The winner of three Tony Awards (including Best Musical), 1776 might be the most improbable hit in Broadway history. Between Woodstock, the Stonewall riots, and a massive anti-Vietnam march, 1969 was a turbulent year. With all that going on, who would have guessed that the Great White Way’s biggest smash would be a show in which Ben Franklin sings about the Declaration of Independence?
1. It was conceived by a former high school history teacher.
Born in 1919, Sherman Edwards went on to become a history major at NYU and Cornell. He was also a prolific songwriter who worked with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Johnny Mathis during the course of his enviable music career. After turning 40, Edwards quit teaching to spend the next six years penning the score for 1776, an ambitious project that merged these twin passions.
2. Edwards played "Sit Down, John" to win over the show's dialogue man.
Edwards wanted Peter Stone to write the book for 1776, and approached the writer with the concept several times. "1776 sounded like maybe the worst idea that had ever been proposed for a musical," Stone said.
In the end, it was 1776's opening number that sealed the deal. Having convinced Stone to meet him at producer Stuart Ostrow's office one day, Edwards made a beeline for the piano. "[In] a rotten singing voice," Stone recalled, Sherman "sang 'Sit Down, John.' And the minute I heard that, I knew I wanted to do it. Because in that song is the entire fabric and level of the show: You are involved with people whom we'd never dealt with before, except as cardboard figures. This room had flies, it was hot, and these men were not perfect. There's more information about the Continental Congress in that opening song than I learned in all my years at school."
3. Some of the lines were taken directly from the Founding Fathers's pens.
Halfway through "Is Anybody There?" an impassioned John Adams sings "Through all the gloom, I see the rays of ravishing light and glory!" Here, Edwards quoted (almost verbatim) a letter that Adams actually wrote to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776.
4. 1776 holds the Broadway record for the longest break between musical numbers.
Once "The Lees of Old Virginia" concludes early in Act I, audiences have to wait for over 20 minutes until the next song ("But, Mister Adams").
5. Jefferson's wife never really visited while he was working on the Declaration.
At Adams' invitation, she arrives in Philadelphia to help rid her husband of some nagging writer's block—or that's how it goes down on stage, anyway. In reality, Martha Jefferson was gravely ill at the time and suffered a miscarriage during the summer of '76. So, understandably, she never made the trip. Her theatrical counterpart does get one thing right, though: During Martha's one and only song, she raves about Mr. Jefferson's masterful violin-playing. This future president really did take up the instrument, which he practiced every day.
6. The song "The Egg" was inspired by the show's original poster.
According to Marc Kirkeby's booklet essay for the 1776 original Broadway cast recording, this lighthearted number was a last-minute addition. Late in the editing process, it was decided that Act II—which includes songs about slavery and death on the battlefield—really needed some comic relief. At that point, 1776's official poster (pictured here) had already been drawn. When Edwards racked his brain for ideas, the image of an American eaglet hatching from a British egg leapt out at him. Inspired, he started writing a new tune in which Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson try to choose a national bird for their emerging country.
7. Despite playing the lead role, William Daniels's Tony nomination was for Best Featured Actor.
Back then, you couldn't call yourself a leading man unless your name was printed above the show's title on promotional materials. Unfortunately, Daniels's wasn't. That minor technicality disqualified him from the Best Actor category, though he strongly felt that his character (John Adams) was, in fact, the lead. So when Daniels earned a Best Featured Actor nomination, he declined it.
8. Previously, Howard Da Silva (the original Ben Franklin) had been blacklisted.
9. Richard Nixon lobbied to have "Cool, Considerate Men" cut from the film's theatrical release.
After edging out Hair and Promises, Promises for a Best Musical Tony, the cast received a White House invitation. Shortly thereafter, trouble started brewing. “All of a sudden,” said director Peter H. Hunt, "they … asked if we would make some cuts to the show." Apparently, Tricky Dick really didn't care for "Cool, Considerate Men"—a piece in which wealthy loyalists smugly call themselves "cool, cool, conservative men" and start waltzing "to the right, ever to the right." His people wanted it axed from the show.
That request fell on deaf ears, but when the 1776 movie came along, Nixon got his way. The president was friends with Jack Warner, a longtime campaign supporter. Warner produced the picture and when its editing process began, he not only deleted this scene but tried to have the footage destroyed. Luckily, the negatives were discovered hidden away in storage when Sony put together its laserdisc release. "Cool, Considerate Men" has since been restored.
10. Boy Meets World features a probable 1776 tribute.
William Daniels stars as the kindly Mister Feeny, a teacher (and later principal) who just so happens to teach at John Adams High School. Coincidence? Many fans think not, although this hunch hasn't been verified. Daniels also played Dr. Marc Craig on the NBC medical drama St. Elsewhere. While visiting the City of Brotherly Love in one episode, he drops by Independence Hall and appears to reference 1776: "I don't know what it is about this place," he says, "[but] every time I’m here, I feel like singing and dancing."