Thursday, July 4, 2013


It's Independence Day, and Loretta and I intend to celebrate in the traditional American way—the way our forefathers intended for us to celebrate—cooking outside, eating too much food, and vegging out in front of the TV.

One of the things we will be watching is 1776. We watch it every Fourth of July. When we began this tradition, all we had was a crummy pan-and-scan videotape. However, several years ago we purchased the widescreen, director's-cut DVD, and we can now thrill at the sight of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, all singing at the same time.

William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, and Ken Howard in Widescreen Format

When the film was released, the reviewers were not kind. Roger Ebert called it "an insult to the real men who were Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest." Vincent Canby of The New York Times said, "The music is resolutely unmemorable. The lyrics sound as if they'd been written by someone high on root beer."

As much as I respect Roger Ebert's opinion, I would have to disagree with him on this. And as for Vincent Canby—I would like to ask him how, exactly, someone gets high on root beer. However, I will grant them both that movie musicals are seldom as good as the plays they are based on.

The play premiered on Broadway in 1969. It won three Tony awards, including best musical. I saw the touring production at Chicago's Shubert Theatre when I was in high school. My French class went to see it on a field trip. The play has nothing to do with France, of course; our teacher just wanted to make sure we saw it. (Because that's the kind of fantastic teacher she was.)

Fourteen years later, I played the part of Thomas Jefferson in a dinner theatre production of 1776 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I was in my early thirties—nearly the same age Jefferson was when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He was not merely the author, but one of its youngest signers. Today, I could play one the oldest signers. It would be fun to play Benjamin Franklin—he has some of my favorite lines—but I think I would also enjoy the role of Stephen Hopkins, the crusty Rhode Island delegate who is always shouting for rum.

One of Hopkins' lines goes something like this: "I'm going to the tavern. If you need me, you can find me there." The Hopkins in our production had a difficult time with this line. Instead, he would say, "I'm going to the tavern. If you need me, give me a call." The first time he said it in rehearsal, the director politely pointed out that the telephone would not be invented for another hundred years, and everyone got a big laugh out of it. However, it stopped being funny when he continued to botch the line in every rehearsal and even during performances. I'm not sure he ever got it right.

Maybe it was the heat. It was a typically hot, humid Indiana summer, we were all wearing heavy costumes and wigs, and the venue was not air conditioned. This leant authenticity to the opening number—in which Congress complains about the heat, the flies, and John Adams' incessant braying about independence—but made it difficult to concentrate. Whenever we were offstage, our thoughtful stage manager always made sure we drank copious amounts of Gatorade—which in some cases lead to other problems, as we all discovered that it can be difficult dealing with 18th century clothing when one "visits the privy," as they said in those days.

I had my own mishap (thankfully not privy-related) during one performance. It was the scene where Adams and Franklin visit Jefferson in his rooms, to see how the Declaration of Independence is coming along. When the lights come up, I'm scribbling away on a sheet of paper. I then read it, ball it up in disgust, and throw it away. I repeat this procedure several times, until Adams and Franklin enter.

During this particular performance, when the lights came up, I quickly realized that the stage crew had neglected to provide me with a quill. I had plenty of paper, but nothing to write with.

For a moment, I stared at the desk in a panic, trying to think of some business I could do with paper but no quill. Let's see... I could make paper airplanes and throw them at the audience... No, the airplane hasn't been invented yet... I could pretend to write, using my finger... Okay, that's just stupid.

Finally, in desperation, I picked up the stack of paper and threw it in the air.

I learned a valuable lesson that day: Every actor is ultimately responsible for his or her own props. After that, I always made sure I had a quill in my hand before I went onstage, although I needn't have worried. The stage crew never again forgot to leave one on the desk.

They had learned a lesson, too. During the scene break, they had to pick up the paper I left scattered all over the stage.

Thomas Jefferson, with Quill

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