20-Day Countdown! The Top 20 Tony Performances of My Lifetime: #6: 1776, 1998

Six days until the Tony Awards! We are at #6 on my 20-day Countdown of the Top 20 Tony Performances of My Lifetime.

Some things in life are joys.  Like listening to a 1998 audience laughing at jokes about 1776 written in 1969.  But this gem of a show (and I DEFINITELY mean gem!  I love it ENDLESSLY!), 1776, is so triumphantly enjoyable that I can't think of enough wonderful things to say about it.  Forget the awkward movie that Nixon censored, forget the unfeeling distant-ness of the original Broadway cast.  I'm talking about the stellar REVIVAL cast of 1776 that just cannot be matched in awesomeness.

If you don't know the show, it is obviously about our Founding Fathers (are we still capitalizing that in this day and age?) writing the Constitution.  Yes, you hear that and you think, that sure sounds like a drag.  But I assure you, it isn't.  The show is charming and fun and witty and funny and mostly follows John Adams, as he persuades his fellow men into the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  The characters are fleshed out and thought-provoking and not at all reeking of the pretension that the writers could have very easily stumbled into in tackling such a topic.  In one word, the show is charming.  Absolutely charming.

Sure, some of it is fictionalized; it's a freakin' musical, already!  But what wasn't a necessary change for dramatic effect stayed fairly true to history, and even the history fact-checkers will have to agree that the fictionalized stuff is more enjoyable!  Ha!  The original production opened on Broadway in 1969, ran for 1,217 performances, and won three of its five Tony Award nominations.  But hey, I wasn't alive for that one, so let's get to the revival!  The show was revived by the remarkable Roundabout Theatre Company, opened in August 1997, and closed on June 14, 1998 (Really?  You couldn't make it to July 4th?), after 333 performances and 34 previews, featuring a cast led by Brent Spiner (Star Trek's Data!) as Adams.  The revival was nominated for three Tonys, including Best Revival, but sadly, it didn't win (Come on, though!  It was going against the stellar Cabaret!).

Q: If it's so good, then why does it only contain fifteen songs, two of them being Overture and Finale, and most of them being ridiculously short?  A: It's interesting that you asked, because here's a tidbit.  The answer is simple: the show contains a hell of a lot of talking.  So much so, that it led some critics to wonder why it was made into a musical at all and not simply performed as a conventional play (What?  And miss out on those FABULOUS songs?).  Scene Three of the show holds the record for the longest time in a musical without a single note of music played or sung – over thirty minutes pass between song numbers. Various songs had been tinkered with, but nothing ever worked, so what resulted was one of the most nail-biting unbroken scenes in musical history. The scene was dubbed “Big Three" by cast members and for the first time in Broadway history, musicians were permitted to leave the pit in the middle of a show.  So, there you have it.  Between the ridiculous “Lees of Old Virginia" and my personal favorite, “But Mr. Adams," you just have to sit tight and wait.  But it's worth it!

So here, my fine friends, is a taste of the charm of 1776 with the 1997 revival cast performing an updated version of the 1969 classic at the 1998 Tony Awards.  Ha!  Numbers.  Numbers are funny.

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