I SAY “VOTE YES!”
March 16, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
I certainly couldn’t let today go by without a shout out to the anniversary of the opening night on Broadway of 1776, which was forty-eight years ago tonight. I had seen the show the day before at a Saturday matinee preview from my perch up in the cheap seats, only twelve days after my 12th birthday. It cost me $3.00. Today, a Saturday matinee at the same theatre (the Richard Rodgers) would cost $139 for Hamilton. And that’s if you can get a ticket!
1776 is the show out of close to fifty years of theatre going that I paid admission to more than any other (13 times). I also stood in the wings watching the end of the show on countless occasions. I befriended the stage doorman, and for reasons I will never understand, he allowed me in after my usual Saturday matinee was over. Maybe he thought I was related to someone in the show. But since most shows in those days were never that long (two hours tops), 1776’s running time of 2 hours, 45 minutes made it possible for me to drop in whenever I felt like it. Permission of that sort is unthinkable nowadays. I was one lucky kid.
In my book, Up in the Cheap Seats, the chapter devoted to 1776 is titled “The Obsession.” Of the many shows I’ve seen in my lifetime, this one is as good as any to see over and over again. It’s one of the most finely crafted musicals of them all, with a book that is unmatched in its ability to survive perfectly fine without its songs — no small achievement. Librettist Peter Stone took composer Sherman Edwards’s concept about the supreme difficulties the founding fathers had in finding any consensus on what had never been done before: the breaking away of a country from its parent stem. Yes, this Revolutionary War was just that — an act of revolution. How Edwards made it sing is another major achievement.
I tell a lot of stories about 1776 in my book, but since I didn’t want it to be the size of Moby Dick, I had to do some judicious cutting. So in honor of the show’s birthday today, I’m going share one of my favorites that didn’t make the book. For those who have never seen the show on stage, there’s a sensational tableau at the end that really knocked the socks off everyone who saw it. The story of how it came about is a terrific one, and who better to tell it than the guy that came up with it: the show’s director Peter Hunt:
We were stuck on the ending. I knew it needed something more and so did my brother Gordon who saw it in New Haven and said, “There’s something about the end. It needs a HA! I just don’t know what that is.”
That stuck in my mind and later when we were out of town in D.C., I was sitting with Stuart Ostrow [the producer] in a coffee shop and I told him I felt we were still missing that final thing. And Stuart thought about it and said, “Well, maybe Sherman was right about that goddamn painting.”
You see, Sherman always wanted a scrim to come in that was the painting, but there are a number of troubles with that. One of which is that it’s not them signing it; it’s an imagined delivery of the document that never happened!
Jo Mielziner, our brilliant set designer, hated that notion with a passion! It was too realistic; there were too many people — but it gnawed at us that a button was out there that we couldn’t put our finger on.
Ostrow became obsessed with figuring this out and started to give in to Sherman’s idea of having the scrim come down so we see the men and go back into history. He shouted to me, “Let’s get Jo Mielziner in here right away.” So he calls his secretary and after a bit Mielziner comes toddling into the coffee shop. And when Stuart told him the plan, I thought poor Jo was going to burst into tears. That is, until he became livid.
Ostrow put his foot down. “We’re putting it in, Jo. Get on it! So Jo heads off down Pennsylvania Avenue to find a place to get the picture and copy it. And there’s silence at the table between Stuart and me.
“Jo’s really upset.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“And he’s a pretty famous guy, isn’t he?”
“Probably one of the best scenic designers alive.”
“Well, maybe we should think of something else.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
Then there was silence again.
Finally, Stuart asked: “Look, you’ve always wanted to do movies so what would you do if this were a movie?”
And I said, “Well, if it was a movie I would certainly want a really great tight shot of the signatures as the guys start to sign. Because we’ve set up it’s a death warrant and that signing is basically putting their names down on a document that will ultimately destroy them. So I think those signatures — ”
Then I burst out with it. “Wait a minute. Stuart, I have it. I have it!”
He said, “Have what?”
I said, “Look, we bring in a scrim, but instead of the picture, we have the bottom of the Declaration, which is just the signatures. Everybody knows John Hancock and you’ll now see the names of everybody.
And behind the scrim I’ll have the lighting people put in little pin spots that will light their faces — the faces of the men — and the audience will be left with just the document and then the curtain falls. That’s the popper!”
Stuart was overjoyed. “That’s great! Only now we’ve got to get to Jo Mielziner before he kills himself.”
So the two of us race out of the coffee shop (I don’t even think we paid the bill), and ran down Pennsylvania Avenue where we find Mielziner walking extra slow.
We caught up to him and said, “Jo, be of good cheer. Here’s what we’re doing.”
“Oh, that’s brilliant,” Jo said. “We can do this. Now I got to call Pete Feller’s shop and hope they can get it painted by opening night. That’s going to be tricky, all those signatures. You won’t have it here in D.C., and you might not even have it in previews, but we’ll do the best we can.”
So that’s how it was born. We did get it into a preview after spending a whole afternoon tech-ing it, hand-focusing all those little lights on each face. I had electricians crawling along the pipes like monkeys taking these low-voltage lights and focusing them on each of the characters.
It was going so well, but we had to contend with the actors complaining vocally while setting it up. They didn’t understand.
“Why does he have to mess around with this finish? Why do we have to stand here for hours while they’re lighting us?”
Finally, we got it set up to go and we tried it once with Peter Howard [the musical director] in the pit playing the piano.
When all of us out front saw it come together we started cheering and screaming and applauding, patting ourselves on the back and everything, and the cast said, “Can we see it?”
We shouted back, “No! You can’t see it — you’re in it!”
And I heard this to be true, and I believe it to a man, that whenever anybody left the show they came right back the next night to see that moment.
Both William Daniels (John Adams) and Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson) confirmed Hunt’s story for me. That once having left the show for good, they each went back to see the ending. Being in it, and feeling a part of it, but never being able to see it, forced them to seek out what it looked like — and they were not disappointed. George Hearn, who played John Dickenson on the national tour as well as later in its Broadway run, also returned after departing for good. He told me, “I’m not a super-patriot by any means, but it just killed me. When those bells started ringing it was simply magnificent theatre.”
I couldn’t agree more.
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 on Medium, and feel free to email me with comments or questions, at Ron@ronfassler.org.