Liberty and Justice for...
Last time, we went a bit lowbrow, so in honor of the Fourth of July, this week at the movies we go more upscale, with another musical, 1776.
You may have heard that I grew up outside of Philadelphia. Channel 29 aired this every 4th, and my family and I watched this together. My parents owned the original Broadway album. Most of the musical cast reprise their roles in the movie; Rex Everhart, who played Franklin in the show while Howard da Silva recovered from a heart attack, is on the Broadway album, but da Silva is in the film. I much prefer da Silva’s voice, and he perfectly embodies the idealized jolly avuncular version of Franklin beloved in Philadelphia. Ben Franklin is our guy in this town, even if he originally was from Boston. Franklin’s visage and name are everywhere you look.
The main protagonist is John Adams, played by William Daniels. Yes, the voice of KITT/St. Elsewhere’s Dr. Craig/Mr. Feeny William Daniels! Adams is prickly, pushy, and demanding. He’s a member of the Continental Congress, the governing body for the colonies that will become the United States. (If you go to Independence Hall in Philly where the Continental Congress met, you get a weird feeling of deja vu, because the movie replicated the room in perfect detail.)
It’s June 1776. War with England is already raging, and General George Washington sends despairing missives from the front. Adams is insisting the Congress vote on his resolution to formally declare independence from England. But he’s obnoxious and disliked, so very few people want to join in.
And for me this is the weakest part of the story. Sure, this is a musical, not a seminar on colonial history, and the real reasons were complex. But the pro-independence side isn’t articulated very well. Franklin gets closest to a good explanation in this scene. We’re just supposed to sort of go with it, because we’re watching it in present-day America, so obviously we have to be on the same side. The side in favor of staying a colony of England is portrayed as the baddies, even though as Franklin chastises Adams, no colony had ever broken away from its home before, and this is a brand new idea, so give people a break already.
(I have a theory that white American colonists didn’t appreciate being treated like Jamaicans and Indians by the British. But anyway…)
We do have a ton of rollicking musical numbers, both extremely foot-tappable and historically accurate. It’s like the best Schoolhouse Rock of all time. I still know that Richard Henry Lee was the first southerner to propose the resolution for independence to the Virginia legislature because of charming Ron Holgate and “The Lees of Old Virginia.” I know who were on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence due to the very funny “But Mr. Adams.” (A buddy of mine from my junior year abroad in the UK — who’d played Adams in a school production — and I entertained ourselves one day by singing the whole song from memory, and doing all five parts between the two of us.) And there are the romantic duets between John Adams and his beloved wife Abigail (beautifully sung by the late Virginia Vestoff), especially “Yours, Yours, Yours,” which I made sure to include on my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary playlist.
Plus, without 1776, some guy Lin-Manuel Miranda would never have been inspired to write a little show called Hamilton (as he discusses with Daniels in this delightful 2016 conversation for Playbill). So, you kinda gotta watch it now, right?
What can we drink to invoke the independent spirit of the 1770’s. There was of course no wine industry in the colonies yet, so men of means drank imported French wine. Red and white Burgundy would be appropriate (pinot noir and chardonnay). If grand cru and premier cru aren’t in your budget, Village wines are often made from vineyards just next door to the more prestigious and pricey areas. And in honor of the Lees of old Virginia, it’s been a while, but I once had a great wine tasting at Williamsburg Winery. It’s near Colonial Williamsburg, which is like a big Renaissance Faire where folks cosplay as 18th-century residents. I remember liking the reds particularly well.
Since current events seem obsessed with returning us to these times, you may want to brush up on your powdered wig and hoop skirt etiquette. At least the film is a good one. USAians, enjoy the holiday weekend. I’ll see you with some actual new! wine content! next week!