By Steve Yates
Sherman Edwards, the composer and lyricist for 1776, was born in New York City in 1919. He was educated at both New York University and Cornell, where he was a history major. After a stint in the Air Force during World War II he served on the front lines of the public school system as a high school history teacher. During this time he also pursued a career as a songwriter and occasionally dabbled in acting. His interest in history, however, was what spurred him to research the idea for what eventually became the musical, 1776.
For several years Edwards tinkered with his idea of a musical comedy dealing with the behind the scenes aspects of the events leading to the creation of the Declaration of Independence. It was not until his fortieth birthday that he made the decision to leave his salaried position in academia to pursue the project full time.
For the next six years Edwards devoted himself to his project. As a songwriter, his only interest was in creating the songs for the show. Early on he realized that for the project to ever find its way to the stage he would need to find a playwright to flesh out the characters and story of the work. His quest for a librettist was met with continual rejection and frustration. Every writer he approached flatly rejected the idea of a musical depicting the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence as patently absurd.
In spite of continuous rejection, discouragement, and a rapidly dwindling savings account, Edwards forged ahead. If no one would write the libretto for him, he would do it himself. Edwards spent the next several months researching the historical context of 1776. His historical data was culled from the Rare Manuscript Room of the New York Public Library, Pennsylvania Historical Societies’ libraries, and his own extensive personal library of American history. Five years later, Edwards emerged from his library with a manuscript for 1776 tucked under his arm. The story’s journey to the stage, though, had just begun.
For two more years, Edwards was met with rejection after rejection from skeptical producers. In addition to the same old arguments that he had heard years before--that the play could not possibly have any “modern” relevance or interest--the escalating Vietnam War had also thrown a wrench into the mix. Student protest movements and social unrest during the years of 1967 and 1968 had created a climate of political distrust and an atmosphere where the idea of patriotism was regarded by many as nothing more than a curious relic from a dead era. How could a story celebrating independence, patriotism, and the birth of such a now-troubled nation possibly succeed at the box office?
Producer Stuart Ostrow, however, caught the vision. He saw the spirit of rebellion and anti-Establishment sentiment portrayed in 1776 as actually being perfectly suited to the troubled ’60s and agreed to produce the show. Ostrow did feel that to be successful a more stage worthy version of Edwards’ work would need to be written.
Once again a librettist was sought. Ostrow went to Peter Stone who, interestingly enough, had been approached many years before with the same task and had rejected it as undoable. This time Stone, caught up in Ostrow’s enthusiasm and taken by Edwards’s songs, saw that the times indeed had changed and perhaps now the time was indeed right.
He accepted the project and re-wrote the libretto.
Peter Stone may have been the perfect choice to be 1776’s librettist. No stranger to the world of theatre, he was born in 1930 to the late film producer and writer John Stone. After earning his bachelors of art degree from Bard College in New York, and later his master’s degree from Yale, he spent the next twelve years in France writing for stage, screen, and television.
By 1961, Stone had already breached the Broadway ramparts with his libretto of Kean, a musical based on a play by Jean-Paul Sartre about the nineteenth century American actor Edmund Kean. In 1962 he earned an Emmy for his work on the television series, The Defenders, and in 1964 took home an Oscar for his screenplay, Father Goose.
The challenge of writing a historically-based work like 1776, according to Stone, “is to make it accurate and interesting; the truth and drama aren’t necessarily compatible.” (“Peter Stone’s Declaration,” Blake Green [Newsday, August 13, 1997], 8). Stone’s task of creating a historically acceptable, yet dramatically satisfying, stage production was no doubt made at least somewhat easier by Edwards’s “copious research into the various personalities” (Green, B10) of the play’s characters. Admittedly, both authors took some minor liberties with certain aspects of the tale, but largely they stand by the historical veracity of the overall work. (The Penguin edition of 1776, A Musical Play [Penguin Books, Ltd.,1976] includes a more in-depth discussion by the authors on historical aspects of how they developed the story of the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence in the absence of detailed transcripts of the actual proceedings.)
At last, after a long and convoluted journey, 1776 was pronounced complete and ready to hit the stage.
In initial pre-New York runs of 1776, audience turn-out was marginal and disappointing at best. No major stars in the cast and all of the other pitfalls predicted by skeptics seemed to indicate that 1776 would become just one more soon-to-be-forgotten musical. As it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth.
The musical opened at the 46th Street Theatre on Broadway on March 16, 1969 to rave critical reviews and tremendous attendance. For over three years, 1776 packed the house--not only on Broadway, but also across the country when a touring company took the show on the road in April of 1970 to visit some of America’s larger cities. Response was so overwhelmingly positive to the tour, that a second company was organized that September to tour the country’s smaller cities.
After an impressive 1,217 performances, 1776 finally closed on Broadway on February 13, 1972. During its first season, the musical received the Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle awards for best musical. Additionally, Sherman Edwards was given a Tony Award for best music and lyrics.
A film version was later written by Stone and released in 1972. Like the stage version, it received enthusiastic critical praise. In celebration of the United States bicentennial, 1776 went on the road again, touring forty-six American cities between 1975 and 1976. Most recently the musical enjoyed a successful revival--only slightly revised by Stone--at New York’s Roundabout Theatre in 1997.
Sadly, Sherman Edwards died in Manhattan of a heart attack on March 30, 1981, and was unable to see the revival of his most cherished work. He was 61. In addition to 1776, Edwards is remembered by the musical community for a dozen top-ten songs that he wrote, as well as numerous songs written for five Elvis Presley movies. He also worked on several television shows and other Broadway musicals.
Peter Stone continues to write for Broadway. His musical adaptation of Titanic, which first opened in 1997, was his fourteenth Broadway production. Other Broadway credits include the musicals My One and Only, Sugar, Two By Two, and his collaboration with Erich Maria Remarque on the play Full Circle. Stone is the author of more than two dozen feature films, including The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Mirage, Arabesque, Sweet Charity, Skin Game, Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? and most recently Just Cause. He has been president of the Dramatists Guild, the national society of playwrights, composers and lyricists, since 1981.