As a musical theatre scholar, it isn’t often that my search for archival materials takes me outside of New York City. As a result, it was a pleasure to be able to visit the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming. I’m a PhD candidate at Columbia University and my dissertation examines the historical representation in American musicals.
One of my chapters examines the 1969 musical 1776 and places it in conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (2015). Both the musicals look at the “founding” of America, but they do that in different ways and have different historical contexts which alter their interpretation of history. 1776 is about the writing of the Declaration of Independence. It begins in May of 1776 and, mostly within the walls of Independence Hall, tells the stories of the compromises and improvisations that men such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson made to declare independence from Great Britain. I propose that 1776, a musical with almost exclusively white men on stage (and, a lot of them) is actually more critical of the stories surrounding the beginnings of the country than Hamilton.
I think there are several reasons for this difference, including the relationship of the creators to the presidential administrations in office when the shows opened. 1776 responds critically to the Nixon administration, while Hamilton exists alongside the Obama administration. Being able to look at Sherman Edwards’ thoughts on the subject matter and what exactly he sought to put on stage will certainly inform my chapter as I go back to revise it later this year.
Sherman Edwards was initially the sole creator of 1776 and wrote the music, the lyrics, and the book for the show. The marked folders in the archive at the American Heritage Center suggest that his notes on the show date to 1961-62, but it is probable he was working on the show earlier, presumably at least since the late 1950s.
After he plugged the show for theatre producer Stuart Ostrow, Ostrow agreed to produce the show, with the caveat that they bring on a new book writer, Peter Stone, to rework the book. As a result, the drafts here are exciting to look at because they show what difficult issues Edwards was thinking about before he began collaborating with Stone. For example, one of the songs I am particularly interested in, “Molasses to Rum,” is sung by Edward Rutledge, a delegate from South Carolina and details the hypocrisy of delegates from the Northern colonies who claim to be anti-slavery but participate in the slave trade. I was fascinated to learn that this song had been in Edwards’ very early drafts. I learned several important things about the song, perhaps most notably that it moved. In Edwards’ drafts it appears in Act One. Even though 1776 eventually became a musical with no intermission, it certainly appears in the latter half of the musical as it now stands and is one of the last songs. I argue that the song is placed in this prominent position to show the importance of the slavery issue, and to highlight our “founding fathers” failure to address it. Edwards’ drafts show that while it was an issue he clearly thought was important, he did not see it as the final crux of the musical, as it is now. Was this a change made by Peter Stone, or was it a change that happened organically as 1960s soldiered forward?
“Molasses to Rum” as it now stands includes a slave auction performed by Rutledge within the song. Rutledge climbs on a chair and bangs his cane against a table as an “auctioneer” as he acts out selling people from “Angola / Guinea, Guinea, Guinea” (etc.). In the show now this auction becomes too much and is cut off by Dr. Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire who cries out “For the love of God, Mr. Rutledge, please.” Rutledge then returns to the A section of the song and brings it to a close. In nearly every draft I examined (even in drafts of the music) rather than exclaim “For the love of God Mr. Rutledge, please” someone from New England (the character seems to not be important) interrupts shouting, “I’ll invest three thousand pounds!” This original line might appear more confusing in context, which is presumably why it was altered, but it also implicates the New Englanders in slavery arguably more than the line in the show as it now stands. The line now implies that even though they are “willing to be considerable carriers of slaves to others” as Rutledge says of his “Northern brethren,” that Northerners cannot stomach the dehumanizing violence of slavery. In this older version though not only can they stomach the violence they are “carried away” by it as Peter Stone writes in one of the later drafts. The line becomes an embarrassing concession that Rutledge is in fact, right. The New Englanders are willing to be actively complicit in slavery, even in the room of the Congress.
Finally, in what is presumably an even earlier note than the drafts I examined, Edwards writes, to the best of my knowledge through reading his handwriting, “Idea: Rutledge – octoroon – light black man… gets more black during song?” This note dated October of ’66 suggests an idea for a performance convention that was entirely dropped in all drafts of the musical and is something I have never heard discussed. The idea that Edwards considered making the biggest proponent of slavery a Black man who is passing for white, and a member of the second continental congress, seems as though it would have added another layer of hypocrisy to “Molasses to Rum.” It may have also meant having a Black man on stage, which certainly would be different for this musical that really only puts white men in the room. I say “may” because there is a stage history of characters who are partly Black being played by white actors, such as the role of Julie in Show Boat. It also would have broken from the historical record, as far as I know, which is somewhat surprising since Edwards was invested in historical accuracy. While there was historical speculation that Alexander Hamilton had Black ancestry, I’ve never seen such a thing suggested for Rutledge. Cleary this is an idea that Edwards left behind in his writing process, but what would it mean for this character to be Black? I think it would not only highlight more hypocrisy in the system of slavery, but perhaps Edwards was imagining it as a way to offset Rutledge’s claims that enslaved people were property rather than people. If Rutledge himself was a Black man, then that would surely show the flimsy nature of his claims.
In any case, I think there is a lot more thinking to be done about this note and these drafts, and I have barely scratched the surface of my own thinking. I could write at least six more posts this length looking at other songs/moments in the show because this collection is so rich with detail.
Post contributed by Anne Melissa Potter, PhD candidate in Theatre and Performance, Columbia University.