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I am something of a Revolutionary War nerd. I’m fascinated with the period, and with the people. While you’ll find some history book sprinkled in my collection, you’ll find a disproportionate number about the Founding Fathers. With that in mind it’s no surprise that one of my all-time favorite musicals is one based around the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence, 1776.
The film is an adaptation of a 1969 Broadway play, and many of the original actors show up for the movie version. Chief among these is William Daniels – the voice of KITT! – as John Adams. I think Adams has gotten a short shrift in American history classes, and it was 1776 that made me appreciate the feisty, obnoxious founding father long before Paul Giamatti took up the telling of his life story on HBO. The story of 1776 focuses on Adams as he fights for the Second Constitutional Congress to vote for independence from Britain. There are some minor liberties taken with history – mostly for dramatic purposes, or to condense multiple real people into one character – but a student watching the show could probably do pretty well on an exam on the subject.
What’s interesting about 1776 is the way the songs are used; instead of shoe-horning a song in every ten minutes, the Sherman Edwards/Peter Stone show uses them sparingly. There are long segments where members of Congress argue when you might even forget that you’re watching a musical, in fact. The political arguments and character comedy sometimes makes it feel like West Wing: The Prequel.
But it’s a damn good musical nonetheless, with my favorite song being Molasses to Rum, a dark, foreboding number about the hypocrisy of Northerners who are against slavery, sung by John Cullum, aka Hollis from Northern Exposure. There are maybe one or two songs too many about love – the love lives of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson make up the ’emotional’ side of the story – but there are plenty of other great numbers, including Mamma Look Sharp, sung from the POV of a dead soldier.
In a lot of ways 1776 is hopelessly square. It’s a fucking musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, for God’s sake. But it’s also one of the first entertainments that I can remember that breaks down the pious surface of the Founding Fathers and that looks at the squabbling, imperfect human beings who were just trying to do what was right in an incredibly tough, uncertain time. When I was a kid I didn’t find this part of American history very interesting – we were sold the Founding Fathers as perfect DC Comics superheroes – but once I found out what a bunch of fuck ups and weirdos these guys were, I fell in love with them. 1776 does a really nice job of showcasing that humanity.
Click here to watch 1776 instantly on Netflix.