1776: Fifty Years of the Broadway Musical

By By Keith Mason, Ph.D.

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1776. Its simple title says it all. 1776, a significant year in United States history, tells the story leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The musical 1776 debuted on Broadway on March 16, 1969 at the 46th Street Theater (renamed the Richard Rodgers Theater). The mostly male cast featured William Daniels as John Adams, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson and Howard da Silva as Benjamin Franklin. Virginia Vestoff played Abigail Adams and Betty Buckley played Martha Jefferson. 1776 received the Tony Award for Best Musical. A London production debuted in 1970 and a film version was released in 1972 with many of the Broadway actors reprising their roles.

This article celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of 1776 with background and learning scenarios you can use with your students. 41 years later, Hamilton made a huge splash within musical theatre by also combining music and history.

Sherman Edwards, a former history teacher, wrote the 1776 music and lyrics. He also composed pop hits such as “Broken Hearted Melody” and “Wonderful, Wonderful.” Peter Stone wrote the 1776 book as well as screenplays for Charade, Father Goose and, of course, 1776 as well as television shows and stage librettos. Edwards and Stone used written documents to add authenticity to dialog and song lyrics of the featured historic figures. For example, the lyrics at the end of “Yours, Yours, Yours” were taken from letters between John and Abigail Adams.

Related in theme, David McCullough published his Pulitzer Prize-winning book 1776 in 2005; an illustrated edition appeared in 2007 that could serve as a useful pedagogical tool, especially for visual learners.

Learning Scenarios for 1776

1776 invites a number of learning scenarios as we mark its fiftieth anniversary. A curricular context can shape lessons such as concept-based or thematic learning, differentiation, learning styles, habits of mind, standards, projects or multiple intelligences.

Historical Musicals Students can explore musical theatre and research other musicals that depict obvious historical themes. These include Dearest Enemy, Hamilton, Miss Saigon, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Shenandoah.

Sherman Edwards Research Sherman Edward’s background. What profession contributed to his creation of the 1776 music and lyrics? What hit songs did he create and who first performed them?

Peter Stone What other scripts did Stone create besides those for the stage and film versions of 1776?  In which media did Stone work?

Broadway Theatres Students explore the history of Broadway district theatres in Manhattan. The book Playbill: At This Theater by Louis Botto and Robert Viagas and the Internet are useful resources. What musicals and plays have appeared at the specific theatres?

The Declaration of Independence Students analyze details about events that led to the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Is what we see and hear in 1776 historically accurate?

Read All About It Students interested in history and who learn best by reading could read excerpts or the entire 1776 book by McCullough. One portion could be chosen to create an additional scene to the original musical with dialog and a song for creative expression.

The Film Version Research the making of the film 1776. Who played roles in the film and where was it filmed? Was the film faithful to the original stage version?

The 1776 Score

Musicals tell much of the story through song lyrics. Consider 1776 songs for chorus or music class. What is the main message of each song? Who performs each song? Which songs serve as history lessons? What is the time signature for each song? Which are character songs? Which song was controversially cut from the film version at President Nixon’s request but later restored?

Summary

History has been prominent in select musicals for several decades. 1776, a popular historical musical, is found on both stage and screen. The fiftieth anniversary of 1776 invites us to revisit it and explore its setting, time period and musical score while celebrating the founding of our country.

Keith Mason, Ph.D. writes extensively about musicals in the curriculum and commemorates milestone anniversaries of musical theatre and film works.

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