In some ways, 1776 feels very much like a straight play. Pages and pages go by in between songs, and we’re often listening to well-articulated political arguments, like what might be found in Shaw. Over the years, Peter Stone’s book has been praised more than Sherman Edwards’ score. But 1776 is very much a musical. If, at times, it sounds like light opera, it’s because the composer is trying to convey, musically, a sense of the period in which it’s set.
The score does this in two ways: One, well worth emulating, is the use of harmonies and song forms that, to the modern audience not made up of musicologists, sound authentic to the period. In the middle of “Momma Look Sharp” it seems the song is quoting a folk song, very believably so. But, in fact, it’s the composer’s creation. The other way Philadelphia at America’s birth is portrayed is through a very conscious quoting of famous American songs, especially patriotic songs. One, Cool Cool Considerate Men, begins with the words “Oh, say do you see what I see,” which remind us of the first lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner. And, as if the point isn’t driven home hard enough, the first five notes of the music are the same as the national anthem. So, of course it sounds American. (Another example is The Lees of Old Virginia which repeats the “here a chick, there a chick” phrase from Old McDonald’s Farm.)
If the score isn’t a high watermark of lyric-writing and composition, it still manages to be an effective one, because of how most of the songs serve the drama.One interesting theory of theatre songwriting is that the best theatre songs involve one character trying to convince another of something. 1776 starts with the Continental Congress trying to get John Adams to shut up, in an operetta-like chorus. John and Abagail’s letters are musicalized as love duets “Abagail begs John to send her pins and John begs, in return, for saltpetre. Most amusingly, several delegates are asked to write the Declaration of Independence before Jefferson accepts the job.
Of course, we all know who’s going to write the Declaration, and how the vote will finally go on July 4th. Stone’s book remarkably depicts this familiar story with a great deal of dramatic tension. We wonder how they’re going to get those votes for independence. And, to further the excitement, Stone used something similar to Hitchcock’s ticking clock device. We see the calendar change, so we know the time limit on getting those votes, and there’s also a big vote tally board to show us how far they have to go at every moment. It’s hard to think of a set piece more integral to a story.
Commentary by Noel Katz