July 4, 2022: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

Can't let July 4th go by without my annual tribute to the musical 1776, a brilliant piece of theatre (IMHO) that managed to make a subject with little to no suspense as tense as a thriller. It was pulled off partly by way of a calendar placed on the wall of Independence Hall, the invention of playwright Peter Stone. It was his ingenious idea to display one on Jo Mielziner's Tony-nominated set, not only to keep track of the months the play covered but serve as a ticking clock, something he also did a few years later with his screenplay for The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, which had a miniature time stamp shown in the corner of the screen. What's extraordinary about 1776 is that EVERYONE knows the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, and yet the show surprisingly makes it seem impossible that it will ever become a reality. And the buzz in the theatre was a palpable thing when McNair, the Congressional Custodian, tears the page to reveal "JULY 4th."

The calendar and the tote board, neither of which were in Independence Hall, but played major roles in the stage production of "1776." Photo by Martha Swope.

I saw the original Broadway production of 1776 a dozen times between its opening weekend in March of 1969 and its closing one in February 1972. I also have great affection for its film version, mostly because most of the original cast recreated their roles. The play's Tony Award winning director, Peter Hunt, repeated his assignment (his first film). The stage production had been his first Broadway directing gig, as prior to that, he was a lighting designer. I was privileged to befriend Peter in the last years of his life (he passed in 2020) and he regaled me with soooo many stories about his life and career, but especially 1776. Many I've posted already, so in the interest of something new, here are some moments from time I spent with him; verbatim talks, on the casting of William Daniels (John Adams) and Howard Da Silva (Benjamin Franklin).

At our first meeting, I mentioned to Peter that I had just read the autobiography of Stuart Ostrow, the producer of 1776, that went by the unwieldy title of Present at the Creation: Leaping in the Dark and Going Against the Grain: 1776, Pippin, M. Butterfly, La Bete & Other Broadway Adventures.

PETER HUNT: Well, let me tell you... Stuart's book is filled with inaccuracies about 1776. Everything about it is wrong. 

RON FASSLER: I began to think that when, in the chapter he devotes to 1776, he doesn’t even mention William Daniels. How could he write about that show and not mention his pivotal casting and contribution?  

PH: Selective memory. It’s Stuart. I couldn’t tell you. First of all, Bill was Adams from the beginning. He was Adams before I was the director. I had to approve him, but he had it. 

RF: Bill told me he came to see you and you had somebody else in mind. 

PH: No.  

RF: You came in after they thought they were going to get Sir Peter Hall to direct, right? 

PH: Yes, but Bill was always the one they wanted, although we did have auditions and brought in a couple of Adams’. And there was one actor who’s no longer with us, Danny Meehan [the original Eddie Ryan in Funny Girl], and he had on this shiny suit… normally in auditions I don’t say anything. I prefer to let the actor… they’ve worked hard on it… they’ve gone to acting coaches, even in those weary days. And they’re so prepared, sometimes overly so, and I just want to see what they’re bringing to the party. So, I’m kind of the silent person in the audition. Now if someone is really going off wrong, I’ll say something. In the case of Danny, he was going down a road where he was shooting himself in the foot. So, when he finished, I said, “Danny, can I talk to you a minute?” And I came down to the edge of the footlights and motioned him over. And he came over and crouched down to talk to me, and his pants split. And it made this tear sound you could hear to the back of the balcony. And he said, “Oh my God." I said, “It’s okay, you’re facing front." But no, he said he couldn’t do it with the rip. I said “It’s up to you, but if you want to go home and change and come back…” and he was like, “No, no… I can’t, I can't."

RF: The poor guy. 

PH: His entire self-confidence just went out the window. So, I do remember that, and I think we probably saw a couple of other people, mainly to be kind to the community, but Bill was set. As was Franklin.

Howard Da Silva as Franklin (" a bit gouty in the leg") in "1776." Photo by Martha Swope.

Here, Peter is referring to Howard Da Silva who played Ben Franklin in both the stage and screen versions of 1776, but there were problems as far as that was concerned. Big problems.

PH: We didn’t even see Franklins. Howard was promised the part by Sherman – by Sherman! – that’s how far back he went [Sherman Edwards, the composer of 1776]. And he was also promised that he could direct it, which created tremendous problems for me in rehearsal. Tremendous! He was a monster! He was just impossible to work with. 

RF: And then, of course, the story of his heart attack on opening night. 

PH: Well, I certainly admired him for that. He had it during the tech rehearsal on Thursday. He suddenly stopped and started grabbing at his clothes and the guys got a hold of him and they tore his shirt off and they took him out in the alley and gave him CPR and the paramedics came and they got him to the hospital. And they said you’re going to have to have heart surgery. And he said, “No, I’m opening the show. And then you can do with me what you wish.” 

RF: So he came back and played Thursday, Friday, two on Saturday and opening night on Sunday? 

PH: Yeah, he played all of those shows with a doctor in the wings. And Sunday night [opening night] he walked right out the stage door in costume and into a waiting ambulance. And he was off to the hospital. 

RF: No cast party. 

PH: He was operated on the next day, which is why of course he’s not on the cast album. 

RF: And the story in the papers the next day was that he had pneumonia. I remember that. 

PH: Yeah. And one of the greatest pieces of luck ever is that we had Rex Everhart ready to go on. And we’d had him since New Haven because Howard had quit. 

RF: So is the story true that he actually missed a performance and Rex went on for him?

PH: Not true. 

RF: That’s what Stuart wrote – that Rex went on for him. 

PH: NO!! 

RF: I figured that was wrong because Ken [Howard] said he never went on. 

PH: No, he never went on. Fucking Ostrow, he’s a liar. No! What happened was that I was… well, first of all, I came up with this whole idea of lifting the middle out. And the middle of the show, the end of the first act was the most exciting thing in the show – ever! And we rehearsed it more than anything else in the show. The shooting of the ducks… I had a marine drill sergeant with us and gun experts and everything… all choreographed. And it took hours and hours to get it just right. One row loads and one primes, and one fires. And these muskets are firing through the air – POW! And they had blanks in them. And the sound department had these geese flying through the air. And the orchestra with this great orchestration is playing. And Adams walks down to the edge of the stage and has this wonderful speech. “There you are, King George, you Hessian! American firepower! Shoot you beauties! Wham! Shoot! Wham!” And the orchestra is blowing its brains out and the curtain falls, and the audience was on its feet and it was just to die! And then we go back to a tavern where Franklin had a bawdy song with a doxy and then we finally go back to Independence Hall and talk about signing a piece of paper. It was deadly.

And I said we have to get rid of it. We have to take the whole middle out and glue the whole thing together. And I got Stone to go along with me, because he understood, even though the sequence was outstanding.

But back to Howard. I didn’t want Howard for the movie. I auditioned a lot of Franklins. 

RF: Really? 

PH: I did not want to deal with him again. Especially on my first movie!  Now Jack Warner [the fabled producer] said you can bring everybody you want – you can bring the whole cast, which to some degree I did. In hindsight, I sort of wish I had.  

RF: Do you remember who you looked at for Franklin? 

PH: Will Geer was one of them. And there were three or four others. 

RF: Did Bob Preston’s name ever come up having done Franklin? [Ben Franklin in Paris, a 1965 Broadway musical

PH: Yes. Anyway, what I did (and later, I understand Orson Welles did this with Citizen Kane) is learn about the camera while doing auditions. We were in this basement on 57th Street in New York and I had this wonderful cameraman, Sol Negrin, and we ended up using just about every piece of equipment you could fit in that basement. Cranes, dolly track, different lenses, different this, different that. It was “Peter Hunt Goes to Film School.” I mean, I knew what I wanted but I didn’t know how to get it. Then, about four days in, Jack Warner is watching the screen tests and he says, “Aw, Jesus Christ I see what I’m doing! I’m paying for Peter Hunt’s education.” And I said, “Jack, somebody has to.” And he said “Don’t worry, kid. I did it for Mike Nichols, I can do it for you.” 

RF: That’s right, Virginia Woolf. But tell me, how did Howard wind up in the film.

PH: Well, I got a call from Howard’s agent, Abe Newborn (who it seems was representing everybody) and he said, “Peter, Peter… you just have to have lunch with Howard. He’s paying, don’t worry. But you must give him this. He’s got his heart set on it." So we had lunch and it was a different Howard. He turned on all the charm and he promised he wouldn't be a problem. He said, “You have no idea what a good boy I can be. And I will be. And I know it’s your first movie and I’m not going to make any trouble for you. I’m going be supportive. I’m just an actor and you tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I won’t make any trouble for you.” And he was so sincere. I was a sucker and I believed him. And I said, “Alright, it’s a deal. You’re in the film.” And we shook hands on it and he was just overjoyed. And I have to say he was a doll. He was putty through the whole movie. A total pussycat. And the rest of the cast were just amazed he was such a different person. It was a joy. 

Happy Fourth, everyone!

Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway is available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."