As a Canadian, loyal to the Crown, I mostly know the Fourth of July as the day someone on TV is always showing the movie version of 1776: The Musical. The movie is not actually very good as a movie – it was directed by the guy who did the original stage version (Peter H. Hunt, not to be confused with the James Bond director Peter Hunt), who had never directed a film before, and it showed; it’s just a photographed stage play, and virtually the only interesting lighting effects are the ones that are copied directly from the stage show. But like a lot of the big film musicals from the late ’60s and early ’70s, the things that make it a less-than-effective movie make it very pleasant television viewing; since the pace is slow and there’s not a lot of visual interest, you can relax, go to get a snack, pop your head back in when your favourite musical numbers begin.
Which brings up the thing I find interesting about 1776 as a show and as a film: most of the best moments are in dialogue. The idea to do a Declaration of Independence musical, a one of those ideas that’s so crazy it just might work, came from the songwriter, a moderately successful pop songwriter named Sherman Edwards, who originally wrote his own book for the piece. When he sold the idea, part of the process was having an experienced theatre and film writer, Peter Stone, come in and write the book, and Stone came up with one of the best books ever written for a musical – the rare historical drama that keeps you in suspense even though you know the ending. It’s really the historical equivalent of one of those mysteries where we know who the murderer is, and the only suspense is about how he’ll get caught. We know the U.S. will declare independence, but Stone and Edwards realized that most people don’t know the ins and outs of exactly how the decision was made to declare independence, or how many times it seemed like the vote would fall through.
Most of the key moments in the story didn’t lend themselves to song, though, and Edwards’ score was not a great one anyway. So what they arrived at was a show where the biggest moments, particularly involving the famous people like Adams and Franklin, are done in dialogue. The songs either serve to lighten the mood (the show-stopping Richard Henry Lee number, the “But, Mr. Adams” musical argument, that goofy and somewhat awful song for Martha Jerferson) or to comment on aspects of history that aren’t being fully addressed in the main plot. (“Momma, Look Sharp” is about the war; “Molasses To Rum” is about the North’s complicity in the slave trade, and “Cool, Considerate Men” is a heavy-handed attempt to be topically relevant.) The songs are often interludes or breathing spaces between the book scenes, which are more intense. That’s a 180 from the usual arrangement in a musical, where the book is usually kept to a minimum, just providing the plot and character information we need to set up the numbers, where the really intense emotion and comedy takes place. But around the time 1776 was on Broadway, theatre and movie-goers had been saturated with that model for making a musical — song, scene, song, scene; scene continues until it gets too intense and someone bursts into song — and writers were increasingly looking for other ways of doing things. So 1776 was a big hit where the songs weren’t the absolute focal point, and the following season, one of the bigger hits was Company, a show with much better songs than 1776 but a somewhat similar way of placing some of those songs (to the side, as commentary on the themes of the show).