- OnStage North Carolina Columnist
1968 arguably remains one of the most historic years in modern American history. We saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sparking the Chicago riots, and two months later the assassination of Robert J. Kennedy. When North Korea captured the American surveillance ship USS Pueblo, it sparked an 11-month crisis that threatened to worsen Cold War tensions in the region. On more promising notes, the Civil Rights Act was passed and America put men on the moon.
So 1969 could hardly have been better timing for an inspirational musical about the founding of America and the writing of the document that would forever define our values. 1776 would go on to win three Tony Awards including Best Musical. The book by Peter Stone is largely considered one of the greatest ever written for the stage. Rather miraculously he took a story, the ending of which everyone who walks into the theater already knows, and turned it into a suspense yarn.
I must admit to never having given a second thought to the musical. My first visit to New York City was as a teenager in the summer of 1969. I went as part of an all-singing, all-dancing troupe called Kids From Wisconsin and we were there to perform with Guy Lombardo and his orchestra at Jones Beach and to record an album at RCA. We were also afforded the opportunity to see one Broadway show and could choose between 1776 and Promises, Promises. No contest. I was a die-hard Bacharach fan and probably the only teenage boy in Waukesha, Wisconsin to own the Original Cast Recording of Promises.
I have never had the intellectual curiosity that would draw me to historical drama, including Shakespeare. I like his comedies but the histories, not so much. So when my pal, Ray Kennedy, asked if I might make an entirely uncalled for return to the live stage in his production of 1776, I was skeptical. It was not a musical with which I was very familiar and just the title brought to mind watching paint dry, but what you won’t do for a friend.
I was to play Caesar Rodney, the cancer stricken delegate from Delaware who collapses and is carried off on page 40, only to return at the eleventh hour, on page 107, after an 80-mile horseback ride through a thunderstorm to cast his deciding vote. In other words, no heavy lifting and much time offstage, which suited me perfectly.
The musical takes place over the three tumultuous months leading up to the signing of The Declaration of Independence. As the Second Congressional Congress attempts to go about their business, the conflict between John Adams, the unpopular, loud-mouthed delegate from Massachusetts, who is dedicated to independence from England, and its impediment by blowhard John Dickinson of Pennsylvania , takes center stage. Yeah, whatever.
And then something unexpected happened. As rehearsals progressed, I found myself being sucked into the story. The passionate animosity between Adams and Dickinson, and among the other delegates, was fascinating and compelling. At our first run-through of the production, I found myself moved to tears when the final vote was taken. Given, Ray had staged an elegant, well-cast and thoughtful production, as he always does, but it was the material I never thought I’d care about that moved me. Talk about a good story well told, Stone had done it in spades. It features the longest book scene without music in the history of Broadway musicals. That was quite a risk but only serves to showcase Sherman Edward’s facile and varied score all the more. And of course it elucidates our current political climate while so many are struggling with the values that define our country and hoping to land on the right side of history.
So after all these years, 1776 has become a musical I love and respect. It just goes to the power of live theater. When you walk into a play thinking, “This doesn’t have anything to do with me or my sensibility.” you might just be taken by surprise. Don’t you just love it when that happens? Thank you, Ray, for the opportunity to see it from the inside out. It might be time to dig through my vinyl and trot out my Original Cast Recording of Ben Franklin in Paris.