Theatre yesterday and today



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Well, it's the Fourth of July, and if you're a fan of Turner Classic Movies (and who isn't?) it's time for their yearly screening of 1776.

I have a deep connection with this musical, mainly due to my love of the original Broadway production, which I saw on March 15, 1969 at a preview the afternoon before it opened. I had recently turned twelve-years-old, and this was one of the first times I went into New York City by myself from my home on Long Island to see a show "up in the cheap seats." And for my $3 I got one of the most unforgettable stage experiences I've ever had.

A musical about the delegates to the Continental Congress debating over American independence? A singing John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. And yet, it snuck in on the last day of Tony eligibility, and won Best Musical over that season's hits Hair and Promises, Promises.

In my forthcoming book, Up in the Cheap Seats, the longest chapter belongs to my personal history with 1776 as well as the history of its unlikely success. I was fortunate to interview a good many who were part of that production, from the star and director of both the play and film, William Daniels and Peter Hunt, to cast members like John Cullum, George Hearn, Gary Beach and the late Ken Howard.

For a bit of a sneak peek, here's one of my favorite stories about the show's birth pangs, as told by its director Peter Hunt. It's important to note, that when he was hired, Hunt had never directed a Broadway show, was twenty-nine years old, and only just turned thirty the night he received his Tony Award, still to this day the youngest person to ever win as Best Director of a musical or play.

Peter Hunt: The choreographer we hired was young, but talented. So we took a chance on her and I gave her the task of staging “Sit Down, John” while I attended to other things. When I finally came in to see what she had done, I couldn’t believe it. She’d ordered in hamburgers and had these members of Congress hurling meat patties at each other. It was insane!

I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t fire her because I thought the ax was going to fall on me at any given moment. So I brought in Stuart [Ostrow, the producer of 1776] and asked him to see what she’d done. He took one look and said, “She’s got to go.” And she was gone.

Stuart went back to his first choice for choreographer, Onna White. Good producer that he is, he invited her to a suite at the Plaza Hotel, ordered in a grand piano, champagne and caviar. Peter Stone [the show's author] and Sherman Edwards [the composer] did their best to present the show to Onna and her agent. When they finished, the two of them went out into the hall. We didn’t know what was going on and after about ten minutes the agent poked his head in the door and said, “Sorry, gentlemen. She doesn’t want to do it.”

We didn’t know what to do. Stone broke the tension and said, “Everybody grab all the champagne and caviar!” And we loaded everything into laundry bags to take home and when we got to the lobby Sherman did something that I swear tipped the balance in our favor. He noticed there was a young married couple on their honeymoon looking just miserable, and he started talking to them and found out that the Plaza didn’t have their room. So Sherman handed them a key and said, “Have a great night.”

And I thought Sherm, what a wonderful thing you did. Then at three o’clock in the morning I get a call from Stuart saying, “You are doing a run-through tomorrow for Onna White.”

I said, “You’ve got to be kidding. They’re not ready for a run-through.”

Ostrow said, “You’re doing it!” And he slammed the phone down.

The next morning, I tell the cast and I’ve got a riot on my hands. “We’ve got to do it, guys. We’ve got to.” They sucked it in and gave their all for Onna. It almost looked staged the way they did it.

When it was over she stood up with tears streaming down her face and said, “I have to do this show.” And Onna was so supportive and her eye was so good and she was such a love to work with … well, she just saved my ass.

Howard Da Silva (Ben Franklin) and Williams Daniels (John Adams)

in the original Broadway production of 1776.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.