Theatre yesterday and today



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The caricature below by Jeff York, drawn exclusively for an illustration in my book Up in the Cheap Seats, features the stars of the original Broadway cast of 1776, William Daniels, Howard Da Silva and Ken Howard as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. This trio is known primarily by their performances in the 1972 film version which airs tonight in honor of the 4th of July (as it always does) on Turner Classic Movies. So good in these roles, Daniels, Da Silva and Howard have made it impossible to picture anyone else. Having created the parts as members of the original Broadway cast, you would think that they would have had all that time during the show's long run to hone their work as a team before preparing for the film version. But that was not the case at all. The actual number of times that all three performed in 1776 together officially totaled one performance. Here's how it all went down.

Jeff York's depiction of 1776 w/William Daniels, Howard Da Silva and Ken Howard.

With a rocky out of town premiere in New Haven, Connecticut, 1776 was in danger of closing before its upcoming opening date on Broadway, which was set for the night of March 16, 1969. There was little to no advance sale, and large cuts and smaller trims still had the intermission-less show clocking in at three hours. But under the keen eye of its young director Peter H. Hunt, by the time the second engagement in Washington, D.C. was over, things were looking up for this scrappy upstart of a musical, arriving on the final day that the Tony Awards nominators were set to see anything new. For on the morning after 1776's opening night, the six-person committee had to meet in order to consider their ballots for every show that came to town that season.

What they didn't know, was that three days before that Sunday night opening, Howard Da Silva had collapsed at a rehearsal with a minor heart attack. In a true moment of "the show must go on!" Da Silva refused medical treatment and performed in that evening's show, as well as one on Friday, two on Saturday, and the opening on Sunday evening. Da Silva gave his all, but had no choice but to enter the hospital immediately following the curtain coming down on opening night. The press release announced he had "pneumonia," and Da Silva was not to return to the show for months to come. He even missed out on having his performance preserved on the show's original cast album (his understudy Rex Everhart is heard on the recording). Luckily, when the film soundtrack was set down, the world would finally get to hear the wonderful mellifluous tones of Da Silva's distinctive voice (to my mind EXACTLY how Ben Franklin must have sounded).

Howard Da Silva and William Daniels in 1776 (1969)

When Da Silva finally returned to 1776 as Franklin, there was no Ken Howard to work side by side with as Thomas Jefferson. For by that time, Howard had already left for his next acting job—a direct result of that infamous opening night. Peter Stone, the show's Tony winning librettist brought a friend along that evening, the film director Otto Preminger, who liked what he saw (especially Ken Howard). The next day, the actor was summoned to the office Preminger had in the old Columbia Pictures building on Sixth Avenue and without so much as a reading, was offered the lead role opposite Liza Minnelli in a film entitled Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. With that, Howard turned in his notice and left the hit Broadway musical for what would be his first film role—and a three-picture deal with Preminger.

As the director of both the play and the film, Peter Hunt is on record as saying, "The role of Jefferson is a tough part to cast and, boy, did we find out how tough when Ken left the show. Nobody came close to Ken. Couldn’t touch him." Funnily enough, Stuart Ostrow, the producer of 1776, didn't want Ken Howard and Hunt had to fight like mad for him to be cast. He and Howard had a relationship going back a few years via the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where Hunt had directed Howard in a number of plays and musicals. But Ostrow simply couldn't see the 6'6" actor as the erudite and patrician Thomas Jefferson, due to Howard's convincing portrayal of a Polish taxicab driver in the musical Promises, Promises at the time of the audition process. It wasn't until the third time Howard came in, and his prepping a Shakespearean monologue, that Ostrow could be convinced that he was an appropriate choice. To add a little humor to the proceeding, Howard walked onto the stage and handed his Shakespeare text to the accompanist as if were his sheet music and he was going to be singing. It helped lighten the mood of the situation, as he was tired of re-auditioning, and Ostrow was equally tired of seeing him. Happily, it all turned out for the best.

Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson (1969)

But unhappily, the trio of Daniels, Da Silva and Howard, forever immortalized on film, never performed on stage in 1776 beyond its opening night. It should be noted that William Daniels, in his galvanizing performance as John Adams, did the show on Broadway for two solid years, missing only two performances. In his recently published autobiography, There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT, and Many Others, Daniels describes the circumstances under which he was unable to go on. One was vocal distress (after having done an additional show on his one day off for a one-time only command performance at the White House for then-President Richard Nixon, a man for whom Daniels (a long-time liberal) held a particular hatred. The other was another one-time only event: Daniels having a libation (or two) between a matinee and evening show and recognizing that he was in no shape to go on. It’s the sort of honesty his book is filled with, so that if you are even half the fan of his that I am, you shouldn’t waste a minute picking it up for a guaranteed fun read.

Howard, Da Silva and Daniels performing "The Egg" (1969)

After all, it's the 4th of July, and what better way to celebrate than with John Adams?

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: