Friday, July 3, 2009

Friday Dance Party: Independence Day Edition

I've written previously of my love for 1776, the unlikely Broadway musical concerning the creation of the Declaration of Independence. I first saw the thing in summer stock as a kid (with Joel Grey, of all people, playing John Adams), and realized even then what a special bird it was. The book is one of the strongest, most suspenseful, of any American musical, and can actually stand on its own without the music. The Founding Fathers are treated as men rather than icons (with the occasional twinkle), and the writers did a few amazing things. It's hard to imagine if you have never seen the show, but as soon as the piece begins, they manage to make you forget that you already know the ending.

The show won several Tonys in its original run, including Best Musical and Best Supporting Actor in a Musical, for Ron Holgate, who stars in this week's Dance Party. He, as well as many of the original cast, recreated their roles for the film version. A notable absence from the film was Betty Buckley, who had made her Broadway debut in the role of Martha Jefferson; the part went to Blythe Danner in the film (above). The terrific William Daniels, playing Adams, made a huge name for himself with 1776, both with his performance and with his off-stage ego. Back then, the Tony rules claimed that only actors billed above the title of a show could be considered in the leading actor categories, and Daniels refused to allow himself to be considered a supporting player in the piece. (That rule still stands, but the Tony committee gets together periodically and votes to waive it these days.) So, Daniels was never nominated for his stellar work in 1776, though he surely would have been a contender for the award (Jerry Orbach took the prize that year, for Promises, Promises).

I was privileged to appear in a staged reading of 1776 several years ago, as a special event to reopen the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Coincidentally, Tom Simpson, with whom I currently share the Wayside stage, tore the roof off the joint with his rendition of "Molasses to Rum" (and he had a cold, too!). There have been several local productions of the show in these parts, but no director has had the good sense to put me in one. Maybe one day...

When we were rehearsing for that staged reading (actually, FIVE readings, as we performed them all weekend), we realized another brave thing the authors had done. The third scene of the play takes place in the meeting room of the Continental Congress (as do most of the scenes) and is notable in that it contains absolutely no music. Of any kind. For over 20 minutes. It's said that this is the longest stretch of time in ANY musical without a song. The number below immediately precedes that long stretch, and is strategically placed in the musical to send the show off into Dramatic Scene Land with a big bang.

Here's Ron Holgate as Richard Henry Lee, being sent off to his state legislature to win a vote for Independence. Happy Fourth of July!

The big joke in the play is that Richard Henry Lee doesn't leave. He returns and stops the show again, with a reprise. They filmed it for the movie, but it was cut before release. It has since been restored in the Director's Cut DVD version. Here's more Lee: