Exactly 50 years ago, in March of 1969, I saw a musical that changed my life. It pointed me to a theatrical career AND kindled my life-long love of American History. Indeed, many of the stories I’ve filed here in my Milestones column also had their origins in that one magical evening.
The show was 1776, the Hamilton of its time. Just as improbable a hit as the latter—perhaps more so because it came first—it told the story of the Declaration of Independence, and put our Founding Fathers onstage.
It also knocked them off their pedestals and revealed them as flesh-and-blood men, full of vigor, rum and lust. The number of belly-laughs in the script completely belied its subject matter, and the suspense it created should’ve been impossible, given everyone’s knowledge of the outcome.
In a word, it was/is a masterpiece, and it grabbed me by the throat and has never let me go.
But back to the start. I was a freshman in high school, and it was spring break. My Dad, a professional comedian based in New York City, promised the family a night on the town that week.
He called from Manhattan to finalize our plans, and luckily, I answered the phone. “We’ll have dinner at the Friar’s Club, and then we’ll go out,” he said. “Would you rather see a movie or a show?” Having already had my Broadway baptism—he’d taken us to Fiddler on the Roof and some others—I was no fool about the choice: a live production was always a bigger treat.
“Let’s go to a show,” I said.
“Okay, I’ll see what I can get,” he replied.
He was phoning from his other theatrical fraternity, the Lambs Club, and when he hung up, he returned to his friends and asked for a recommendation. 1776 had just opened, to solid reviews.
“It’s a great one, Jim, and the kids will learn something too.”
Hours later, I was in a house seat at the 46th Street (now the Richard Rodgers) Theatre, Playbill in hand. I had no idea what was about to unfold.
A military-sounding march began to play, drums thundering as the lights faded to black. Suddenly, silence. Then William Daniels appeared in a spotlight as if by magic, just a few feet away.
For the next 3 hours, I sat transfixed as he channeled John Adams, pushing his fellow congressmen to declare independence. The songs fit the libretto like a glove, and the drama was riveting.
About half-way through the task looked impossible—even knowing the ending.
The finale, when the actors posed like the famous painting, then disappeared behind a scrim with the actual Declaration signatures projected, remains the greatest I’ve ever seen.
I studied the Founders like I did ballplayers…I performed one of the numbers with the high school choir…I won my Equity card in a revival, featuring some of the original cast…I grew old and bald enough to play Franklin in other versions, including one at my own Bickford Theatre, where it set the box office record. Oh, and now that they’ve stopped producing there, it’ll remain champ.