Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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1776/2021


Howard DaSilva and William Daniels as Ben Franklin and John Adams in 1776

(photo by Martha Swope).


Fifty-two years ago yesterday afternoon, I took my seat as a just-turned twelve-year old in seat F 102 in the last row of the Richard Rodgers Theatre (then called the 46th Street), to see the second-to-last preview of a new musical titled 1776. All I knew about it was from the first ad I saw in the Sunday New York Times, which depicted an eaglet popping out of an egg with an American flag in its mouth. This whimsical cartoon by the artist Fay Gage was all I needed to convince me to mail away for tickets that were discounted to $3.00 during what accounted for less than a week’s worth of previews (the price would go up to $4.50 after it opened). In spite of that bargain, I hesitated, as this would be the first time I would ever see a show before it opened. Would I get my money’s worth? Would it be the same show everyone would see after the opening? I didn’t know… but the savings of a buck-and-a-half was a mighty incentive. And dare I mention that before the pandemic hit, the price for the last row at this very same theatre was $139? And that’s even if you could have gotten a ticket to Hamilton! But what I got for my money on that March 15th afternoon back in 1969 was beyond riches. I fell in love with this wonderful musical and to this day, it holds the record for the one I paid to see more than any other: thirteen times.


Fay Gage’s illustration for the 1776 poster, one of the greatest ever conceived for an American musical.


I also stood in the wings on countless occasions watching the end of the show. My emboldened teenage self, befriended the stage doorman, and for reasons I will never understand, was allowed backstage countless time throughout the show’s three-year run after my usual Saturday matinees were finished. In those days, plays and musicals weren’t that long (two hours, mostly), which meant that 1776’s running time of 2 hours, 45 minutes made it possible for me to drop in backstage to see its finale whenever I felt like it, especially due to the kindness of this wizened, bespectacled old doorman, who (for all I know) thought I was related to someone in the show. Even if that were true, permission of that sort is unthinkable nowadays. I was one lucky kid.


The original 1969 cast of 1776 on Jo Mielziner’s elegant set with

Patricia Zipprodt’s stunning costumes (photo by Martha Swope).


In my book, Up in the Cheap Seats, I have a chapter devoted to 1776 titled “The Obsession.” Of the thousands of shows I’ve see in my lifetime, it’s the one I picked to see over and over again (two others I chose to repeat visits were the original productions of Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George). Like those Sondheim musicals, I admired the finely crafted a piece of theatre 1776 is, even though it was put together in an unorthodox manner. Originally, songwriter Sherman Edwards had taken on the difficult task of writing it all himself, but when the show’s producer, Stuart Ostrow, demanded Edwards step aside to allow his choice of Peter Stone to rework the book, Edwards had no choice but to capitulate. He had already spent twelve years of his life trying to get it on a stage and he finally had a producer willing to spend money to make his vision a reality, so what else could he do?


1776’s chances for success were minimal. What could be more difficult to overcome than a plot with a predetermined outcome, as you simply KNOW that by July 4th the Declaration of Independence is going to get signed? Yet that is what made Stone’s achievement in creating dramatic tension such a thing to behold. It had its audience believe it was never going to happen before the curtain came down. But when it did, and freedom literally rang throughout the theatre, it created a moment that Stephen Sondheim himself described as “one of the greatest things I ever saw.”


What I love most about the show, is that even though it’s a musical comedy, it tells a dramatic tale. It must never be forgotten that what was going on back in 1776 had never been done before: the breaking away of a country from its parent stem. Yes, this Revolutionary