FOR LOVE OF LIBERTY (AND “1776”)
July 4, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
My love for Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776 continues to this day (especially on this particular date). But it was on March 15, 1969, nearly fifty years ago, when as a twelve year-old, I attended a Saturday matinee preview, prior to its Sunday night Broadway opening. There I witnessed for the first time a singing John Adams (William Daniels), Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) and Ben Franklin (Howard Da Silva), outed as the radicals they were in this radical show. It was a revelation; a delicate enterprise that could have collapsed under the weight of its own ambitions, only that’s not the way it played out. Under the keen eye and expert direction of Peter Hunt (then twenty-nine years old), a trepidatious balancing act was managed with grace and great good humor. It delivered a marvelously crafted book (considered to be one of the top three ever written for a musical), as well as witty and clever songs, loaded with erudite language that articulated political ideas without ever condescending to lecture. In our country’s current perilous climate, we need a reminder now more than ever of what we once stood for as a nation, especially as our Founding Fathers planned it.
1776's rocky out of town premiere in New Haven, Connecticut, came close to disaster, running out of money and running over three hours on its opening night. Well executed cuts and an angel (producer Roger L. Stevens) who wrote a check solved many of the shows woes, and things were much better by its next stop in Washington, D.C., even though it still faced a paltry advance sale of $60,000, not enough to run a second week if the reviews weren’t raves. When it finally opened at the 46th Street Theatre (since renamed the Richard Rodgers and, in a crazy coincidence, now the near-permanent home of Hamilton), a crazy thing happened: the damn thing worked! The next morning a line formed at the 46th Street’s box office all the way down to 8th Avenue, forcing it to turn the corner south to 45th Street, then extending east up towards the Imperial Theatre, then the home of the musical Zorba. Its producer-director Hal Prince quickly shot off a good-natured telegram to 1776's producer Stuart Ostrow, kindly asking him to remove his customers from in front of the theatre. All this was happening the same morning the Tony Awards nominating committee met to choose Broadway’s best of 1968–69. Coming in under the wire by a few hours, 1776 stole the thunder of not only Prince’s Zorba, but two of the season’s biggest box office hits, Hair and Promises, Promises. At the Tonys one month later, 1776 would win Best Musical and Best Director.
If all that didn’t supply enough drama, what had been going on backstage up to three days before 1776's Sunday opening certainly did. Howard Da Silva, playing the role of his career as Ben Franklin, collapsed at a rehearsal with a minor heart attack on Thursday. In a true moment of “the show must go on!” Da Silva refused medical treatment and performed in that evening’s show, as well as one on Friday, two on Saturday, and the opening on Sunday evening. When that curtain came down, a waiting ambulance took Da Silva to the hospital. The press release announced he had “pneumonia,” and Da Silva did not return to the show until months later, missing out on having his performance preserved on the show’s original cast album (his understudy Rex Everhart is heard on the recording). Luckily, when the film soundtrack was set down, the world would finally get to hear the wonderful mellifluous tones of Da Silva’s distinctive voice (to my mind EXACTLY how Ben Franklin must have sounded), as he, along with a majority of the Broadway cast, repeated their roles in the 1972 film version (also directed by Peter Hunt).
When Da Silva finally returned to 1776, there was no Ken Howard to work side by side with as Thomas Jefferson. For by that time, Howard had already left for his next acting job — a direct result of that infamous opening night. Peter Stone, the show’s Tony winning librettist brought a friend along that evening, the film director Otto Preminger, who liked what he saw (especially Ken Howard). The next day, the actor was summoned to the office Preminger had in the old Columbia Pictures building on Sixth Avenue and without so much as a reading, was offered the lead role opposite Liza Minnelli in Preminger’s upcoming film, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. With that, Howard turned in his notice and left the hit Broadway musical shortly thereafter, for what would be his first film role — part of a three-picture deal with Preminger.
As 1776 only gave six previews, when you add opening night to the total, it means that there were just seven times theatre audiences got to see William Daniels, Howard Da Silva and Ken Howard on stage together. I consider myself one of the lucky ones.
“The role of Jefferson is a tough part to cast and, boy, did we find out how tough when Ken left the show,” said Peter Hunt. “Nobody came close to Ken. Couldn’t touch him.” Funnily enough, the producer of 1776, didn’t want Ken Howard, and Hunt had to fight like mad for him to be cast. He and Howard had a relationship going back a few years via the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where Hunt had directed Howard in a number of plays and musicals. But Stuart Ostrow simply couldn’t see the 6'6" actor as the erudite and patrician Thomas Jefferson, due to Howard’s convincing portrayal of a Polish taxicab driver in the musical Promises, Promises at the time of the audition process. It wasn’t until the third time Howard came in, and his prepping a Shakespearean monologue, that Ostrow could be convinced that he was an appropriate choice. To add a little humor to the proceeding, Howard walked onto the stage and handed his Shakespeare text to the accompanist as if were his sheet music and he was going to be singing. It helped lighten the mood of the situation, as he was tired of re-auditioning, and Ostrow was equally tired of seeing him. Happily, it all turned out for the best.
And now we come to William Daniels in what can only be described as his galvanizing performance as John Adams in 1776. Oddly, the previously mentioned group of Tony nominators, in their infinite wisdom, decided that due to his billing below the title, Daniels would be considered in the “Featured or Supporting” category, as it was then labeled. When it was announced (coming as it did two days after Daniels received the reviews of his career, for what was his first lead in a Broadway musical), the news was not greeted kindly. Daniels immediately asked that his name be removed from the ballot, which was duly complied. And there is no question he would have walked away with the honor had the voters had that option, but this proud actor felt he had the absolute starring role and overrode the protestation of his producer, who wanted him to remain in the race for the good of the company (and good press relations). But Daniels held firm, allowing for Ron Holgate, appropriately nominated as a featured actor, to take home the Tony instead, for what amounted to no more than a scene and a song (the showstopping “Lees of Old Virginia”). Daniels, rarely off-stage and treated to the final, solo bow at its finish, remained as Adams for two solid years on Broadway — Tony-less, though forever its star. And thankfully, due to the film, his brilliant performance has been preserved forever.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.