My 1776 Love, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Film Adaptation

David Culliton

If I’ve learned anything from the countless hours I’ve logged watching extremely nerdy, thirty-minute-plus video essays on YouTube, it’s that the theatre and the cinema are two VERY different beasts. While both share the basic aesthetic of longform entertainment, the creative processes and indeed the appealing aspects of said entertainment varies from form to form. This is relevant to the discussion of adaptations, whereupon the creative products of one medium are translated into another. It is the rule of thumb that, for various reasons, you cannot directly and exactly recreate those creative products between mediums, or else risk many of the best aspects of the original being lost in translation. For example, had the entirety of Victor Hugo’s revolutionary magnum opus been put into that little indie musical adaptation nobody’s probably heard of (something about a bunch of miserable French people?), the audience would be subjected to a 5-hour derge that nobody would ever want to sit through. Excess needed to be trimmed, character beats expanded to fit a more theatrical setting, etc. When it was adapted into a movie, changes were then made to make THIS adaptation fit the silver screen rather than a box stage & a turntable. While I’m aware that how effective these changes were is still up for debate even seven years later, Tom Hooper and crew at least recognized that the show had to be meaningfully transformed to fit the new medium to a point where many viewers were able to concede that the movie felt like more than just a boring retread of the show. Compare this with adaptations like the Phantom of the Opera or Rent movies, who don’t meaningfully change enough of their source material to fit (or even warrant) their cinematic presence, and consequently did NOT fare well critically upon release. I won’t dive into too much detail as to why (if you’re curious, go watch Lindsay Ellis’ videos on the two movies- I cannot recommend her content enough!!), but suffice to say the refusal to make changes to either show that fit the aesthetic and form of film makes their executions feel clunky and lackluster.

If this issue is prevalent in movie-musical adaptations of the last 10 years, it was even more so 50 years ago, and much more thorny to boot. Movie-musical adaptations then are comparable to Marvel movies today. They were the big spectacle blockbuster events of the season, and studios would sink millions of dollars into the production, promotion, and release of these films, even touring some of them on roadshows to build hype before wide releases. The problem was that not all of these big budget cinematic marvels were huge hits, and I’m sure it won’t shock you to know that two of the most infamous flops of this era, Camelot and Hello, Dolly!, were massive, $15-million-plus expensive attempts to recreate the magic of the original shows in order to squeeze as much money out of the prestigious movie musical genre that seemed while refusing to actually engage with the material in a meaningful way. They put the stage shows on screen, and while Camelot cut some things for time & Dolly added a Louis Armstrong cameo, not enough was done to either to make the musicals work as movies and both failed tremendously, both at the box office & with audiences. Dolly was so disastrous, in fact, that it became known as the one that maimed the genre into nonexistence for about 3 decades. There, of course, were still musical adaptations that popped up in the cinemas between 1970 and the late 90s/early 2000s, but they touted much smaller budgets, safer risks, and stories that worked well onscreen and kept up with the sensibilities of the times (as opposed to movies like Camelot and Dolly, both of which were accused of being outdated and out of touch with the prevalent social themes of the day). These films, such as Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, and Hair, performed well and received well and kept the genre alive long enough to see the release of Moulin Rouge! and Chicago, both of which are seen as responsible for putting the movie musical back on the map. (Quick side not before we get to the main attraction that the history I just detailed is a GROSS oversimplification of how all of this went down in the industry and I once again refer you to Lindsay Ellis to give you a better picture in her video “The Death of the Hollywood Movie Musical”).

Amidst all of this came a modest little adaptation of a modest (though award-winning and well-received) musical three years after Dolly crashed and burned its way through its wide release. The musical, and subsequent movie, was, of course, Peter Stone’s 1776. While it didn’t boast the massive budget of the infamous flops that predated it (only clocking in around an estimated $4 million), it did sport some of their other trademarks. For one thing, it was a musical about the founding of America that doesn’t comment all that much on how that creation led to the America we have today/had in 1972. While the musical notably did premiere during the Nixon administration and Vietnam, being lobbied by the administration to remove the song “Cool, Considerate Men” for its less-than-glowing depiction of the American right wing, it didn’t comment all that meaningfully on the world around it, opting instead for traditional sensibilities akin to what got Dolly and Camelot criticised for being out-of-date. Most notably, the adaptation AGGRESSIVELY refused to change the script or score of the show, putting the entirety of what could be seen in the Broadway run on film and even ADDING a few moments to bring the film to a whopping ~180 minute run time. The film also brought a majority of the show’s original Broadway leads onboard to reprise their roles, only adding to the feeling of the movie simply replicating the stage musical. And while the original theatrical release of the movie did cut down the runtime to just over 141 minutes, the spirit of a direct adaptation that makes no significant alterations to the source material was still present, and you should know the punchline already. The movie only earned just over $6 million at the box office, thus obtaining a meager $2 million in profit after breaking even on the budget, and was received pretty tepidly by critics and audiences despite using the same script and score that won the original Broadway production the Tony Award for Best Musical. Once again, a movie-musical adaptation didn’t engage with its source material to consider how it plays on the big screen, and so audiences found themselves bored and not caring a whole lot about the story of the fate of our country. By all accounts this film is an overlong mess that has absolutely no right to exist.

President Richard Nixon with the cast of  1776  after a performance in the East Room of the White House

President Richard Nixon with the cast of 1776 after a performance in the East Room of the White House

So… is it bad that I deeply love the fact that we have this movie in all its near-three-hour glory?

First off, I should lay my cards on the table and say that the reason I have such a strong affection for this movie is due to my love of the musical itself. 1776 is a musical that has some risky elements that pay off gloriously. There’s an infamous 30 minute Continental Congress scene in the play solely dedicated to the goings on in that Pennsylvania meeting hall, both on and off the record. Said scene has absolutely no music, sung or instrumental, which is a tricky thing to pull off smack in the middle of act one of your MUSICAL. And yet, the scene is brilliantly written and really helps immerse the audience in the history their watching and give it personality and stakes with spoken word alone. In fact, the whole show often reads like it should be a straight play, which would make a lot of sense for a realistic retelling of the founding of the United States as jam packed with dry political conversations as this show is. And yet, Stone insisted that this show had to be a musical, giving it songs to add variety and levity to a more serious and dry book. The music that was added has a consistent-ish period feel but can be very bombastic in style. The “Yours, Yours, Yours” scene comes right out of nowhere and sounds like a modern-ish love ballad and “Molasses to Rum” plays like a Scenes-From-An-Italian-Restaurant-style mashup of different motifs. And yet, that gamble pays off, too! Sherman Edwards’ score, though bombastic, IS outstanding, the lyrics are clever-as-all-get-out, the music is powerful, and you’re guaranteed to come out of the show singing at LEAST one of the songs. The antagonist songs are honestly intimidating, the happy songs are thoroughly joyful, you get a fantastic feel for the characters with each song, and John’s power ballad at the end is impressively poignant-- you really feel for his plight. And that score combines well with the book to give us a libretto filled with witty exchanges between our forefathers and some strong characterization for all of the show’s MANY main and supporting characters. I think it also resonates with audiences because (to steal some more from Lindsay Ellis) it’s very assuring of the American experience, showing the resilience of its people to create our great nation from the ground up and fight off the advances of its mother country.

Now, if this all works so well onstage, where did it go wrong on screen? Like I said, perhaps the biggest problem was the people behind the movie not editing a single thing about the original script so as to keep movie audiences engaged, making scenes that are riveting onstage into se quences too long and dry for the average moviegoer. The overall effect of this is a long and often tiresome experience as a LOT of the length is due to the endless dialogue in these drawn out congress congress scenes which onscreen doesn’t always come across as particularly exciting despite some smart comedy and strong drama interspersed into the scenes. It’s a long slog that amounts to what probably doesn’t feel like an impressive payoff. There is no big final song, no mind-blowing final line of dialogue; it simply ends with members of congress coming up and signing the Declaration of Independence one by one as the liberty bell rings.

Sorry, spoiler alert.

There’s also nothing added to the historical ending we already know: the declaration is passed and signed, America officially strives to become the independent nation we know today and it ends exactly how you could picture it ending: a bunch of guys in a room signing a big sheet of paper. Sure, they’re important guys in an important room signing an important sheet of paper, but the imagery wouldn’t be too stirring to your usual audience member in the middle of the Vietnam era. This movie came to us at a time of increased cynicism about the American experience and the movie almost seems to be attempting to reinspire enthusiastic patriotism without showing the audience any sympathy for the political turmoil that so many people felt during the war, which I believe only helped to turn people off to the movie.

Now, when you adapt something to the screen, if you’re not going to change all that much about the material for the screen you should at LEAST try to visually engage with the material in a way that justifies its existence as a movie. Basically, you’ve gotta ask yourself what the medium of film can add to the pre-existing work, and showing off cool cinematography techniques to add to the visual storytelling of the piece is one answer you could have for that. 1776 seems to attempt this, but its cinematography has a bizarre dichotomy between neverending medium shots and weird attempts at different angles and tricks at what feel like arbitrary times. For instance, in the Lees of Old Virginia sequence, there’s this bizarre long take where Ben Franklin is persuading Richard Henry Lee to get a proposition for Independence from Virginia’s delegation. It’s not a shot that directly faces our main characters though, like a lot of long takes in modern cinema. It’s an overhead as they circle around this giant fountain and you can’t help but focus not on the scene, but on how the lines they’re saying HAVE to have been dubbed in because there’s no way the dialogue could be heard from that far away. It’s distracting. There are no other shots in the movie like it and it just strikes you as so out of place. In “Molasses to Rum”, there’s this bizarre edit where we see Rutledge from both the front and the back as he re-enacts a slave auction, both of the shots kind of transparently laid over each other in a slow fade from one to the other. Why do they edit the song like that? Why are his movements in the two shot so out of sync sometimes?? WHAT DOES THAT OVERLAY MEAN??? Who knows, that’s just how the director and cinematographer felt like dealing with this song sequence. These decisions serve to only take the audience out of the experience while they scratch their heads as to why exactly the movie has decided to look like this all of a sudden, so its attempts at interesting visual storytelling isn’t an improvement over the original in any way. This movie reads and acts like a filmed play. Minimal changes to the script means minimal changes to the general tone of the piece means a very theatrical feel persists, which would turn off a lot of moviegoers. 1776 the movie is 1776 flavors of wrong when it comes to stage-screen adaptations. So… why do I love it so much?

For one thing, I’m going to admit here and now that I am a bit of a purist. 9 times out of 10, I’m a proponent of a musical being superior to any movie adaptation that may come of it because there’s a magic to a live stage show that most movies either can’t capture or most Hollywood bigwigs are too afraid to ACTUALLY try to capture, although I think there are some exceptions (I’ll always prefer the movie version of Hairspray to the stage show, for example). But this is a direct translation of the stage musical and honestly? It just works for me. Because the movie has that very stagey feel to it, I find it hugely entertaining EVEN in the drawn-out scenes in the Continental Congress. And moreover, like I said earlier I love how this script is written. The dialogue is fantastic. Unexpectedly raunchy when the show needs some levity (there’s a quip early in the movie when a delegate is missing a vote because he’s gone to the restroom that “Rhode Island passes”), dramatically affecting when a critical moment is at hand (a great moment when Adams and Franklin are fighting over a contentious slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence comes when Franklin yells in Adams’ face that “THE QUESTION HERE IS INDEPENDENCE!”), and overall just intelligent. I don’t know if I’ve EVER seen something as intelligently written yet thoroughly comprehensible as 1776, except perhaps Hamilton which, by all accounts, is its theatrical successor.

Another thing is, even though I was complaining about some of the bizarre cinematographic choices, I personally feel like the medium of film does add some je nais se quoi for the betterment of this material. First of all, the ability to film in different locales gives all the settings of 1776 a very authentic feel, while most productions of the musical, especially the original Broadway production, have a much less diverse feel to their set design. The movie feels like the late 18th century. You feel immersed in the time and place. And the cinematography has some fantastic moments, especially in the songs. The congress scenes do a good job at mimicking the mood of the scene, though it’s more so with the negative moods than the positive, whether it be claustrophobic, chaotic, lonely, tense, or happy & energized. And those songs! “Sit Down, John” has the freezing and unfreezing congress members, the bits with Abigail Addams have the gorgeous veil of a dream sequence, “The Egg” has those great shots of our main trio coming to a conclusion about our future nation, “Mama, Look Sharp” has that dramatic lighting and the fading in backup singers of McNair and the Leather Apron and that harsh fade back to congress at the end, “Molasses to Rum”’s weird half-fade thing, however bizarre I think it is, looks really cool and makes it cinematically memorable, especially when it finally focuses on one shot when Josiah Bartlet jumps up and has his line (“For the love of God, Rutledge, please!”), “Is Anybody There” has those great shots where John Adams is alone in Congress but filling the space with his commanding presence and resolve, “But Mr. Adams” has the staircase, “He Plays the Violin” has the waltz and the playoff, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” (my favorite song in the show if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose), has the minuet while Thompson reads the letter and the shot as they all come out of Independence Hall and board their carriages, the finale has the fade to the painting and the gorgeous long take, OH, it’s all just so darn good! The only song I can think of that has major problems cinematically is Lees of Old Virginia because of its overhead shots feeling weirdly voyeuristic. One could argue the high angle is meant to reflect Lee’s high-soaring optimism (though I somehow doubt that was the point since of all the shots in the song itself that are grounded and standard). That’s just one miss out of close to 20, though. These songs make what should be a 3-hour slog feel like a dynamic look into the birth of our nation.

AND THE ACTING! BY GOD THE ACTING!! This film has no huge names in it, no one you’re going to look at and go “OH I KNOW HIM/HER FROM THAT ONE THING” unless you’re an overly-obsessed broadway buff like me, a fan of watching Prolia commercials, or are one of those 90s kids who never lets us forget about “Boy Meets World” and just loves you some Mr. Feeny (seriously, while William Daniels is known in the TV world mostly as that dude who played Mr. Feeny in “Boy Meets World,” the Broadway community knows him as that dude who played John Adams in 1776). But these actors make up for unrecognizability with LOADS of believability and well-constructed pathos. This is a musical that just feels REAL. Like, sure, Ben Franklin breaking out into song may not be the height of realism, but to a great extent it feels like you’re taking a peek in on congress on those fateful summer days. Not once do I find myself thinking “wow that moment seemed really forced” or “what an awkward line delivery.” These actors are dedicated and invested, and their performances come out as nothing less than organic. THAT, more than anything else, is what keeps me engaged for those 3 hours. I think it actually HELPS that the biggest name in this movie is young Blythe Danner. If they had thrown in random star power, I don’t think I would’ve been as convinced of these characters. If that were… ohhh let’s say MICHAEL DOUGLAS admonishing congress in the opening number I would be too distracted with thinking “wait why did they put Michael Douglas in ANOTHER movie musical” to recognize him as John Adams in the flesh. If Lucille Ball were singing about “violin bow joke here” instead of the woman best known for being Gwenyth Paltrow’s mother, I’d probably be laughing too hard at that vaseline filter over her to be like “oh how cute Martha Jefferson is singing an innuendo song for her dear Tom.” This is a perfectly assembled and perfectly not-famous cast for getting this to feel just right. I think above all, the strong performances across the board are my favourite thing about this movie that keeps me coming back for more. These performances, these flawless embodiments of our country’s historical figures, take an artsy, MUSICAL retelling of America’s founding, and gives it a surprising integrity that’s hard to find anywhere else.

Overall, this movie in its undoctored cut is a bit of an overlong, probably-boring-to-most-people hot mess. But that’s kind of what I love about it. For all its flaws as a cinematic adaptation, 1776 trades that for succeeding in a way that very few movie musicals do- preserving its obscure source material to a tee in ways that feel moving, engaging, and oh so real, with ne’ery a blemish of self-embarrassment or stunt-casting-fueled bad performances in sight. This film is a direct theatrical translation and proud of it, a feat that, in my mind, puts it among my favourites in the movie musical genre. And maybe, if you give it a watch either on DVD, Blu-Ray or Putlocker (sssshhhh you didn’t hear that from me), it will for you too. With the 4th of July coming up, I cannot recommend enough that you find this movie somewhere and give it a watch. While you won’t find any great insights about the America of today packed into this movie, it more than makes up for its refusal to provide relevant commentary with the experience of watching a history teacher’s valiant attempt at breathing humanity into the stuffy John Trumbull paintings and stiff textbook lessons all of us take for granted about the creation of America DECADES before Hamilton made it cool. In my mind, this alone, along with the smart writing, fantastic cast, and brilliant score, make the locating and watching of the mythical, near-three-hour extended director’s cut worth every single second of the time you spend doing so. Happy early 4th of July to all my American readers, and happy watching to everyone willing to give this forgotten little cinematic behemoth a try.

Till then, I am as I ever was and ever shall be: yours, yours, yours truly,