5th Avenue Theatre Parade Hairspray Anything Goes 1776

writing: articles, sales copy, and editing


client: The 5th Avenue Theatre
project: 1776 Articles

1776 almost didn't make it to the stage; the story behind the show's development could almost make a show in itself.


Bringing together a life-long love of history and the theater, former history teacher Sherman Edwards dreamt for years of creating a musical that brought to life the behind-the-scenes maneuvers that culminated in the Declaration of Independence. Edwards finally decided to commit to his idea on his fortieth birthday and, as a present to himself, quit his job at a music publishing company to devote himself full-time to this most unlikely of visions.

For the next ten years, he wrote and rewrote songs for the show and tirelessly promoted the concept, facing continual discouragement and dwindling savings. Once the music and lyrics were completed, he sought partnership with a librettist. Edwards approached a number of prospective writers, including screenwriter-turned-book writer Peter Stone, but they all rejected the project without batting an eye. Not surprisingly, 1776 was a hard sell. It had none of the sexy or showy elements typical of Broadway hits: no chorus girls (in fact, it originally had an all-male cast); a heavy reliance on the spoken word; few dance numbers; a single, unflashy set. And then there's the subject matter. What could possibly be dramatic or exciting about the development of the Declaration? It seemed both weighty and without suspense.

Additionally, there was some apprehension about how a "patriotic" show would appeal to a public of the late sixties, an era of student riots, protest marches and general disenchantment.

Interestingly enough, the man who accompanied Sherman Edwards during the long, lonely march to Broadway was none other than musical master Frank Loesser, creator of Guys & Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. It was Loesser who got Sherman Edwards a foot in the door of Broadway agent Flora Roberts, who represented Loesser, Stephen Sondheim and, ultimately, Sherman Edwards. Loesser told her, "for two years I've held an option on the most uncommercial musical you've ever seen. And I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what to do with it. Tomorrow, I'm sending you the guy who wrote it. Do something for him, for God's sake." Loesser continued his campaign by recommending Edward's work to Stuart Ostrow, a young producer who began his theater life working for Loesser. Together, they convinced Peter Stone, (who had also "studied at the feet of Frank Loesser"), to listen to Edwards' score before declining the project again.

Later, Stone described the experience: "This wasn't the first time Stuart had called me about this particular show and, honestly, I was sick of the calls. But I said OK. And I went down to a little office in the Paramount Building, where I found this most improbable man: quite stocky and very gruff, very few social niceties about him, not rude but very direct. Sherman Edwards. Who then sat down and played the opening song of 1776: "Sit Down, John, Sit Down, John, for God's Sake, John, Sit Down!," with very little art in it, very rough. And the moment I heard it I knew exactly what the show was. A level was established: a kind of disrespectful affection. They weren't cardboard, these Founding Fathers, they were going to be real people. And I knew exactly what I had to do."

They began work right away. Peter Stone had never written a show around a completed score before — this was the opposite of the way shows usually came together. As it turned out, this was quite a benefit. Edwards' characterizations were so clear, his dramatic timing so strong, his lyrics so polished and his research so meticulous that Stone was able to concentrate solely on storytelling, structure and dramatic tension. During the year-long evolution of the show, Stone derived plot lines and lifted material for entire scenes from the songs. The song count melted from 26 to 11 and an impeccably constructed, well-proportioned, award-winning libretto emerged. Stone's script, in fact, has often been called the best book of any musical ever written.

Part of 1776's brilliance is that as we watch it, we forget we know the outcome. We become fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of the characters, revolving around the disliked, obnoxious, compelling and heroic John Adams. We become so emotionally involved in the arguments, the compromises, the disputes, the perseverance, the courage and the sacrifices — in short the roiling, deeply human interplay between those who wanted independence and those who were afraid of it — that we begin to doubt the facts we've known since grade school. This is edge-of-the-seat drama at its finest.

Once it opened, 1776 received unanimous raves and many awards. It seemed to come from nowhere to win the 1969 Tony Award for Best Musical, beating out the very popular Hair, as well as two shows with more established Broadway names attached to them: Promises, Promises, a Neil Simon / Burt Bacharach crowd-pleaser produced by David Merrick, and Zorba, a Kander and Ebb musical produced by Harold Prince. It also received Tonys for Best Actor in a Musical (Ronald Holgate), and Best Director (Peter Hunt). Further, it was designated the Season's Best Musical by the prestigious New York Drama Critics' Circle. 1776 was also the first stage musical ever to be presented at the White House in its entirety, at a party celebrating the 238th birthday of George Washington.

The show's patriotic nature did not, as it turned out, hinder its success at all. In fact, the musical's spirit of "rebelliousness against the Establishment" had great appeal and seemed very timely. This country, lest we forget, was founded by a group of long-haired dissidents whose great patriotism fueled a change that no one thought possible. It seemed that everyone from President Nixon to radical young activists found the show stirring, admirable, patriotic and relevant.

In The New York Times, 1776 was called "a skilled seducer — like some facetious history nerd of a blind date you couldn't imagine, at the evening's beginning, enjoying yourself with. Yet by the end of three hours, you're amazed at how pleasurably the time has gone." The New York Post continued this theme: "And you have to love this musical...It's a dazzling Fourth of July fireworks display, but one that leaves a glowing afterimage of a proud history." Clearly, this "history lesson" leaves the tedious textbooks behind; it carries an emotional charge few musicals can match.