, but Bway was flailing with traditional material while rejecting most of the new. The winter/spring of '69 looked particularly unpromising on paper. The Great White Hope was the Angela Lansbury/Jerry Herman encore, Dear World, which proved a disaster. A musical by Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt is always welcome, but Celebration was an Off-Bway item misplaced on the Big Street. The Fig Leaves Are Falling was dead at the title, despite work by George Abbott, Barry Nelson & Dorothy Loudon; scripted by comic Allan Sherman and scored by Albert Hague, still seeking a hit after Redhead. From there the pickings were by unknown and untested talents: a London hit that proved British imports were still iffy (Canterbury Tales);  a Billy Budd tuner; a pastoral country vehicle set in 1840 for a 65-year old Ray Bolger (Come Summer); a politcal satire of regional interest from Georgia (Red White & Maddox) and what sounded like the worst idea of all, a musical about the making of the Declaration of Independence, bluntly titled 1776. As one after another opened and sputtered--with four shows scoring single digit runs, this seemed a likely candidate to follow suit--especially with word of a disastrous tryout in New Haven. Instead it became the sleeper hit of the season, in short order winning the Tony Award over Hair, Promises, Promises, and Zorba. And rushed to the screen within three years.

The musical was the audacious vision of Sherman Edwards, a onetime history teacher and Brill Bldg songwriter who pursued his masterwork over a decade--and ultimately his only Bway show. Originally he wrote the book as well, but upon producer Stuart Ostrow's option, the libretto was developed by vet librettist and screenwriter, Peter Stone, into what Peter Filichia has long championed as the best Bway musical book ever. It's an entertaining history lesson with great dollops of fictional glue. Congress, by necessity, is pared down--and there's much distillation of events, but it isn't insultingly reductive, and it actually breathes life into school textbook figures without cheap sentiment or patriotic fervor--while having them sing & dance. For this, credit Sherman Edwards' score, which was firmly in the finest evolved Bway idiom, not steeped in a hollow show-biz style that often pervades period shows. Sprinkled with hints of 18th century rhythms & melodies--enhanced with harpsichord in the sylvan orchestrations of Eddie Sauter--the music conveys its period while remaining somehow contemporary. Stone's book cut it down from 23 songs to 12, which begs the question of their necessity at all. But then you've got just another Maxwell Anderson drama--no, the audacity of making this a musical is what makes the show work. It does have the distinction of the longest ever stretch between songs in a musical--they even let the pit musicians leave--a good half hour between "The Lees of Old Virginia," and "But, Mr. Adams." Stone claims they tried various songs in the scene, but none worked. The score is somewhat spare, but most of it is choice. I'm stunned by how much "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men" sounds like pure Bock & Harnick; chillingly effective. "He Plays the Violin" a sweeping, naughty waltz. But "Momma Look Sharp" has never moved me, not least for being melodically dull and blantantly manipulative. "Molasses to Rum" is an actor's meal but again not a tune I yearn to return to. Best are the ditties with some humor: "But, Mr. Adams" and "The Egg," (written out of town--it was inspired by the show's poster) which somehow never tire over repeated listening. Nor does the wonderful opening, "Sit Down, John" or the penultimate plea, "Is Anybody There?" There's something there more than just the thrilling orchestration that hits an emotional nerve every time I hear it. But the show's electrifying finale hasn't even a song, just a building orchestral note on top of pealing bells--and this a good 15 minutes after the final song. There really aren't m(any?) scores like it. And that it tells what could've been a dry historical pageant in a colloquial and often jocular manner makes it something sui generis.
Jack Warner fell in love with the show and bought it for his final blaze of glory. Divorced from his eponymous studio, he set it up at Columbia--but brought over vets from his old office including head musical director, Ray Heindorf and editor William Zeigler (who cut Warners' Best Pic nominees, Auntie Mame, The Music Man and My Fair Lady). Warner was so keen on the original production he hired the director, Peter H. Hunt--who had only recently risen from lighting designer--to helm this large-scale pic without any prior film experience. Working with much of the original cast would seem to cushion the assignment, but it left Hunt at a disadvantage in terms of bringing some freshness to the material, and short any cinematic technique, the film rests on the performances. A true showcase for character actors, young and old, the original cast was without quarrel. Still, given Hlwd, it's easy to imagine a more-likely, all-star route: Jack Lemmon as Adams; Robert Redford or Ryan O'Neal as Jefferson; Robert Preston or Phil Silvers as Franklin; Walter Matthau as John Hancock. And what about a wild-card Elvis to put over "Molasses to Rum"? Oh, it could've gone very Hollywood, and we should be happy it didn't. But using the original cast was no guarantee that the stage magic would be transferred to the screen. And sadly, it wasn't.
William Daniels' mastery of the rigid, uptight Bostonian was likely to keep him forever a supporting player. He was Dustin Hoffman's father in The Graduate; an anal parent with Eleanor Bron in Two for the Road; humorless social-worker boss of Barbara Harris in A Thousand Clowns. Onstage he was also Harris's dullard boyfriend in On a Clear Day--the one she dumps. But then suddenly, at age 42, he finds a heroic leading role tailor-made to his personality and talent. And consider this: John Adams is not an easy part to cast--he's obnoxious and disliked, and yet we, the audience, must somehow like him. Daniels made the most of his signature role. But by the same arcane name-above-the-title rule that designated Tammy Grimes' Molly Brown to the "featured" actress category at the Tony Awards, Daniels was likewise placed in the subordinate slot for what was clearly a starring role--alongside Ron Holgate (as Richard Henry Lee--a true supporting part). Outraged, Daniels withdrew his nomination--and certain win--which then defaulted to Holgate. (How then to explain Susan Browning's nom in the "lead actress" category a year later for Company?) While Holgate's one-song turn was a crowd pleaser, more deserving and overlooked were Howard DaSilva's Ben Franklin, and Ken Howard's Thomas Jefferson. DaSilva was an infreqent musical performer, but when he did a show, it was memorable. After making noise in Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock back in '37, he was the original Jud Fry in Oklahoma! And 15 years later the Tammany boss, Ben Marino in Fiorello! Another decade would pass before he played another Ben: the old sage, Franklin.  Suffering a mild (and secret) heart attack Da Silva made it thru the Bway opening before succumbing to hospitalization for several weeks. His understudy, Rex Everhart, had the rare privilege of making the show's recording. But DaSilva has quite a distinctive voice; once heard in this context its hard to imagine Franklin sounding any different. For 25 year-old Ken Howard this was a speedy climb up the Bway ladder. Only six months prior he had two small bits in Promises, Promises, and a year hence he'd win a Tony for a boarding school thriller, Child's Play. John Cullum (whose Bway hits were all still ahead) wasn't the original Edward Rutledge, but his singing of "Molasses" was deemed the most film-worthy. But Ron Holgate's Richard Henry Lee seems to be calibrated from another show entirely--more Dogpatch than Philadelphia. He played Forum's original Miles Gloriosus and remnants of that largess cling to his Lee. Neither of the show's two women had much stage time. As Abagail Adams, Virginia Vestoff got a Tony nomination and the movie. As Martha Jefferson, Betty Buckley got neither, but made a sensational Bway debut with her single number and scene--after getting the role fresh off the bus from Texas. She lost the film to Blythe Danner, who hasn't Buckley's pipes but a movie-star radiance. Blythe lost her Tony winning role in Butterflies Are Free on screen to Goldie Hawn, and her film career oddly never took off; tho she certainly has matured into a fascinating--and still radiant--actress.
Peter Stone was an Oscar winning screen-writer who wanted a career on Bway. He hadn't much success before 1776. His books for Kean and Skyscraper had skill and cleverness but neither show was a hit. Now that he'd mastered a Bway libretto, adapting it for film proved to be more of a challenge then it should've been. Much of what worked so well on stage looks clunky on screen. To wit: what to do with the stage-bound convention of two characters side by side engaged in epistolary conversation? The film goes blurry at the edges, cutting back and forth between the two until they merge together walking in the same woodland idyll. I don't have a better solution, but it shows just how theatrical the show really is. The literalness of it all is distracting. Stone begins the film with a new prologue showing Adams in contemplative retreat up a bell tower, found by the custodian calling him down to the congress floor. It's a dull and unnecessary beginning; something you'd think they would cut. Especially given that Jack Warner cut 25 minutes from Peter Hunt's long-winded 166 minute edit, for the film's release. (It's all restored on the DVD release). But many of his cuts were egregious, starting with a wonderful credit sequence over pen & ink drawings. Most notorious was the elimination of the number, "Cool, Considerate Men," at the behest of Warner's pal, Richard Nixon--who bristled at its barely-disguised contempt for conservatives. But this was a key emotional moment, one that presented the opposition in musical harmony. Removing it was damaging to the flow of the story. Granted the film is too long, but a scalpel not an axe was needed to pare it down. Odd, too, that the lay of the land: the full congress floor is not shown in establishing shot until one hour and forty minutes into the film. Stone explains this was done deliberately, as a device to present a gradual evolution to the show's climax. It struck me more as misordered and misplaced. The filmmakers do take what numbers they can outdoors. "The Lees of Old Virginia" has Lee bouncing around on a horse; "He Plays the Violin" whisks about an Early American garden and alley. "But Mr. Adams," tho set indoors, is at least outside the congressional chamber, turning an open staircase in the capital building into a sort of pre-vaudeville runway. 
(This is as close as the show comes to Forum's "Everybody Out to Have a Maid") The greater the departure from the original staging, the better the numbers seem to come across. "Cool, Considerate Men" was a stunner on stage, but here--maintaining Onna White's choreography--it feels jarring and artificial. A charge that can be laid (fatally) at the first song as well. It isn't so much that "Sit Down, John" looks so abrupt in staged movement, as it sounds so distinctly (and poorly) dubbed against the spoken word. This obvious fakery works against easing us into the musical's sense of reality. Outside the musical sequences the bulk of the story shows how the sausage is made. Of course the inevitable revelation about Congress: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. And as Congress grows ever more dysfunctional, the musical's currency remains valid. Can this show ever feel dated?

Tho the backlot sets look properly austere, they provide little visual excitement. Perhaps for this reason Patricia Zipprodt's costumes pop so spectacularly. I was startled to find myself so eager to assess each character's style and taste in dress. There's such a fascinating diversity and the fabrics look dazzling and authentic. This was Zipprodt's third movie (The Graduate her first) and also her last. 
She preferred to lavish her talents on Bway, frequently on Harold Prince's shows. Mention, too, must be made of Ernest Adler's wig and hair-styling which gives RuPaul's Drag Race a run for its money. Fascinating to think these men would style their powered wigs in such formations.
Even sporting his own hair, John Cullum looks like he's stepped in from Casa Valentina. The pic's sole Oscar nomination (not even in the usually begging category of musical scoring) was for Harry Stradling's cinematography--bafflingly cited over both Deliverance and The Godfather; which were not only Best Pic nominees but notable for their camerawork. 

In April 1970 the show's first national tour began in San Francisco, where a month before my first trip to New York, I saw it at the Curran Theater. It was a fresh company newly relishing the material and the whole production was a knockout. It wasn't long before I saw it again, this time on Bway (with much of the original cast, and John Cullum) and on the 4th of July. But much as I loved the show and enjoyed the album, I don't recall being much enthused at the prospect of a film translation.  Roadshow fatigue dictated a different plan for Columbia's release. The film premiered November 9, 1972 at Radio City--the first Bway musical to open at the Music Hall since How to Succeed five years prior--where it played for 12 solid weeks. By this time the Music Hall was struggling to find consistent product worthy of its hallowed halls--"family fare" was dominated by newer, darker, more mature themes--in comedies as well. Sadly for Warner, 1776 wasn't embraced by the Hlwd establishement or the public. It earned a modest $2,800,000 in film rentals. The movie is a 4th of July perennial on the TCM channel, but I've never had whiff of it being among anyone's favorites. I felt the same lack of enthusiasm coming back to the movie now--which hasn't shifted after three viewings. (Stone and Hunt provide a running commentary track on the DVD which provides some interest in the first half but devolves into superfluous descriptions of what's obvious on screen; or the quoting of lines as they play underneath.) I'd seen the film but once, back in October '73, nearly a year after its release--my first fall living in New York. I wasn't going to movies often during my last year in California.
I began my junior year of college in another school: the unpromisng San Jose State--which lived up to all my grim expectations. Instead of a five minute bike ride, I started each morning now in a suffocating 30 minute drive with my father; a daily Bergman film of silences ruptured only by the small talk of virtual strangers or bursts of AM news radio. He thought me a fool and wastrel--but as my college education was costing him virutally nothing (tuition in those halcyon days of state-funded education was around $200, plus textbooks) he couldn't complain about my choice of study. This daily drive was the only time we'd spend alone together. I'd drop him off at FMC and have the car for the rest of the day. The campus was dull, the classes duller. But the one huge saving grace was discovering a treasure trove in the school library: old bound issues of Variety--over which I poured thru the '50s and '60s, decoding Bway lore as if it were the Secrets of the Pyramids. Aside from that my classes as a drama major were decidedly pathetic; the teachers utterly uninspiring--the students equally clueless. I had bonded so strongly with my DeAnza classmates that I wasn't about to let go of that, and spent my off hours back with the gang, under Mike Holler's unlikely-sanctioned allowance to let us hang around the theater after hours. But this wasn't merely a social activity and we were encouraged to get creative. In the best spirit of Mickey & Judy we decided to Put on a Show! It was rather odd that all my time and passion was spent on a campus I was no longer officially attending. But with the freedom to experiment handed me so easily, who could resist? The last straw was when SJState refused me credit for writing & directing a full stage production, instead of making diagrams on paper to indicate "blocking." The writing was on the wall.

Aside from playing male jester in the Mickey, Laura & Elaine club, I also had my bro crew: Ken, Dave & Reed--with whom I talked old movies and played Risk for days on end. Ken & Dave were nerdy as I in their own way, but Reed was a curly-locked cutie, with a feline charisma. He played accordian like no one you ever heard and made up silly songs, and I had more of a crush on him than I would admit. The thrill I got seeing him naked on stage in a community theater production of Fortune & Men's Eyes was translated into losing my virginity with his equally pale, curly-haired and soft-spoken sister, Jane (like Julie Haggerty only less assertive)--an obvious act of transference. She would've liked to be my girfriend but I wasn't ready for anything like that. I was still writing my own declaration of independence.

Next Up: Man of La Mancha

Report Card:  1776
Overall Film:  B-
Bway Fidelity:  A-
Songs from Bway: 10
Songs Cut from Bway:  1 (later restored)
New Songs:  None
Standout Numbers:  But, Mr. Adams,"
               "He Plays the Violin"
Casting:  Hard to argue with stage veterans
Standout Cast: William Daniels, Howard Silva
               Ken Howard, Blythe Danner
Cast from Bway: Daniels, DaSilva, Howard,  
     Virginia Vestoff, Ron Holgate, Roy Poole,  
     David Ford, Emory Bass, William Duell,
     Ralston Hill, Jonathan Moore, Charles Rule
Direction:  Stodgy, uncinematic
Choreography:  Too stylized for film
Scenic Design: Early American austerity
Costumes: Surprisingly exceptional
     Best parade of male wigs ever
Standout Set: Garden & alley for "Violin"
Titles: Olde-time typeface over period sketches
Oscar noms: 1 -- Cinematography

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