If I told you I spent three hours on the edge of my seat wondering how a musical would come out, you might imagine I was going to describe a murder mystery.
If I told you I found "1776," the musical about how the Declaration of Independence was passed by the lethargic Continental Congress, suspenseful, you might think I was crazy.
The wonder of the 1969 Peter Stone-Sherman Edwards show is that it makes you feel how miraculous it was that a group as diverse and bumptious as those delegates in Philadelphia could unite in declaring independence from Britain. The Roundabout revival of the show is just tremendous.
I had remembered "1776" as mixing seriousness and cutesiness in equal parts. Stone has whittled the cutesy quotient down to minimal this is now one of the handful of great musical books.
Composer Edwards, who also wrote "Wonderful, Wonderful," died in 1981; a lot of the score still seems cute, but more of it seems musically richer and more powerful than I had recalled. With only two exceptions, it is performed magnificently "Mama, Look Sharp," which should be gripping, is underdone and wan, and "He Plays the Violin" lacks elegance and ardor.
Everything else, however, is thrilling. Brent Spiner is a suitably irritating but nonetheless appealing John Adams, and Linda Emond is eloquent as Abigail. Pat Hingle makes a radiant Ben Franklin.
Paul Michael Valley is a shy Thomas Jefferson, projecting great depth under his reserve. Michael Cumpsty gives the leading opponent of independence remarkable stature and dignity. As the South Carolinian Rutledge, who exposes New England's complicity in the slave trade, Gregg Edelman sings "Molasses to Rum" thri llingly.
I wish I could single out everyone, but director Scott Ellis has made the large cast into an extraordinary ensemble.
Tony Walton's set and William Ivey Long's costumes are beautifully understated. Conductor Mark Mitchell and his small orchestra give the score luster.
From the brilliant choral harmonies of the opening number to the overpowering final tableau, this is one of those rare revivals that makes the show seem even better than you remembered it.
Good news! The Roundabout Theater is putting the clock back and, with a new staging of “1776,” reminding us movingly of the birth of our nation.
“1776” was the sleeper of its year – an unexpected smash hit that went on to win the 1969 Tony Award for best musical. The show then ran for 1,217 performances.
Now, nearly 30 years after it first it, “1776” is getting a new workout at Roundabout’s main stage at the Criterion Center. The question was whether the old show had developed “legs,” and perhaps once a surprise, always a surprise: It has.
Catching it at a preview, I thought this brilliant new production staged by Scott Ellis was as good as the original, if not better. It still oddly works, even though the story lacks suspense (we know the outcome) and the little-more-than-serviceable music and lyrics sound, if anything, thinner now than three decades ago.
“1776” is that rare animal, a hit musical that doesn’t contain a single musical hit. Yes, there is a kind of catchy number about the Lees of old Virginia, but that’s it – and even that’s not much.
No, the music and lyrics (a bit better) by the late Sherman Williams, while moving the story along, will not warm the cockles of your musical heart.
But the concept of the show – also, and more memorably, by Williams – is terrific, and gave Peter Stone, nowadays of “Titanic” fame, the chance to carve out a wonderful book, which holds the whole thing together.
The idea is to show the men behind the Constitution, their frailties and foibles. Many, many liberties are taken with the historic facts (in my review of the original production, I rather humorlessly enumerated most of them), but it doesn’t matter. The historic truth is there plain, clear, simple and glorious.
There are 27 performers in the cast, and each one of them is made a distinct character – an achievement unique in our musical theater until Stone applied the same technique to “Titanic.”
Ellis, marvelously supported by the scrupulously accurate design team of Tony Walton and William Ivey Long, gives the show a most useful sense of rhythm – a careful unfolding of events.
The performances linger, finely etched in the memory. I was perhaps most impressed by Brent Spiner as the nicely dyspeptic John Adams, Michael Cumpsty as the haughtily aristocratic British loyalty John Dickinson and Gregg Edelman as the contemptuous Southerner Rutledge (who has the show’s best dramatic song). But this is a splendid, evenly matched cast.
And you have to love this musical. It has to make you feel patriotic. It’s a dazzling Fourth of July fireworks display, but one that leaves a glowing afterimage of a proud history.
So maybe it is the squarest thing on Times Square. It's often gratingly corny; it's dotted with the kind of nudging sexual jokes that might be swapped in the boys' room of an elementary school, and its songs feature rhymes that make Madison Avenue jingles seem like models of sophistication. Besides, doesn't the very idea of America's Founding Fathers gamboling to a souped-up minuet give you the willies?
But darn it if ''1776,'' the 26-year-old musical about (oh, please) the Declaration of Independence, doesn't prove itself to be a surprisingly (if oddly) skilled seducer. It's like some facetious history nerd of a blind date you couldn't imagine, at the evening's beginning, enjoying yourself with. Yet by the end of three hours in its company at the Roundabout Theater, you're amazed at how quickly, and even pleasurably, the time has gone.
''1776,'' which has music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, was the show that nobody expected to like when it opened in 1969, not exactly a banner year for Yankee Doodle patriotism. But it wound up beating its far racier and hipper rivals, ''Hair'' and ''Promises, Promises,'' for both the Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for best musical. The current revival, impeccably mounted by the director Scott Ellis and featuring an assured, nicely balanced ensemble, makes it clear that its laurels weren't just nods to jingoistic values in a time of social upheaval. ''1776,'' of course, plays on the shiny residual sentiments about the nation's beginnings instilled by old history books. But it does so with considerable ingenuity and in a way that actually finds dramatic suspense in a most familiar plot. It may be shameless, but it isn't stupid.
The show was the long-gestating offspring of Edwards, who was previously known as a writer of pop hits (''Johnny Get Angry,'' ''See You in September'') and who died in 1981. He was also a former schoolteacher. And ''1776'' does indeed seem to have been conceived by the sort of passionate introductory history professor whom young students tend to make fun of but secretly like: the fellow who sees long-ago events in the present tense and tries to convey his excitement through whatever means are required.
This probably accounts for both the central weaknesses and strengths of the work. ''1776'' definitely panders to its audience: it can be unconscionably cute and leering at the same time.
But in portraying the long, long assembly of the Second Continental Congress one spring and summer in Philadelphia, it also creates an immediate environment of sensory discomfort, personal (and often petty) conflict and overriding frustration. (It's the frustration, as in so many musicals, that keeps you hooked here.)
It is ''hot as hell in Philadelphia,'' as one lyric (showing Edwards's irrepressible fondness for internal rhymes) puts it; the flies are legion; and when a bedraggled courier (Dashiell Eaves) stumbles in with another discouraging missive from one General G. Washington, the gentlemen of the assembly recoil from his stench.
Moreover, the show does a miraculously solid job of giving specific, discrete identities to each of the score of delegates at the Congress. (Yes, there were many more at the real thing, but economy, if nothing else, makes such license forgivable.) Actually, these characters (in many cases, drawn from figures who have become national archetypes) have far more individuality than those of Mr. Stone's current history-based musical hit, ''Titanic.''
Mr. Ellis's handsome production, with traditional but first-rate sets and costumes by Tony Walton and William Ivey Long, respectively, doesn't attempt to impose a contemporary, ironic gloss on the proceedings. The director and his ensemble, ably led by Brent Spiner as the agitating John Adams, do a fine job, though, in conveying the irksome thrust and parry, and the compromise and counterplotting, that have always made American legislatures move (or, just as often, not move).
With a couple of exceptions, the actors kindly avoid stepping over the line into buffoonish exaggeration. And there's enough troubled shading, in both plot and characterization, to remind us that great events are often shaped by mixed motives and less-than-noble emotions. As the wily old Benjamin Franklin (played in a dry, low key by Pat Hingle) points out, these are not demigods; they're ordinary men trying to get a job done. And the show's form is dictated by the twisting stratagems involved in accomplishing that job.
The music, from a man who had a pop tunesmith's knack for paying foxy homage to familiar melody lines (here including even ''The Star-Spangled Banner'') in songs that stick to the memory, has its irritating low points but more high ones than most people probably remember.
The trio in which Adams, Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (Paul Michael Valley) harmonize about the ''hatching'' of a new nation in a song called ''The Egg'' comes close to realizing your worst fears about what this show could be. So does a coy, double-entendre number called ''He Plays the Violin,'' in which Jefferson's bride, Martha (the appealing Lauren Ward, making the best of a bad lot), brought in to relieve her husband's sexual frustration so he can write the Declaration, describes her husband's particular brand of foreplay.
But the score of ''1776'' also finds invigorating musical metaphors for the political process. The opening number, ''Sit Down, John,'' an irascible call-and-response argument between Adams and his adversaries, is full of cantankerous life and is a terrific mood setter.
Even better is ''Cool, Considerate Men,'' with exquisitely droll staging by Kathleen Marshall, in which the Congress's conservatives (led by an excellent Michael Cumpsty) find their political tempo in the measured rhythms of a minuet. And as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, a fiery, charismatic Gregg Edelman turns the haunting ''Molasses to Rum,'' a sinister account of slavery, into the show-stopping equivalent of senatorial grandstanding.
There is also the graver lyricism of the ballad of a dying soldier sung by Mr. Eaves's courier, a reminder that while Congress piddled, America burned. And Mr. Spiner (yes, the one who plays the android Data on ''Star Trek: The Next Generation'') and Linda Emond, as Abigail Adams, are charming in their sentimental epistolary duets.
It should be noted that large stretches, especially in the first act, have no songs at all, as the book focuses entirely on the clash of Congressional wills. But Mr. Stone, who has fine-tuned his book for this production, knows how to turn political debate into pleasurable, and remarkably lucid, spectator sport. At its best, the show suggests -- in its Classic Comics way -- what you want C-Span to be but all too seldom is.
The spirit of "1776" survives the '90s, and if the Sherman Edwards-Peter Stone musical no longer seems as revolutionary as it did in 1969, it remains, in this Roundabout Theater Company revival, a fresh, vibrant piece of theater. An impressive (in both quality and size) cast sings and debates its way through the congressional conflicts (still suspenseful after all these years) that produced both the Declaration of Independence and one of the best musicals of the late 1960s.
Though the production sometimes feels constrained by the Roundabout's small (by Broadway standards) stage, Scott Ellis directs with the same breezy clarity he brought to his revival of "She Loves Me" on this same stage several seasons back.
But perhaps most striking of all is the reminder of just how good Stone's book was, and is. The rare musical in which the spoken story actually bests the score --- and a very good score at that --- "1776" is as sharp in its intelligence as it is in its humor, and carries an emotional charge that few, if any, recent musicals (Stone's "Titanic" included) can match.
The story, of course, is that of the Second Continental Congress as delegates from the 13 colonies debate, scheme and maneuver to declare or sink independence. Leading the call for freedom is John Adams (Brent Spiner), the Bostonian whose "obnoxious and disliked" personality works against his idealistic fervor. Fortunately, he has on his side the witty and wise Benjamin Franklin (Pat Hingle) and the youthful, eloquent Thomas Jefferson (Paul Michael Valley).
The fierce opponents of independence are led by Pennsylvania's British loyalist John Dickinson (Michael Cumpsty) and the pro-slavery representatives from the Deep South (Gregg Edelman, Robert Westenberg).
With Stone's crystal-clear blueprint, Ellis and his cast give each of the 20 representatives and seven other characters (including Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson) a personality as easily identifiable as it is captivating. Similarly, the process by which the declaration is debated and ratified is as taut and beguiling as any mystery, a feat made all the more remarkable by the obvious nature of the outcome.
Edwards, who died in 1981, contributed 13 terrific songs (not to mention the original idea for the show) that range from the rousing ("Sit Down, John") to the comic ("The Lees of Old Virginia"). Spiner and Linda Emond, as John and Abigail Adams, do well with two lovely ballads ("Till Then" and "Yours, Yours, Yours"), Cumpsty leads the conservative faction in a nicely harmonized "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men," and the strong-voiced Edelman turns in a chilling "Molasses to Rum," an angry rant in defense of slavery.
In his Broadway debut, young Dashiell Eaves scores with his sole musical number as the sweet-voiced courier singing the antiwar dirge "Momma Look Sharp" (the song comes just before a newly inserted intermission), and Lauren Ward (Off Broadway's "Violet") is a playful Martha Jefferson in her spotlight song, "He Plays the Violin" (a song originated in 1969 by then-unknown Betty Buckley).
As Benjamin Franklin, Hingle strikes the perfect blend of wisdom, compassion and humor (if John Adams is the intellectual force of the musical, Franklin is its soul). And as young Jefferson, Valley conveys the keen mind behind the leading-man looks. If Spiner, in the central role of Adams, lacks the breakout star quality that made a name of William Daniels in the original production, he nonetheless brings the prickly character to life.
Tony Walton's revolving set (the congressional chamber, an anteroom, Jefferson's home) is efficient and serviceable, but shows the constraints of both space and budget. William Ivey Long's attractive period costumes personalize each of the cast members, and Brian Nason's lighting effectively differentiates scenes as well as the various moods that make "1776" such a rich slice of theater history.