Theatre yesterday and today



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I certainly couldn’t let today go by without a shout out to the anniversary of the opening night on Broadway of 1776, which was forty-eight years ago tonight. I had seen the show the day before at a Saturday matinee preview from my perch up in the cheap seats, only twelve days after my 12th birthday. It cost me $3.00. Today, a Saturday matinee at the same theatre (the Richard Rodgers) would cost $139 for Hamilton. And that’s if you can get a ticket!1776 is the show out of close to fifty years of theatre going that I paid admission to more than any other (13 times). I also stood in the wings watching the end of the show on countless occasions. I befriended the stage doorman, and for reasons I will never understand, he allowed me in after my usual Saturday matinee was over. Maybe he thought I was related to someone in the show. But since most shows in those days were never that long (two hours tops), 1776’s running time of 2 hours, 45 minutes made it possible for me to drop in whenever I felt like it. Permission of that sort is unthinkable nowadays. I was one lucky kid.

The original cast of “1776” on Joe Mielziner’s set, aided in its beauty by Patricia Zipprodt’s costumes.

In my book, Up in the Cheap Seats, the chapter devoted to 1776 is titled “The Obsession.” Of the many shows I’ve seen in my lifetime, this one is as good as any to see over and over again. It’s one of the most finely crated musicals of them all, with a book that is unmatched in its ability to survive perfectly fine without its songs — no small achievement. Librettist Peter Stone took composer Sherman Edwards’s concept about the supreme difficulties the founding fathers had in finding any consensus on what had never been done before: the breaking away of a country from its parent stem. Yes, this Revolutionary War was just that — an act of revolution. How Edwards made it sing is another major achievement.

William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Betty Buckley and Ken Howard

I tell a lot of stories about 1776 in my book, but since I didn’t want it to be the size of Moby Dick, I had to do some judicious cutting. So in honor of the show’s birthday today, I’m going share one of my favorites that didn’t make the book. For those who have never seen the show on stage, there’s a sensational tableau at the end that really knocked the socks off everyone who saw it. The story of how it came about is a terrific one, and who better to tell it than the guy that came up with it: the show’s director Peter Hunt:

We were stuck on the ending. I knew it needed something more and so did my brother Gordon who saw it in New Haven and said, “There’s something about the end. It needs a HA! I just don’t know what that is.”

That stuck in my mind and later when we were out of town in D.C., I was sitting with Stuart Ostrow [the producer] in a coffee shop and I told him I felt we were still missing that final thing. And Stuart thought about it and said, “Well, maybe Sherman was right about that goddamn painting.”

You see, Sherman always wanted a scrim to come in that was the painting, but there are a number of troubles with that. One of which is that it’s not them signing it; it’s an imagined delivery of the document that never happened!

Jo Mielziner, our brilliant set designer, hated that notion with a passion! It was too realistic; there were too many people — but it gnawed at us that a button was out there that we couldn’t put our finger on.

Ostrow became obsessed with figuring this out and started to give in to Sherman’s idea of having the scrim come down so we see the men and go back into history. He shouted to me, “Let’s get Jo Mielziner in here right away.” So he calls his secretary and after a bit Mielziner comes toddling into the coffee shop. And when Stuart told him the plan, I thought poor Jo was going to burst into tears. That is, until he became livid.

Ostrow put his foot down. “We’re putting it in, Jo. Get on it! So Jo heads off down Pennsylvania Avenue to find a place to get the picture and copy it. And there’s silence at the table between Stuart and me.

“Jo’s really upset.”

“Yeah,” I said.</