Why bring 1776 back to Broadway in 1997? "Because it's a terrific show," says Scott Ellis, the director of the Roundabout Theatre revival of the re-creation in word and song of the Founding Fathers' often tumultuous debate and ultimately historic decision on the signing of the Declaration of Independence. "It has one of the best books of a musical I've ever read."
And it's a show with special meaning for Ellis, who has also directed critically praised productions of She Loves Me and Company: "It was the first Broadway show I ever saw; I was in seventh grade, and my father took me."
The original Broadway production of 1776 opened on March 16, 1969, won the Tony Award as Best Musical and ran for 1,217 performances. The current revival features a cast of 25, among them Brent Spiner as John Adams, Pat Hingle as Benjamin Franklin and Paul Michael Valley as Thomas Jefferson (the three major proponents of independence).
In his direction, Ellis says, he is focusing on the inner struggles as well as the outer ones. "What I find most interesting," he says, "is the inner conflicts the men had to go through. It's so very human. So many of them didn't want to be independent. No one ever had broken away from the mother country before. It was like telling your parents, 'Forget it. I'm not interested anymore.' Which is very tough to do."
The show's music and lyrics were written by the late Sherman Edwards, a songwriter (his pop credits include Johnny Mathis's "Wonderful Wonderful" and Joanie Sommers's "Johnny Get Angry") and former teacher of American history who worked for ten years to make real his dream of a musical about the climactic hot Philadelphia summer days of the Second Continental Congress. The book is by Peter Stone (Woman of the Year, The Will Rogers Follies), who won a Tony Award this year for Titanic.
Stone recalls that when he was first asked to work on 1776, he thought it was "the worst idea for a musical I had ever heard of. Even worse than Titanic. But that was until I heard the opening number Sherman Edwards had written." In that song, "Sit Down, John," the members of the Continental Congress express their annoyance at John Adams, whom they consider obnoxious and demanding in his efforts to get them to declare their independence from England.
"I saw that the tone was affectionately irreverent," Stone says, "that the musical would not be about this American myth that had been taught most of us in school about a bunch of gods that had founded this nation. Suddenly here was the truth, that these great men were human beings with faults, and it was very refreshing. Once the audience understood they could relate to Adams or Jefferson or Franklin in the casual way the men do to each other it became a good deal of fun."
For Brent Spiner, the show's power is its portrayal "of a group of men doing this incredibly brave thing that had never before been done in the history of the world, and coming up with what is still probably the greatest moment in the history of our country.
"I saw a touring company of the show in 1969 in Houston, and sitting right in front of me was Lyndon Baines Johnson," Spiner recalls. "He had just left office. The Vietnam War was raging. I was a young hippie, and I thought the show could have no effect on me whatsoever. But I walked out with such a wonderful patriotic glow. I think that's what inevitably happens to everyone who sees it. I remember saying to a friend that I would love to play John Adams one day. And he said that I would."
Spiner, 48, grew up in Houston and wanted to be an actor "from the first time I ever got a laugh when I was a kid. I knew right away that it was for me, that I'd like to get a few more of those laughs."
Coming to New York in the mid-seventies, he spent a decade acting on and Off-Broadway‹Three Musketeers, Sunday in the Park with George, Big River‹before metamorphosing into the lovable android named Data on the immensely popular TV series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and the last two Star Trek films. (And yes, Trekkies, there will be another Next Generation movie. "It's on the books to start shooting in March," Spiner says.)
Now, back on Broadway, Spiner has finally been given the chance he longed for 28 years ago‹to portray a legend of American history he describes as "very complex, a great thinker, a great speaker, but a man motivated by baser instincts‹the need for recognition and fame. And God knows I can relate to that."
Adams's motivation may have been selfish, Spiner says, "but he happened to be right. And that provides the balance that made him an acceptable human being. He didn't have a great personality, but he was also the smartest guy around."
Another pretty smart guy, and Adams's closest ally in the Continental Congress, was Ben Franklin. The Philadelphia inventor, philosopher and politician is portrayed by Pat Hingle, a veteran of Broadway, movies and television. It is Hingle's 23d Broadway role, but his first musical‹and his first Broadway play in 17 years, since Hugh Leonard's A Life.
"I was surprised to find that a man like Franklin, who was such an urbane character and such a genius inventor‹his stove, his bifocals, his work with electricity‹was also basically a very common man," Hingle says. "He was not taken with himself. He had a great appreciation of others and enjoyed being around people."
To Hingle, Franklin's greatest contribution was "his role as a conciliator, a peacemaker, a soother of troubled water‹which was his role in the Continental Congress. He never allowed himself to get angry, and he was altruistic enough to always think about what it would mean for mankind."
Franklin had another aspect to his character‹he was a ladies' man. "I don't think he was a lecher," Hingle says. "He enjoyed women, their flirtatiousness, their charm, their beauty. I think he was a great appreciator of feminine pulchritude." The 73-year-old actor smiles. "As am I."