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The Function of the Songs in 1776

By Christine Frezza
From Insights, 2003

 

A musical would be nothing without songs, people say, yet 1776 has a very strong story, the debate which led to the creation of the Declaration of Independence. One might think that music would be superfluous, but Sherman Edwards, composer and lyricist, has written music which comes from the same sources which inspired John Phillip Sousa and Aaron Copland, music with a recognizably frontier and patriotic flavor, and music which serves to enhance the story and, occasionally, to become part of the plot.

The first song, “Sit Down, John” pits John Adams against the Congress, showing the two forces in opposition by alternating Adams’s solo verses with a repeated chorus sung by the Congress, both insistent in their own way. The song cleverly and artistically takes care of the usually difficult task of the playwright--delivering an exposition necessary to explain the back-story and viewpoints of alternating forces, but relying on words, rather than action to get its message across. “Sit Down, John” gives the audience a protagonist with which they can sympathize since the soloist, John Adams, gets a story to sing, while the Congress is reduced to repeating the instruction “sit down.”

This first number segues immediately into “’Til Then,” sung by both John Adams and his wife, Abigail, counterpoising domestic longing against civic duty. This song will come back several times throughout the play to remind us that Adams is sacrificing his real life for American liberty. The song is brief, and quickly interrupted by “Sit Down, John” to drag Adams back to political necessities.

“But Mr. Adams,” written for the five men charged with creating a Declaration of Independence puts forth the idea that the document must be written convincingly enough so that the states agree to it unanimously. Three of the five committee members refuse to write it, singing in comic rhyme (for example, Connecticut and predicate) of their reasons, while John Adams, as chorus, reiterates as his excuse that he is “obnoxious and disliked.” Thomas Jefferson is the man, and his excuse of being newly-married is trumped by Adams who pleads his own longer separation from his wife. Jefferson’s reluctance is echoed by the shape of his verse, which exchanges the comic rhythm and tempo of the preceding members, and slows to a wistful lover’s lament, quickly capped by a reprise of the comic choral movement at the top.

When Adams and Franklin bring Jefferson’s wife to him in the hopes it will encourage his writing, the joy with which they greet each other inspires a full-length love-song from the Adamses, “Yours, Yours, Yours” to which “’Til Then” now becomes a coda. The “old” love of John and Abigail transforms next to the “new” love of “He Plays the Violin” sung primarily by Martha Jefferson, with small parts by Adams and Franklin--the one real dance number in the show.

The production takes a serious turn with “Momma Look Sharp,” a modal soldier’s lament, sung by the courier, an anguished reminder of what everyday people, soldiers and their relatives, will sacrifice for liberty, not only marital happiness, but life itself. The tempo is slow, the melody plaintive, a tragic lullaby, and the composer resists the temptation to build the song into the triumph of the Revolution, recognizing that national victory cannot always vanquish individual agony.

In Scene 6, the action is back in Philadelphia, as the three backers of the Declaration of Independence squabble over selecting the national bird. “The Egg” is a song of vigorous determination for the eagle (on Adams’s part) which will “crack the shell of the egg that England laid.” It is as much his wit and wordplay as his conviction which wins over Franklin and Jefferson to his choice. Faintly, the words of the Declaration can be heard for the first time.

Argument over the new Declaration reaches a climactic point with Rutledge’s singing of “Molasses to Rum” which is both a lament and an outburst of anger at the insertion of a clause abolishing the slave trade. He accuses the northern states of hypocrisy in their willingness to profit from the output of slaves while decrying the existence of slavery. Musically, “Molasses to Rum” is the most powerful song in the play; its savage, lyrical rocking motion, gives a feel of the lash, the ships carrying slaves. The melody line sounds like an auctioneer, and the change to a percussive accompaniment reflects the rapping of his gavel on the block.

John Adams’s reverie “Is Anybody There,” sung near the end of the show, expands a phrase in George Washington’s latest dispatch, and translates it to renewed commitment. The song builds to a paean of liberty “I see all nations free forevermore” and becomes the musical equivalent of the Declaration of Independence itself.

Wisely, the composer doesn’t try for a big musical ending in “Finale,” but underscores the singing of the Declaration with the ringing of the Liberty Bell, leaving the audience to reflect on the struggles and the sacrifices these Americans made to ensure our future.

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