From my perspective, “1776” is a Tony Award-winning musical that has left no real musical impact on the US culture and yet has a somewhat worthy national impact. What I mean is the score has no outstanding tune and you’ll leave thinking you learned history, but then really should go to your favorite search engine to fact check. Not all that you learn in this musical will be true.
The Second Continental Congress was established on 10 May 1775 and disbanded on 1 March 1781. There were 56 delegates. The writing of the Declaration of Independence took place in June and July of 1776. The musical is about how the 13 original colonies officially broke with Britain and the writing of the Declaration of Independence.
You might question this diversity casting, too. While from what I know, all of the founding fathers where White men, we know that non-White people were on their minds, if not in some of their beds. At this point, the latter doesn’t apply to Thomas Jefferson (Nancy Anderson). He’s the second husband of Martha (Connor Lyon) and she’s still alive. According to what’s now accepted, his relationship with Sally Hemings didn’t begin until after his wife’s death while Jefferson was in France with Sally and his daughter.
In their program note, the directors, Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, remind us this musical was written in the 1960s, and write, “The words and symbols of our cultural memory take on very different meanings through the act of reframing this musical in the context of America today” by using “a company of artists who reflect multiple representation of race, ethnicity and gender and who identify as female, trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming.”
There have been changes made to the book and staging. There are no elaborate sets, but the costumes are perhaps more flamboyant than is historical. For the first time, Abigail Adams’ (Tieisha Thomas) famous words, “remember the ladies…all men would be tyrants if they could,” have been added (“with the blessing of the estates of Stone and Edwards”). In addition , Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved valet, Robert Hemings, is an on-stage presence, giving further weight to Thomas Jefferson’s phrase “all men are created equal.”
Sherman Edwards (1919-1981) was a pop music writer. He wrote the music for an Eddie Fisher 1956 hit, “Dungaree Doll” (words by Ben Raleigh). He wrote “For Heaven’s Sake” which Billie Holiday recorded.
- “For Heaven’s Sake” Billie Holiday
- “Wonderful! Wonderful! Johnny Mathis in 1957.
- “See You in September” (The Tempos in 1959 and The Happenings in 1966)
- “Broken Hearted Melody” Sarah Vaughan in 1959.
- “Flaming Star” Elvis Presley 1960
The book was written by Peter Stone (1930-2003) who co-wrote the 1963 “Charade” (with Marc Behm) and the 1964 “Father Goose” with Frank Tarloff.
The musical won Best Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Ron Colgate) and Best Direction of a Musical (Peter Hunt) for the 1969 season.
The Pasadena, CA-born Hunt also directed the film.
1776 (1972 Film)
Two critics, Vincent Candy for The New York Times (10 November 1972) and Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times (26 December 1972) called out the musical for the “unmemorable” music. From my perspective, that makes it a failed musical. Ebert wrote, “I can hardly bear to remember the songs, much less discuss them.”
Both the film and the play focus on John Adams (William Daniels in the movie), who represents Massachusetts in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He wants to debate the motion to declare independence from Great Britain. He is disliked and thus needs to curry favor and form alliances with more popular representatives. He consults with Benjamin Franklin (Howard da Silva) of Pennsylvania. They decide to get Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate) of Virginia to propose such a declaration, but first, he must get permission from the state legislature.
When Lee gets the authorization, he proposes the resolution, but John Dickinson (Donald Madden) of Pennsylvania objects, seeking reconciliation with Britain. Dickinson attempts to kill the motion, but Adams asks for a postponement to draft what will become the Declaration of Independence. The President of the Congress, John Hancock (David Ford), helps break the tie vote in favor of the declaration, appointing Adams, Roger Sherman (Rex Robbins) of Connecticut (“a simple carpenter from Connecticut”) Robert Livingston (John Myhers) of New York (“I’ve been presented with a new son by the stork” so he must return home) and Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) of Virginia (this is more important than “sexual combustibility”) to the committee. As we know, Jefferson, portrayed as a very quiet member of the congress, reluctantly agrees to be the primary writer. Jefferson has three weeks. After one week, Adams summons Martha (Blythe Dinner) to Philadelphia.
Throughout the proceedings, the Congress gets messages from George Washington’s military courier, including news of the death of the Congressional custodian’s friend. Adams works on Samuel Chase of Maryland by taking him with Franklin to visit George Washington in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
If you’ve ever worked with a group, you’ll sympathize with the difficulty of getting a room full of men to agree. After the Declaration is read to the Congress, Jefferson agrees to all changes except the Southern members objections to the anti-slavery passage led by Edward Rutledge (John Cullum) of South Carolina. Lewis Morris (Howard Caine) of New York has declined to vote, abstaining throughout until the final vote. The deciding vote becomes James Wilson (Emory Bass) who votes solely so that he won’t be singled out as the sole representative who opposes. Dickinson resigns from Congress but declares he will join the army.
To understand the film better, I think we need to understand the full measure of history and the diversity of peoples on the North American continent as well as what really happened versus the musical reality.
Dickinson represented the mid-Atlantic Quaker sentiments and was a lawyer. He did refuse to sign the Declaration. Wilson did support independence and did not cast the swing vote. That was John Morton (Pennsylvania), who is not depicted in the film or play. Edward Rutledge is depicted as leading the Southern states in opposition to the slavery clause, but while he was the South Carolina delegate, it is not known if he opposed or led the opposition. South Carolina and Georgia opposed, but so did some “northern brethren.” No specific delegate who supported the deletion of the slavery clause has been named in documents.
For more on the anti-slavery passage, you can read these articles.
- Why Thomas Jefferson’s Anti-Slavery Passage Was Removed from the Declaration of Independence
How Enslaved Men Who Fought for the British Were Promised Freedom
Why I think this musical is worth seeing or discussing is because of the questions it raises. For me, I wanted to know if there were any people of Asian descent involved in the American Revolution. The answer is yes.
I also wondered if Asia involved in the war and was slavery an issue for Asians.
Britain was already in India and China. Korea and Japan would not be open to the West (North America and Europe) until the 1860s. Japan was open to the Chinese and the Dutch.
According to the Museum of the American Revolution:
India was an important part of Britain’s colonial trade network, supplying high-quality goods that could be used as currency and exchanged for valuable luxury items from other countries, such as spices from Indonesia and raw materials from America. The sale of heavily taxed Indian commodities to the American colonies was a significant catalyst for the nonimportation movement that would later escalate into the Revolutionary War. India was also an example of how a war between European countries with international stakes could have global consequences.
The museum also sums up the importance of China in this way:
The key Chinese player in the Revolution was not a person but a commodity: tea. The financial needs of the British East India Company and the Empire were vast in the 1760s and 1770s due to the cost of the Seven Years’ War. In an effort to increase the profitability of the British East India Company, Parliament passed the Tea Act, authorizing merchants to bypass England and trade directly in the colonies, undercutting even the prices of smuggled tea and giving the East Indian Company (and its investors) a monopoly on the trade. This would lead to protests of the Act, culminating in the Boston Tea Party.
The Opium Wars had still to be fought (1839 and 1842).
People of Asian descent had landed in North America well before 1776.
The history of Asians in North America begins with Filipino sailors who landed in Morro Bay in what is now California with a Spanish ship on 18 October 1587. They were slaves and crew on the Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza.
There was a Japanese delegation led by Hasekura Tsunenaga that landed in Acapulco in 1610. The trade route between Acapulco and Manila between 1565 and 1815 brought luxury goods, but also slaves of different original–Japanese, Korean, Malaysia, Bengal, China and India as well as the Philippines. Portuguese slavery is one of the reasons Toyotomi Hideyoshi closed Japan to Western powers.
The rarely, if ever, told story of Japanese sold as slaves by Portuguese traders
Knowing this, it isn’t unforeseeable that there should be Asians in the original 13 states. Finding them, however, may not be an easy task, not just because they might not have left any written evidence, but even when there was mention of them, their names may disguise them. An enslaved Asian Indian man is known to have served in the army because he deserted: Charles Peters. He is described as “an East-India Indian, formerly the property of Mr. Thomlinson in Newbern” and he had been in the 5th battalion in North Carolina, deserting “on their march for Halifax.”
There was also a man named John Newton who was a barber from “Bengaul” of “yellow complexion” who spoke English well and was in the First New Jersey Regiment led by Captain Matthias Ogden.
The first known Chinese national in the US was buried in Boston, dying in 1798 at the age of 19: Chow Manderien. That’s only a few years after the American Revolution (1765-1791) ended. Were there others? It’s likely that these three men were not the only ones.
We also know that Arabs were in North America. A slave from Morocco named Zammouri is perhaps the first person of Arabic descent to arrive in 1528.
According to the Smithsonian Magazine article, some enslaved Muslims communicated in Arabic. Not only Jefferson, but Richard Henry Lee mentioned Islam in their writings. Jefferson attempted to include references to non-Christian religions in a Virginia Statute for religious freedom which were removed and amended before ratification. Lee, in a 1784 letter to James Madison, indicated that he felt true religious freedom would include Islam (and Hindu) as well as Christian religion.
Some of these Arab Americans might have been from West Asia. According to Arab America, the first Arab American to die for a United States of America was Private Nathan Badeen. A Syrian immigrant, Badeen died on 23 May 1776.
1776 Film vs. 2023 Production
While Manuel-Lin Miranda was reportedly inspired by “1776” in the making of his “Hamilton,” both the stage production and the film are no match for the witty lyrics and imaginative choreography of “Hamilton,” either in the touring casting that I saw or the cinematic movie production. Jeffrey L. Page’s choreography serves the book well enough, but it doesn’t lift the production to new heights.
The film attempts to provide a musical reality and fans of “Friends” might be amused to see a certain fountain. What’s not amusing is that despite the presence of minorities in North America in 1776, including in Philadelphia, the 1969 cinematic reality presents a racially White landscape. In the crowd scenes, I only saw White people. So when the delegates discuss the question of slavery, including the musical number “Molasses to Rum,” enslaved Africans are an abstraction.
In the musical production at the Ahmanson, there are no crowd scenes. We don’t get to see the townspeople of Philadelphia. The current stage production of “1776” doesn’t attempt to conjure up the past with intricate sets. Only the costumes hark back to the period, but will not be mistaken as being faithful to the fashions of the time. Compared to the film, these costumes are too sparkly and bright (costume design by Emilio Sosa). With this non-traditional casting, the addition of Jefferson’s servant, Hemings, and a short announcement at the beginning (by Simpson), the minorities that these White men represented are no longer an abstraction even if the stripped down set gives us an abstraction of Philadelphia. We feel both their presence and their absence.
The 1972 film does include many of the original Broadway cast members, for some it was their only appearance in a feature film. That makes it a valuable piece of Broadway history preserved in another form. Yet the value of this current theatrical production is in the questions it presents. By digging further into history, we also feel the impact of the erasure of minorities and women in a manner that foretells the troubles of the future–not just the American Civil War, but many other civil rights movements that would march through the nation and continue to do so today.
“1776” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until 7 May 2023. For tickets and more information, visit CenterTheatreGroup.org.