Seeing as how it’s Presidents’ Day tomorrow, it feels only fitting to talk about a show which captures the very beginnings of the United States of America, 1776. 1776 opened on Broadway in spring of 1969 and was well received by critics and the public. A film adaptation was later produced, released in 1972, starring William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, and Ken Howard as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson respectively. I have watched this show almost every year for over ten years, generally around the 4th of July, as part of a family tradition. It was among one of the first musicals I was ever exposed to – which might seem odd, but makes more sense when you consider that my father has an avid and passionate interest in American History.
1776 tells the story of the creation of the Declaration of Independence and, as a result, the creation of the United States of America as we know it today. The main protagonist is John Adams, originally played on Broadway and in the film adaptation by William Daniels. John Adams was a congressman from Massachusetts, who would later go on to become the 2nd President of the United States in 1797. A staunch proponent of independence, he is not very well-liked in congress due to his argumentative and bombastic nature. But, with the help of his colleague Benjamin Franklin and the soft-spoken, but literarily inclined Thomas Jefferson, they accomplish something which had never before occurred in the history of the civilized world; a colony broke off from its mother country and declared complete political independence.
1776 could have easily been a straight play instead of a musical. After all, it is a historical drama, with many interesting and complicated political and social underpinnings to be discussed. Historical dramas aren’t often transposed into musicals, with good reason; many of the events would seem ridiculous set to song and dance, and in some instances it would be downright disrespectful to do so (a musical about Hitler wouldn’t go over very well…or would it?). But the fact that 1776 is a musical is, I feel, very important.
The musical numbers, dances, score – they all are tools, consciously used by the creators, to connect with the audience. It’s very easy to feel removed from history – it was all such a long time ago, after all. Even history that has personal significance can be hard to reconnect with. But by using a medium that is accessible to all, like music, and using it to help convey character’s motives, hopes, dreams, problems, and indeed the main conflicts facing the entire world of the story, the story itself becomes relatable and understandable. No, we weren’t there when John Adams was trying to get congress to seriously discuss the issue of independence, but we can all understand the frustration he feels at his inability to get anyone to listen to him, a frustration he gives voice to in song.
There are stories in each of us, stories that we may or may not know how to tell. I think it’s important to consider using mediums of communication that may be unique or atypical for the type of story we want others to understand. Are you trying to write an autobiography? Why not try writing it as a comic book? Trying to paint a picture of your favorite place in nature? Consider taking a collection of photographs and creating a collage instead. Give your audience, and yourself, opportunities to understand your material in new ways. It’s better to try something different and fail than to not try at all.
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