Ranking '1776' Track-by-Track for July 4th: John Adams, Ben Franklin...America!
The July 4th weekend approaches and that means your correspondent will engage in his yearly tradition of putting on the soundtrack to the Broadway musical 1776, nothing singing along and thanking the Lord that someone saw fit to give John Adams some credit for his significant role within the creation of this nation. The musical, composed by Sherman Edwards, revolves largely around Adams and Benjamin Franklin as they pressure Thomas Jefferson into writing the Declaration of Independence and the rest of the Continental Congress to sign it. Join as as we count down the tracks from the original Broadway cast, ranking them from least to most excellent.
NOTE: We left the introductory overture out. Sorry.
12) "1776 Ensemble"
This track, while ultimately playing a significant role in the historical plot, doesn't involve very much music and only spoken word vocals as the state representatives respectively count off their support of independence. It's not a bad track but it hardly deserves to be considered alongside the other musical numbers. West Wing fans will get a hoot early in the song when they hear the name of Josiah Bartlett, the real-life ancestor the president on the TV show, and New Hampshire's representative at the Continental Congress.
11) "Molasses To Rum"
We're not opposed to working in more controversial parts of history into this musical, despite its largely upbeat mood. We're not living under the delusion that the Continental Congress was solely a hearty tribute to personal freedoms, and we're aware of the cruel irony that the man who wrote that "all men are cerated equal" owned slaves of his own. We're not sold on the track "Molasses to Rum," sung by South Carolina's Edward Rutledge (Clifford David), which denounces the denunciation of slavery in the document and convinces the Congress to remove it. The song is the darkest on the soundtrack, which is understandable-we're supposed to realize slavery is an evil. We don't agree with the use of polyrhythmic drumming, meant to reference Africa, however. It causes the song to stick out like a sore thumb on the album, while giving the South a black eye...without reflecting badly on the Northerners who refused to stand by their anti-slavery rhetoric.
10) Is Anybody There?
Broadway is full of underdogs who overcome...it's one of the most popular theme in musicals ("Defying Gravity," anyone?). There was never any doubt that Adams was the main underdog in this production, as he had to pull off a miracle just to get the colonies to agree with his plan for independence before the United States could pull off its miracle victory over the British. Thus "Is Anybody There?" is the most stereotypical song on this soundtrack, featuring the future president calling out for support and describing how he'll never give up his righteous cause, even if no one takes up his side. The problem...is that this is the last true song in the play. It would have made much more sense at the other end of the production but we've gotten the idea by this point.
09) "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men"
Once again, we're not against displaying the anti-independence mood that pervaded the Congress for quite some time, but most scenes in this musical that don't involve Adams usually come up relatively flat. "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men" is led by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, leading those opposed to independence in a minuet describing the joys of life in British America. Although his points on why independence is risky are valid, the song devolves into a political commentary, allotting those against with the "right" and those now considered national icons as "the left." At the beginning of the United States, there weren't Democrats or Republicans...because they were combined into the Democratic Republican party. No need for contemporary complaints here.
08) "He Plays The Violin"
One of 1776's successes is incorporating the wives of the Founding Fathers into the plot. That's an endeavor that could come across as corny and lame, but the writers managed to make it both necessary and natural. One of the women involved is Martha Jefferson (Betty Buckley), who hasn't seen her husband in more than six months (more on that later). There's never been much doubt that Thomas was the sexiest individual at the Continental Congress—not only was he among the most intellectual...he was also among the youngest. Martha gets a solo opportunity to turn her husband into the world's most desirable man by describing the way he plays the violin. Maybe a metaphor?
07) "Yours, Yours, Yours"
There comes a moment during 1776 where the Continental Congress temporarily loses sight of its independence goal and becomes prepossessed with sex. This is probably the most historically accurate fact presented in the musical, as we can only imagine what months and months away from one's wife would do to a Founding Father. This song, shared by Adams and his wife Abigail (Virginia Vestoff), precedes the aforementioned song from Martha Jefferson. We'll give the Adams family the win between the two tracks however, as we appreciate the several songs in the soundtrack where Adams and his wife carry out conversations with each other via written letter/imagination. As Tom Petty notes, the waiting is the hardest part.
06) "The Egg"
If any song riles up those looking for historical accuracy in 1776, it's "The Egg." The track serves as the basis for the iconic imagery featured on the playbills and soundtrack albums, of a cartoon bald eagle emerging from an egg with a flag in its mouth. Franklin describes the very image during his part, suggesting that he and the rest of the Continental Congress were incubating an egg with the intent to hatch a new nation, which he symbolized as a bald eagle chick. This is preposterous, as the United States didn't adopt the eagle as its national bird until 1782, and Franklin famously proposed the turkey. All that said, the imagery is still nice so we'll allow it. It also nicely ties in the theme of the Philadelphia heat, which returns multiple times across the soundtrack.
05) "The Lees of Old Virginia"
This is certainly the most comic of the songs included in the soundtrack to 1776, but it is also among the most catchy (and packs a good dose of history as well). The scene involves Adams and Franklin drubbing for support for their proposal, and are approaching Henry Lee of Virginia. Although many many point to Washington and Jefferson as Virginians of note, the Lees were probably the most powerful family in the state, at least until the Civil War ended (Robert E. Lee of course led the Confederate Army, and his family's land was converted into Arlington National Cemetery as punishment). Henry is presented as a fan of himself in this case, notably emphasizing the "-ly" at the end of a long string of adjectives. Adams exasperatingly joins in to ensure that the state goes his way.
04) "Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve"
We mentioned earlier that Adams and his wife Abigail provided some of the best moments in the musical via their duets. Although the romantic number "Yours, Yours, Yours" is touching, the power dynamic displayed during "Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve" is entertaining and still relevant to those married 240 years later. Adams nags his wife to get the other women in Massachusetts to contribute more saltpeter for gunpowder for the revolutionary cause. She bounces back that the women could use more pins and eventually bullies her husband into acquiescing before promising him more saltpeter. The introduction to the song includes John solo, lamenting to God about how he would prefer natural disasters over the Congress he must currently deal with.
03) "Momma Look Sharp"
What eventually turned the real-life Continental Congress to adopt the independence movement? It sure wasn't the words of John Adams. If anything, it was events such as Lexington and Concord, where colonists were gunned down by British soldiers. It's tough to tie that scene into the Philadelphia-based musical however, so this scene works as an aside, described to the audience by a caretaker who has lost two friends in Lexington. The song is sung by a young boy, dying and calling out to his mother as she searches for his body on the battlefield. It's the most emotional moment in the musical, and meant to explain the change-of-heart among the Congress. Granted, historians would argue that the colonists weren't shot in the back quite as our star suggests, but as the narrative is being described from a word-of-mouth methodology, perhaps the writers are justified in playing with facts.
02) "But, Mr. Adams"
The longest track on the soundtrack, "But, Mr. Adams" brings the entire Congressional cast together to debate who shall write the document that would kickstart America. A number of candidates are put forward and each explain in-turn why they're a bad candidate. Franklin claims he can't write well on serious subjects, while Adams points out that he's "obnoxious and disliked" ("yes, we know"). Finally Adams fixes his gaze on Jefferson, who is planning to return to his home in Virginia for the first time in six months...to see that wife of his ("Mr. Adams, I burn!"). Alas, the more senior members of the Congress don't take hits lust into consideration and force the role upon him. It's humorous to see Jefferson as self-sympathizing character versus the comic book heroic image often thrust upon the Founding The Fathers.
01) "Sit Down, John"
It may be among the shortest tracks in the soundtrack, but it does as well to provide context for the production as any introductory number ever. Adams quickly makes himself evident as the protagonist by calling loudly for independence while the rest of the Congress calls even more loudly for him to sit down. That line reappears throughout the musical, as does the theme of the heat in Philadelphia, which the other members of Congress bemoan when they're not calling out Adams.