STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Spirit of 1776

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Spirit of 1776 It's a masterpiece, I say; they will cheer ev'ry word, ev'ry letter," sings John Adams in 1776, when referring to Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. The same could -- and should -- be said of Peter Stone's book, based on Sherman Edwards' conception, for that 1969 Tony-winning musical. It's probably the best that musical theater has ever seen. Thank the Lord the excellent production is moving to the Gershwin. Every human being should see it.
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It's a masterpiece, I say; they will cheer ev'ry word, ev'ry letter," sings John Adams in 1776, when referring to Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. The same could -- and should -- be said of Peter Stone's book, based on Sherman Edwards' conception, for that 1969 Tony-winning musical. It's probably the best that musical theater has ever seen. Thank the Lord the excellent production is moving to the Gershwin. Every human being should see it.

Devotees of Gypsy will cite it as Broadway's quintessential libretto, but as great as it is, an amazing amount of the plot, characters, and situations came directly from Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir. Stone and Edwards had the more difficult task of poring over congressional transcripts, letters, journals, and biographies, and then making a musical out of them. They had to decide which of the 56 delegates should be kept, eventually whittling the number to 20 -- sometimes combining many characters into one. How's that for "E pluribus unum"?

Edwards, a high-school history teacher and successful pop songwriter ("See You in September"), for years told anyone who'd listen that the struggle to get the Declaration of Independence written and signed would make a good musical. He did eventually write the score, but soon he found he needed a real bookwriter. He filled Stone in on the important plot points and the essential tone of the piece: That these hitherto dry-as-dust historical characters must be passionately and three-dimensionally human. Thus, Richard Henry Lee is egomaniacal, Samuel Chase is gluttonous, and Rhode Island delegate Stephen Hopkins keeps confusing one Carolina with another. Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile craves sex with wife Martha, and Ben Franklin craves it from any fair lady.

It takes a witty man to write a witty man, and Stone was up to the task of recreating Franklin, the Dean of Aphorisms. But he didn't make the mistake the Baker Street authors made with Sherlock Holmes -- having the detective say the inevitable "Elementary!" before Act One, Scene One was over. Stone instead has in his first scene say a line that sounds like vintage Ben, but one with which we're unfamiliar: "Treason is a charge invented by winners as an excuse for hanging the losers." Adams then expresses what we feared when we entered the theater -- "I have more to do than stand here listening to you quote yourself" -- but that gives Stone's Franklin the chance to disarm us with, "No, that was a new one!" It's not until there are only three minutes left in the show that Stone finally has Franklin say a line with which we are familiar: "If we don't hang together, we shall most assuredly hang separately." By that point, 1776 has us in the palm of its hand, and we find ourselves delightedly saying, "Oh! Is that where that comes from?!"

Smart, too, to postpone Franklin's first appearance until the second scene. Had the immediately recognizable Ben been in Scene One, we would have noticed and watched him, which would have taken the focus away from the character we most need to know: John Adams. For those unfamiliar with 1776 (and American history), Adams was the mover and shaker behind independence. Stone created a galvanic character who doesn't mind that Franklin, Jefferson, and Lee tell him to his face that he's "obnoxious and disliked," because, he retorts, "I'm not promoting John Adams; I'm promoting American independence." Most delightful: When Adams is stalling -- and suggests the writing of a declaration as a time-killing measure -- he's asked, "What sort of declaration?" Our eyes half-close from his inevitable response: "A Declaration of Independence!" No. Stone instead has Adams say, "Oh . . . you know . . ." fudging because he doesn't himself know. It's one of the few times the resolute Adams waffles on anything. Later, as his allies stress there's no time, the vote's tomorrow, they're still many colonies short -- but a great man knows there's enough time if he uses it. That's what he does, against arch-enemy John Dickinson.

To make Dickinson even easier to hate, Stone gives him the worst joke in the show. When the secretary, wondering where a certain delegate is, asks, "Where's New Jersey?" it's villain Dickinson who says the groan inducing quip, "Between New York and Delaware." (To be fair, he later one ups Franklin after Ben zaps him.) But Stone never makes Dickinson a fool, knowing the musical would be stronger if the man gave good reasons for not wanting to break from England. We see Dickinson's point when he roars, "Would you have us forsake Hastings and Magna Carta, Strongbow and Lionhearted, Drake and Marlborough, Tudors, Stuarts, and Plantaganets?" When he lists the seemingly insurmountable odds -- "No army, no navy, no ammunition, no treasury, no friends" -- we find ourselves nodding our heads, even though we want Adams and independence to prevail.

Let the authors be congratulated for creating two vital ingredients in 1776's success: The day-by-day wall calendar that shows us how many more days there are until July 4, and the tally-board that tells exactly how many colonies are now voting for independence and how many aren't. You sit there seeing that it's June 28, only seven out of the must be-unanimous 13 have voted "Yea," and yet you KNOW everything's going to be wrapped up in six days -- but how? As Otis Guernsey so wisely said when naming 1776 to his "1968-69 Best Plays" book, "When you entered the theater, you knew how it was going to turn out. After a half hour, however, you weren't so sure." Indeed, you begin to think, "There IS no United States of America! They're breaking the news to us as gently as they can, by telling us through a marvelous musical"

The calendar and tally board are the reasons that the 1972 movie version, despite its sporting virtually all the original cast, doesn't work as well. Because the cinematographer only occasionally takes us to those score-keeping devices. As a result, we don't know how near or far the Declaration is from being ratified. No, each theatergoer must be able to check the score when he needs to, not when Hollywood thinks it's a good idea.

There's the temptation to say, '1776didn't need a score; it would have made a great play.' Exhibit A is the 36-minute stretch in which not a note of music is sung -- from "The Lees of Old Virginia" to "But, Mr. Adams" -- which will now-and-forever be the longest in the history of musicals. And Edwards, it must be admitted, wrote a very odd score: The music is angular, often dissonant, with atypical rhythms and structures (it has not one single A-A-B-A song). The lyrics, too, are problematic, with many imperfect rhymes (views/mute; sage/leg). There are even more false accents (compro-MISE; independen-CY; parti-CIP-le), and the humor behind one song totally depends on them. Lee enjoys adverbs, because each ends with his name: Immediate-LEE. Short-LEE.

Still,1776 emerges as the most palatable history lesson ever taught. Interesting that a show, which deals with a cause that seemed hopeless a scant six days before it succeeded, almost closed in New Haven after a disastrous premiere, before opening t unanimous raves a mere month later. Nice, isn't it, that history repeated itself?

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger.
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com