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1776: Director's Cut

Sherman Edwards was a man with a wacky dream. The former history teacher was obsessed with creating a theatrical production that brought to life the real drama behind the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Oh, and he wanted to make it a musical. So, on his fortieth birthday, Edwards quit his job at a music publishing company to devote himself full-time to writing his masterpiece. For ten years, chronically broke and with little encouragement, he wrote and rewrote the songs, promoted his show, and tried to find a librettist to help with the project, now titled 1776. With few dance numbers, a single set, and, as originally conceived, an all-male cast dressed in pantaloons and powdered wigs, it was a tough sell. Former screenwriter Peter Stone came on board only after Broadway veteran Frank Loesser (creator of Guys & Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, among other hits) convinced Stone to listen to Edwards' score. The resultant musical offered a refreshing view of the Founding Fathers with, as Stone put it, "a kind of disrespectful affection" while remaining painstakingly accurate in historical detail. Although the idea of mounting such a blatantly patriotic Broadway production at the height of the politically turbulent late-'60s seemed ill-advised, 1776 was a huge hit and went on to win the 1969 Tony award for Best Musical. The play also won a Pulitzer Prize, and has gone on to win multiple Tonys for revivals over the past three decades, making it one of the most successful musicals in the history of American theater. The story? Well, 1776 is about the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, but don't let that deter you. The primary character is headstrong John Adams (William Daniels), "obnoxious and disliked" by the others for his dogged insistence that America needs to declare its independence from British rule. With word from General Washington that the British are sending an armada to reclaim New York — and that the American troops' spirits and supplies are alarmingly low — Adams forces the issue on a Congress that's divided down the middle, primarily between the northern states who support independence and the southern states who wish to remain a protectorate of King George. Having pretty much alienated the conservative members of Congress, Adams and Benjamin Franklin (the wonderful Howard Da Silva) enlist the well-liked — and southern — Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate) of Virginia to make the official proposal for independence. Even then, the idea seems headed for certain defeat when the staunchly anti-independence John Dickinson (Donald Madden) of Pennsylvania puts forth the motion that Congress' decision on the issue must be unanimous. Out of desperation, Adams improvises a proposal calling for the composition of some kind of a, well, declaration to explain the reasons for the proposed separation from England — only after the drafting of this document is complete can the vote take place. The other delegates agree, and a reluctant Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), who had been planning a return to Virginia to see his wife (Blythe Danner), is strong-armed into drafting the document. In the meantime, Adams and Franklin try to sway the others to their cause, while Dickinson works to keep all the conservatives in the opposing camp.

*          *          *

1776 is a remarkable musical on several fronts. First, it brings to life the distinct personalities and characters that made up the Second Continental Congress in a way that's deliciously entertaining — one can easily forget, while getting caught up in the interplay, that the conclusion is already well known. The songs are unique to musical theater, sounding distinctly American and having a curious period quality, despite having been written in the early '60s. And they're both moving and funny, especially "Piddle Twiddle and Resolve" and "The Egg," in which Jefferson, Franklin and Adams liken the birth of the new nation to "waiting for the egg to hatch on this humid Monday morning / In this congressional incubator." But what really makes 1776 stand apart is that, despite a fair amount of dramatic license with language and the necessary dramatization of events, Edwards' obsessive research results in a story that is, with only a couple of exceptions, politically accurate. Much of the dialogue was taken directly from the subjects' actual speeches and personal letters, and the events as presented are what really happened. True, Washington's troops weren't really suffering from the poor morale depicted in the play (Americans were actually quite optimistic at the time about their military situation, having already driven the British from Boston), Franklin's intense hatred of the British and his influence on the Declaration are rather underplayed here, and Jefferson's wife, Martha, never came to Philadelphia to visit him — she remained in Virginia during these events, and Jefferson was quite concerned about her health. But despite these small quibbles, 1776 makes this pivotal moment in American history more than just palatable — it makes for a sumptuous meal, and dramatizes one of the most bizarre and unlikely events in human history as a very personal, very understandable story... with songs. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of 1776 offers a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and unremarkable Dolby 5.1 Digital audio (the original sound for the film was recorded, after all, a few decades ago). Billed as a "Restored Director's Cut," 20 minutes have been restored to the running time, drawn from 41 minutes originally deleted from the 1972 release, mostly for pacing. The most notable — and welcome — of these changes is the return of the song "Cool, Considerate Men," a delightfully catty look at the antagonistic, dandified, and mostly southern members of Congress, who do a minuet while proclaiming that they dance "to the right, ever to the right, never to the left, forever to the right." Also on board is commentary by director Peter H. Hunt and screenwriter Peter Stone; screen tests for William Daniels, Ray Middleton (Colonel Thomas McKean), James Noble (Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon), Leo Leyden (George Read), and Rex Robbins (Roger Sherman); wonderful original theatrical trailers for Oliver!, Pal Joey (featuring Frank Sinatra lecturing the audience on Joey's brand of "slingo"), the Richard Burton/Liz Taylor version of Taming of the Shrew and, of course, 1776. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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