The United States in the Nixon era (1969–74) was deeply divided politically, mired in the Vietnam War, and tormented by intense separation and mistrust between the younger and older generations. These societal rifts made it rare for a work of popular culture to cut across lines of political and generational difference. Disheartened by the horrific images of the first televised war, many Americans enjoyed escaping into frivolously entertaining television shows, movies, and musicals, even as entertainment that engaged with politics risked alienating half of its audience. The odds were slim that a stage or screen production could be deeply political in nature and about the United States itself without angering or repelling a large portion of the population.
Enter 1776, one of the most successful musicals ever written about American history. When 1776 opened at the 46th Street Theatre in the spring of 1969, people on all points of the political spectrum embraced it, from antiestablishment New Left hippies to right-wing pro–Vietnam War Republicans, and many in between.1 It appealed to people of every [End Page 237] age, with fan mail flooding in from both elementary school students and older admirers.2 It not only received nearly unanimous praise from theater critics and show business professionals but also was beloved by audience members from diverse walks of life. In addition to countless fans, many entertainment celebrities and politicians went to see the musical. Politicians from President Richard Nixon to Democratic presidential candidate Senator George McGovern praised 1776 and found hope, pride, and patriotism in this lively depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.3 This musical managed to capture something in America’s political heart that could inspire both left-wing radicals, such as Howard Da Silva, who portrayed Benjamin Franklin, and their right-wing foes, such as Nixon, archconservative journalist George Schuyler, and even U.S. military generals.4
However, beneath this chameleonic reception, the members of the core creative team were all left-leaning Democrats, and they subtly invested 1776 with their own beliefs about America’s political past and present. Sherman Edwards (1919–81), who first conceived the idea and who labored intensively over historical research while writing the music, lyrics, and initial book concept, always had a historical and educational goal in mind for 1776. To Edwards, a former schoolteacher, the work’s purpose was to educate the public about the drafting and ratification of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress. Working with him, book writer Peter Stone (1930–2003) aimed to draw discernible parallels between the past and the present, helping the audience to use the past to make sense of the turmoil of their own time. The third main creative force was producer Stuart Ostrow (b. 1932), an out-spoken New York Democrat who was active in both national and New York City politics. Ostrow wanted to use the popularity of 1776 to spark social change and spur its audiences into leftist activism. As a producer, he also wanted to capitalize as best he could on 1776’s broad appeal, so he created shrewd and versatile advertising campaigns that encouraged people of all political persuasions to come see the show for themselves. In short, Edwards and Stone worked together to create a work that balanced historical fact with contemporary significance, and Ostrow angled to promote 1776 widely and produce a musical that would have both a profitable run and a positive effect on U.S. society.
Considering the biases of its creative team, conservatives could easily have dismissed 1776 as leftist propaganda. The fact that they instead adopted the show as their own compels investigation as to why and how a musical about U.S. politics could be equally applauded by the Right and the Left in a time of seemingly intractable division. The answer lies in its particular historical subject, the American Revolution. The use of this historical touchstone allowed 1776 to become an ideological mirror in which Americans could find a reflection of their own values. [End Page 238]
This article explores the political life of the Broadway musical and its film version during the Nixon era. It first delves...