Theatre yesterday and today



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MORE OF "1776"

I didn't intend to write another column on 1776 today, but since yesterday's engendered such a positive response (there are a LOT of fans of this show out there), something told me there's an audience ready for more. So here are a few more stories of what led to the extraordinary opening night of this "radically new" musical when it opened fifty years ago tonight on March 16, 1969. Even though I've devoted an entire chapter to its history in Up in the Cheap Seats, what's here didn't make it into the book due to length. And due to such constraints here, I'm not going to cover what happened with Howard DaSilva (as the show's secondary lead, Ben Franklin) on his unusual journey to opening night. For that, you'll have to read the book.

Out front of the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) in 1969.

Yesterday I wrote about what effect the spectacular ending of 1776 had on me when I saw it at the Saturday matinee I attended—roughly twenty-four hours prior to its official opening night. That stirring tableau accompanied by the resounding music of the full orchestra leave me hard-pressed to think of the ringing down of a curtain any better.

And the chief theatre critic of the New York Times almost missed seeing it.

By 1969, some critics had begun the fashion of attending preview performances instead of opening nights. These happened mostly on a case-by-case basis at the invitation of certain producers. The general thinking was that if offered the opportunity to write less hastily, wouldn’t a critic want to take their time? After all, what was the point of rushing out of the theatre on a strict deadline to dash off something in forty-five minutes if they didn’t have to?

Initially not all were on board with the new custom, though it eventually led to today’s state of affairs where no first-string critics attend opening nights anymore. Lamenting its passing was the late theatre critic for the New York Daily News Douglas Watt, who said, “Having the time to mull it over, you could never display the same enthusiasm as fully.”

So when Clive Barnes of the New York Times, perhaps out of habit more than anything else, ran up the aisle before the curtain came down that afternoon on 1776, he was in danger of not seeing the its final tableau.

Knowing who Barnes was and what he looked like (and what he was about to miss), Onna White, the show’s choreographer, was not about to let him make his getaway. Upon spying him heading up the aisle, she leaped out of her seat, grabbed Barnes by the shoulders, spun him around, and forced him to witness the smashing finish.

His review the next day would be an unqualified rave.

Peter Hunt also describes this preview as achieving something that was at that time not nearly as standard as it is today—a standing ovation:

PETER HUNT: "This was the best performance of the show there ever was. And keep in mind that nowadays they stand for anything, but in this case it wasn’t four, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four people getting up. It was the entire floor (from my vantage point) and it was as if they had been hot-wired in their seats. They just bolted up! Never saw it before—and that’s what I was looking at, not Barnes.

It wasn’t until later in the day that Stuart Ostrow happened to mention that Clive Barnes had been there and I thought 'wow-wee!'

And when I heard from Onna about her turning him around… well…

But earlier at that same performance, at the top of what later became the second act (after we put in an intermission), Onna and I were sitting for a few minutes having a cigarette in the lobby—when you could still do that—and we heard this woman coming down the stairs from the second floor in high-healed shoes.

Clomp, clomp, clomp… making a helluva racket.

Seeing the two of us seated there she suddenly felt compelled to say, 'This is the single worst show I have ever seen!'

And she walked out onto 46th Street and was the only input we had until the audience stood up an hour later."

By the time of 1776, Onna White was easily one of the most in-demand choreographers on Broadway. In fact, she would achieve the rare distinction of being voted a special Academy Award for the dances she created for the film Oliver, one month after 1776’s opening night.

Onna White and her Honorary Academy Award for Oliver (1969).

White was everyone’s top choice for 1776, but not fully understanding or appreciating it, she turned it down. Forced to move on, Ostrow and Hunt chose Rhoda Levine, a young choreographer with no Broadway experience, and then considered a rising new talent:

PETER HUNT: "I gave Rhoda the task of staging 'Sit Down, John' while I attended to other things. Then when I came in to see what she had done, I couldn’t believe it. She had ordered in hamburgers and had these members of Congress hurling meat patties at each other. It was insane!

I brought Stuart in and said, 'She’s got to go.' And she was gone.

We had to keep going and since I’d always staged my own musical numbers when I directed at Williamstown I dove in and fixed 'Sit Down, John' and worked a bit on 'Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.'

Meanwhile, Stuart went about trying to get Onna White interested again.

Good producer that he is, he got a suite at the Plaza and ordered in a

grand piano, brought in champagne and caviar, and invited Onna and her agent to come up and listen to another Sherman Edwards play-through.

Sherman is playing all the songs and Stone is tap-dancing the book and Onna gets up and says, 'I’m sorry, I don’t see it' and walks out.

And we’re like, 'My God, my God…'

Stone finally says, 'Everybody grab all the champagne and caviar!' And we got laundry bags and loaded it all up to take home.

Then Sherman Edwards did something that I swear tipped the balance back in our favor. We were walking through the lobby and there was a young married couple—just married—on their honeymoon, I think. And they were seated looking miserable and Sherman started talking to them. 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 Ostrow saying 'You are going to do 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’re going to do it, guys. We’ve got to.' So they sucked it in and did it in the rehearsal room 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.'"

White’s work may have only covered the waltzes in “He Plays the Violin” and the group work for the ensemble of “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” but it was all, according to Peter Hunt, “brilliantly done.”

The original 1776 company performing "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men."

PETER HUNT: 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.

And the most important thing I remember was when we were rehearsing at the Lunt-Fontanne and Stuart walked in and we were doing 'Sit Down, John.' He yelled out from way in the back, 'This damn thing! Onna, when are you going to fix this number?'

She yelled back, 'Stuart, never! It’s perfect.'

And he said, 'Oh,' and he turned around and walked out. And she’d never even told me that."

1776 opened to reviews that were as close to unanimously positive as a show can get. In those days lines around the box office were the visual proof that producers had a hit on their hands, as well as the cash that was taken in (since credit cards were in their infancy then). And on March 17th, the morning after its opening night, the Tony Awards committee met, then only consisting of six people made up of a selection of three critics, two columnists, and one playwright, and showered the show with 6 nominations, of which it would win three, including Best Musical.

And when William Daniels, the musicals's star, declined his nomination because he felt (rightly so) that he was placed in the wrong category of featured, not leading actor, a bit of hell broke loose.

But that's a story for another day.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, as well as email me with comments or questions at