July 4, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Well, it’s the Fourth of July, and if you’re a fan of Turner Classic Movies (and who isn’t?) it’s time for that indispensable channel’s yearly screening of 1776. Hot on the heels of last night’s premiere of the original cast of Hamilton on Disney +, it seems as good a time as any to celebrate both while we celebrate the birth of America (for better or for worse).
As I’ve confessed countless times, I have a deep connection with 1776, mainly due to my love of the original Broadway production, which I saw on March 15, 1969 at a preview the afternoon before it opened. It was the first time I had the chance to make up my own mind about something before the critics weighed in and it was inspiring. I had turned twelve-years-old eleven days earlier, and this was one of the first times I went into New York City by myself from my home on Long Island to see a show “up in the cheap seats.” And for my $3, I got one of the most unforgettable stage experiences I’ve ever had.
A musical about the delegates to the Continental Congress debating over American independence? A singing John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. It should never have worked. And yet, it snuck in on the last day of Tony eligibility, and won Best Musical over that season’s hits Hair and Promises, Promises. The reviews were over the moon. In fact, I’ve taken the time to collect some choice review quotes from Hamilton and 1776 in order to show that you really can’t tell the difference between which is which. Take a look and try and figure out:
“The most exciting and significant musical of the decade.”
“One for the ages … a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience.”
“One of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in the theatre.”
“A ground-breaking, one for the ages tale … an amazingly thrillingly multi-layered musical.”
“An American musical milestone.”
“A musical with style, humanity, wit and passion.”
“A brilliant and remarkably moving work of theatrical art.”
“We now have an addition to the small roster of American musical classics such as Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma! It’s a new kind of musical, new in every way, shape and form.”
The first four were written for Hamilton; the last four for 1776. Indeed, history repeats itself, albeit close to fifty years later.
In my book, Up in the Cheap Seats, the longest chapter belongs to my personal history with 1776 as well as the history of its unlikely success. I was fortunate to interview a good many who played the show on Broadway in its original production. From the star of both the play and film, William Daniels, to such stalwarts as a quartet of Tony Award winners John Cullum, George Hearn and the late Ken Howard and Gary Beach.
I have many behind-the-scenes stories about the show’s birth pangs. Here’s just one I’ll share that I adore. It’s from Peter Hunt, a dear friend who passed away in April, who was the original director of 1776. It’s important to note, that when he was hired, the twenty-nine-year old Hunt had never directed a Broadway show. In fact, the night he received his Tony he had only just turned thirty, still to this day the youngest person to ever win as Best Director of a Musical.
As for this story, here’s a little background: By the time of 1776, one of the most in-demand choreographers on Broadway was easily Onna White. In fact, she would achieve the rare distinction of being voted a special Academy Award for the dances she created for the film Oliver!, one month after 1776’s opening night.
White was everyone’s top choice for 1776, but not fully understanding or appreciating the show upon reading it and hearing the music, she turned it down. Forced to move on, producer Stuart Ostrow and Hunt chose Rhoda Levine, a young choreographer with no Broadway experience, and then considered a rising new talent:
PETER HUNT: “I gave Rhoda the task of staging ‘Sit Down, John’ while I attended to other things. Then when I came in to see what she had done; I couldn’t believe it. She had ordered in hamburgers and had these members of Congress hurling meat patties at each other. It was insane!
I brought Stuart in and said, ‘She’s got to go.’ And she was gone.
We had to keep going and since I’d always staged my own musical numbers when I directed at Williamstown I dove in and fixed ‘Sit Down, John’ and worked a bit on ‘Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.’
Meanwhile, Stuart went about trying to get Onna White interested again.
Good producer that he is, he got a suite at the Plaza and ordered in a grand piano, brought in champagne and caviar, and invited Onna and her agent to come up and listen to another Sherman Edwards play-through.
Sherman is playing all the songs and Stone is tap-dancing the book and Onna gets up and says, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t see it’ and walks out.
And we’re like, ‘My God, my God…’
Stone finally says, ‘Everybody grab all the champagne and caviar!’ And we got laundry bags and loaded it all up to take home.
Then Sherman Edwards did something that I swear tipped the balance back in our favor. We were walking through the lobby and there was a young married couple — just married — on their honeymoon, I think. And they were seated looking miserable and Sherman started talking to them. The Plaza didn’t have their room. So, Sherman handed them a key and said, ‘Have a great night.’
And I thought ‘Sherm, what a wonderful thing you did.’
Then at three o’clock in the morning I get a call from Ostrow saying ‘You are going to do a run-through tomorrow for Onna White.’
I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. They’re not ready for a run-through.’
Ostrow said, ‘You’re doing it!’ And he slammed the phone down.
The next morning, I tell the cast and I’ve got a riot on my hands. ‘We’re going to do it, guys. We’ve got to.’ So they sucked it in and did it in the rehearsal room for Onna. It almost looked staged the way they did it.
When it was over, she stood up with tears streaming down her face and said, ‘I have to do this show.’”
White’s work may have only covered the waltzes in “He Plays the Violin” and the group work for the ensemble of “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” but it was all, according to Peter Hunt, “brilliantly done.”
PETER HUNT: “Onna was so supportive and her eye was so good, and she was such a love to work with… well, she just saved my ass.
And the most important thing I remember was when we were rehearsing at the Lunt-Fontanne and Stuart walked in and we were doing ‘Sit Down, John.’ He yelled out from way in the back, ‘This damn thing! Onna, when are you going to fix this number?’
She yelled back, ‘Stuart, never! It’s perfect.’
She’d never even told me that. And Stuart said, ‘Oh,’ and he turned around and walked out.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.