by Sam Juliano
Note: This review, first published at WitD on July 5, 2009 is re-printed today to honor and acknowledge the 4th of July holiday stateside. It has been substantially revised:
Back in 1972, upon the release of the film version of 1776 Vincent Canby opined: “The music is resolutely unmemorable. The lyrics sound as if they’d been written by someone high on root beer, and the book is familiar history, compressed here, stretched there – that has been gagged up and paced to Broadway’s not inspiring standards. Yet Peter H. Hunt’s screen version of 1776, a musical play I somehow didn’t see during its three-year Broadway run, insists on being so entertaining and, at times, even moving, that you might as well stop resisting it. This reaction, I suspect, represents a clear triumph of emotional associations over material.” Others, like Rex Reed were not so hospitable, likening the film and the show it was based on as “a history lesson for the mentally retarded.” The roll-out for the movie was most extravagant as it premiered at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall near the very end of that cultural landmark’s status as a movie house, before its advent as an exclusive concert venue. (As a 17 year-old I saw the film during its run here, and vividly remember being assaulted by a Bob Dylan-The Kinks-John Lennon loving friend who accompanied me to the screening with a few others, and who vociferously objected to some of the film’s cornball song lyrics, telling me at the end of the film: “You’re dead Juliano!).
1776 is a musical treatment of our nation’s defining historical coda, and its two-fold aim is to inform its high-profile independence-seeking adherents, while simultaneously chronicling the electrifying drama that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the numerous obstacles that preceded it. The famed document of course, penned by Thomas Jefferson for the Second Continental Congress is one of the world’s treasures, and the wrangling that both and inspired and compromised it is the real subject of Stone’s theatrical work. Back in the 70’s before the artistic rehearsal that now has plays regularly being based on films, it was fashionable for critics and jaded audiences to dismiss film adaptations of Broadway as some sort of violation of form. Yet, while there can be no doubt that the theatrical intimacy that characterized many stage works could never be rendered full justice on film without the regular cry of staginess, there can likewise be little question that film can allow for the “opening up” that can eliminate the claustrophobia evident in drama mainly played out in meeting halls. Such is certainly the case with 1776, a project that literally calls out for alluring Colonial era settings to compliment the defining garb of the period. Director Hunt makes fine, if modest use of ornate gardens, town squares and the exterior environs of Independence Hall, while not losing focus of the show’s prime focus, which of course is the drive to create a new nation. Hunt provides some attractive saturated fantasy sequences in which John and Abigail Adams meet and sing of their eternal love and familial commitments, and a delightfully cornball scene in which Ben Franklin and John Adams join Martha Jefferson for a dance in her garden as she sings her love for Tom. (“He plays the Violin.”) Harry Stadling’s widescreen cinematography makes excellent use of sepia-tone filters and muted color as a deft replication of time and place, yet there is also a sweeping visual panorama that makes full use of the rectangular compositions, and the placement of characters within a frame. (more…)