Thursday, July 3, 2008

Musical/ Movie Recommendation: 1776

In preparation for Independence Day, I thought that discussing a movie that celebrates, somewhat inaccurately, the signing of the Declaration of Independence might be an interesting way of remembering our forefathers. 1776 (the musical, not the book by David McCullough) certainly has its detractors (I've spoken to theatre people who hate this musical with a burning passion), yet I have a great fondness for it. While movies and musicals based on any historical event are a risky venture (we know, for instance, that the Titanic is going to sink and that the Japanese will bomb Pearl Harbor), one of 1776's greatest strengths is that it builds suspense in such a way that the outcome does not seem completely guaranteed, despite the evidence to the contrary.

With a book by Peter Stone and songs by Sherman Edwards (who was once a high school history teacher), 1776 tells the story of John Adams and the other members of the Continental Congress, who engage in a heated debate regarding the validity and necessity of declaring the United States' independence from England. While this may not sound like a riveting story or a strong premise for a musical, it is surprisingly witty, charming, and sincere without becoming overly maudlin or sentimental. There is physical humor (two members of the Congress start fencing with their walking sticks), verbal sparring (Adams angrily shouts "This is a revolution, dammit! We're going to have to offend somebody!), and some surprisingly emotional songs (the powerful "Molasses to Rum to Slaves").

One of the musical's greatest strengths is that it refrains from portraying the founding fathers as a stuffy and humorless lot nor does it try to deify them. Instead, it shows their personalities and foibles; John Adams is "obnoxious and disliked" (there's even a song about it) and Thomas Jefferson yearns for his wife. Furthermore, the musical asks us to consider the problem that slavery and the slave trade presents, especially within a revolution that stakes its identity in the notion that "all men are created equal."

This is not to say that the musical is without its flaws. As I said earlier, some people hate this musical/ movie. There are stretches in both stage show and movie that don't have songs, which can make the plot seem to crawl. Then, of course, are the problems of historical inaccuracies, which would probably make any history purists writhe in agony. The most of egregious of these, Thomas Jefferson's declaration that he has freed his slaves, is particularly troubling given what we think we know about him and Sally Hemmings.

Nevertheless, in terms of remembering the importance of the Declaration of Independence and introducing it to students, it is not bad at all. An added bonus in the film is the presence of almost the entire original Broadway cast, led by William Daniels (better known to a certain generation as either Mr. Feeny of Boy Meets World or Kit the car from Knight Rider) as John Adams. While the musical/ movie may not convince anyone of the greatness of musical theatre, it can pretty much ensure that you will never look at the American Revolution in quite the same way again.