Retrospective Review: “1776”-That Other Musical about the American Revolution

Year: 1972

Runtime: 141 minutes

Director: Peter Hunt

Writers: Peter Stone, Sherman Edwards

Stars: William Daniels, Ken Howard, John Cullum, Blythe Danner, Virginia Vestoff

By Joan Amenn

Before there was the phenomenon of “Hamilton” there was another musical depiction of America’s Founding Fathers called “1776” (1972). Nowhere near the worldwide smash hit of the later play, “1776” nevertheless was popular enough to be adapted into a film with much of the Broadway cast resuming their stage roles. There is even a small reference to “1776” in “Hamilton” which is obvious to anyone who has seen both musicals but will not be spoiled here.

As a musical, “1776” lacks the memorable music of “Hamilton” with a few exceptions. Its charm comes from depicting John Adams (William Daniels) as a sheer force of nature in his epic struggle to wring consensus from the delegates of the Continental Congress on the topic of independence. He has as his chief ally Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) and the two have great comedic timing. Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) is pressed into service to draft the Declaration of Independence because, as Adams admits, he is “obnoxious and disliked” and anything he presents to the Congress is sure to be dismissed.

William Daniels in 1776 (1972) © Columbia Pictures

“1776” lacks the memorable music of “Hamilton” with a few exceptions. Its charm comes from depicting John Adams (William Daniels) as a sheer force of nature.”

Jefferson longs to be with his wife Martha (Blythe Danner) even though he is committed to the cause of liberty. Adams shares his yearning as we see in reenactments of excerpts of actual letters he and his wife Abigail (Virginia Vestoff) wrote to each other. It is perhaps a tribute to their devotion and skill in correspondence that their duets together are even more touching then Jefferson’s reunion with his wife.

Blythe Danner, Howard Da Silva, and William Daniels in 1776 (1972) © Columbia Pictures

Certainly, Adams becomes a more fully developed character and not just a human bludgeon attempting to ram the square peg of American Independence in the round hole of reluctance on the parts of certain delegates. Meanwhile, George Washington sends a continual dispatch of gloomy and despairing updates on how slim the chances are of the new nation’s army defeating their British opponents.

“The real strength of the film is the sharp wit of the dialog which in turn is taken from the excellent book of the play by Peter Stone.”

Particularly heartbreaking is the song, “Momma Look Sharp” which tells of the loss of boys at the battle of Lexington and Concord sung by a young Courier (Stephen Nathan) from the front lines. As rollicking and fun as “1776” is, it does not sugarcoat the horrific price paid for the birth of the nation.

Howard Da Silva, William Daniels, and Ken Howard in 1776 (1972) © Columbia Pictures

The real strength of the film is the sharp wit of the dialog which in turn is taken from the excellent book of the play by Peter Stone. Whether it pokes fun at the Lee dynasty of Virginia thinking they are a little closer to God than the rest of humanity or at Ben Franklin’s awareness of himself as an international celebrity, there are plenty of laughs to be had at the expense of some of America’s institutions. As Adams himself says at one point, “…one useless man is a disgrace, two are a law firm and three or more are a Congress!” More than two centuries later, so much has stayed the same.

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