In honor of the birthday of our dear country, the United States of America, I partook in a tradition going back to before my birth. No, not shooting off fireworks. No, not taking someone to the hospital because they were dumb enough to shoot off fireworks. No, not eating massive amounts of barbecue and potatoes. Though I will be doing that today. Nope, I’m talking about watching the film adaptation of the Tony winning broadway musical, 1776.
What is 1776 about, you may ask? Well I’ll tell you. It follows one determined, dedicated congressman on his quest for independence from British rule. Yes, John Adams is the main character in this musical which follows him in the month leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Yup, it’s a musical about the founding of this great nation. Granted, there’s only about 45 minutes of music in the entire two and a half hour movie.* Still, it follows John Adams and roughly 20 other members of the Continental Congress as they debate, vote, and ratify Independence.
I’m going to address a few things here, before we get into the real underrated, under-appreciated meat. This musical is a bit silly, there’s an entire song rhyming words that end in -ly, and they do a dance while singing about the right-wing party (which didn’t actually exist at that point in history.) It was released in 1972, so some of the editing, fades, and general cinematography is very much of that period. But, in my opinion, it adds to the nostalgia, and historic grandeur. Also: while the movie, for the most part, is historically accurate there are a few things which are anachronistic, or dialogue which was said by these men just not at this time. I’ll talk more in depth about the history later.
Now, with that we can start the show. This movie isn’t as much underrated, (it was nominated for a cinematography Oscar and a Golden Globe) but it’s very under-appreciated. So for this post, I’ll split it into the two categories and talk about each separately.
I’m assuming this fell into the underrated world because of a few reasons. 1. It’s, not only a movie, but a musical about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, and the goings on of congress at the time. Not exactly your prime Friday night flick. 2. It didn’t follow the traditional musical structure people had come to know. The 40s and 50s and a majority of the 60s were full of brightly colored, highly produced and choreographed musicals. Look at Singin’ in the Rain, or The Sound of Music. So, (and we’re assuming here) it most likely was seen by those who liked history, and/or the original Broadway play.
It is now wicked underrated because it doesn’t follow a traditional musical format. It doesn’t need to follow that format to be entertaining, and full of wonderfully written songs. It might also be a bit odd for there to be a big show stopping number in the middle of a debate about independence.
The format this musical follows is original. It had a small cast, only around 25 people (and extras who I’m not counting because they don’t have lines or contribute as a chorus in any way.) There is only two choreographed dance numbers, which involve no jumps, or real dancing. Instead of using the songs as dialogue, or packing them in to provide some comic relief or break tension, they’re used as tentpoles. They hold up the basic fabric of the story, allowing you to look at the beginnings of the American Revolution from a very different perspective than we’re used to seeing.
The best example of this are two songs. One being between John and Abigail Adams. The other, sung by Mr. Rutlidge of South Carolina. The John and Abigail Adams song recurs through the musical. John and Abigail sing to one another, with lines from their letters back and forth. Yes, the actual lyrics of the songs were based on letters between John and Abigail. They sing about missing each other, and the goings on in Philadelphia and Braintree, MA, and their issues with the war. He asks her to send him salpeter, which she will send when he delivers her pins (for sewing.) It shows these characters as more than characters, as real people, which they were. But that doesn’t translate over in history textbooks.
The other song, which might be the darkest song in the musical, is called “Molasses to Rum.” Guess what it’s about! The triangle trade. Literally. This song elaborately outlines how tied to slavery the early United States was. The lyrics,
Who sail the ships back to Boston
Ladened with gold, see it gleam
Whose fortunes are made in the triangle trade
Hail slavery, the New England dream!
Most people probably assume slavery profited the south, and only the south. Which is about 100% incorrect. As someone who grew up just outside Boston, in a city which was famous for producing rum from this triangle trade system, I can tell you there were slaves in the north too. They were bought and sold just like everywhere else. And this song opens up that previously locked door. Almost every song is put there for a purpose like this, to show a characteristic of the time, or an aspect of history previously forgotten (or in this case furiously swept under the rug.)
The historical accuracy, and the basic subject matter of this musical is one of the reasons it’s so completely under-appreciated. The second reason ties directly into the first, it gives you a sense of the time and the real issues with breaking away from the British crown and becoming a country.
My thoughts on why this is so under-appreciated (I’ve had to explain it in depth to all but 4 people) all center around the historical subject matter. It’s a niche interest. You have to really like history, and really want to delve deeper into it to sit down and watch a two and a half hour movie. It gets into more of the personal choices these men had to make, and shows you them as humans instead of names on a page. Most of the subject matter came from documents the director and writer found, and in the back of the script they put in historical notes which point to the specific things taken directly from history.
For example, like I said before, the songs between John and Abigail are based on their actual correspondences. There are updates from George Washington, who they elected to head the armed forces, which are taken directly from actual field updates Washington sent Congress. The dialogue comes from actual things said, and was inspired by actual events. They took creative liberties, of course, combining people and embellishing personalities. But over-all, as a whole, this film taught me more about the signing of The Declaration of Independence than any history class. Which is saying something, because as a Bostonian we spent 3 months every other year learning about the American Revolution.
The second reason this is so under-appreciated comes from the portrayal of the characters. These people, (WHO REALLY EXISTED) all react to the idea of declaring independence differently. The movie does an amazing job of showing the different points of view the men in Congress had about breaking away from England. Not everyone wanted to break away from England, because they had a pretty sweet set up. Then there was the debate over slavery, which threw into the open the truth that a lot of the American economy hinged on slaves.
These scenes, and songs, and dialogue between these men drives home the fear they all experienced. It was not easy deciding to separate from their mother country, and I don’t remember understanding that until I watched this movie as an adult. The movie forces you to think about that aspect of the American Revolution. The song “Hey Momma” gave a voice to the hundreds, of thousands of teenagers who gave their lives to the fight for liberty. It forces you to sit and think about what these people gave up so that we could now celebrate this holiday in a safe, FREE country.
These underrated, and under-appreciated reasons are just the tip of the iceberg. This movie delves into a lot of areas not normally talked about when discussing American history. It becomes a little silly, there is a song which compares the new country they’re about to start to an eaglet being born (“The Egg”), where you also learn Ben Franklin wanted the new American symbol to be a turkey.
Speaking of Ben Franklin, if you’re looking for another reason to watch this movie his lines are some of my favorite in all of theater. He quotes himself, acts all smug, and makes a lot of dirty jokes.
But, just give it a watch around the Fourth of July when you’re full of pride, and ready to embrace the history of this great nation.
*Note that I’m referring to the director’s cut, which is the DVD version. The original theatrical release and the VHS release are half an hour shorter and don’t have the song “Cool Considerate Men”