UNCSA School of Drama has the spirit of independence in its production of 1776

by Mark Burger

The Fourth of July is still months away, but the UNCSA School of Drama is providing some patriotic fireworks of its own with its production of the Tony Award-winning smash 1776, currently declaring its independence in the Performance Place Thrust Theatre on the UNCSA main campus (1533 S. Main St., Winston-Salem).

This musical dramatization of the circumstances surrounding the Declaration of Independence has long been a favorite of audiences of all ages. Such historical figures as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and various delegates from all 13 colonies figure prominently in this tale of how our nation was formed, fashioned and fought over — before it ever really existed!

Some years ago, when the DVD special edition of 1776 was released, I interviewed Peter H. Hunt, who directed it both on Broadway and on screen in 1972. The film marked one of the last productions of Jack L. Warner, one of the title founders of Warner Bros., who had left his own studio (ahem…) and was now an independent producer. Warner had seen the show, fallen in love with it, bought the rights, and produced the film for Columbia Pictures with much of the acting and creative talent held over.

Warner, said Hunt, would arrive unannounced to the film location — that would be Philadelphia, the birthplace of this country (and of this writer) — and observe shooting. But for all of his bravado and preexisting reputation as a hard-driving studio head (although, according to Hollywood lore, among the more agreeable), Hunt said he didn’t interfere.

At that point in time, Warner was nearly 80 years old and had undoubtedly mellowed with age. (He died in 1978 at age 86.) Hunt told me that he believed Warner simply wanted to be a part of the process, that he so loved the play he wanted to see it re-enacted in front of him on a movie set. After all, Warner was the producer, and already a legend in his own time. 1776 had been a wildly successful play, and he expected it to be just as successful as a film.

Hunt related how one of the musical numbers (“Cool, Cool, Considerate Men”) was excised from the film at the behest of the Nixon White House, as the thenpresident (a personal friend of Warner‘s) felt the song reflected unfavorably upon the Republican Party(!).

Hunt also emphasized a fact that few, except yours truly, seems to know, that the film was in no way a box-office disaster.

Both Lost Horizon and Godspell, released by Columbia in 1973, were financial disappointments. 1776 wasn’t a big hit, but it was profitable. Perhaps even more important, according to Hunt, is that the characters and their actions are historically accurate, even if told in song, dance and comedy. When John Adams is described as “obnoxious and disliked,” it’s not a far leap from the truth: Adams was an obstinate, forceful man, yet it was he who compelled Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, Jefferson’s initial reluctance to do so is historically noted. The play is rooted more in truth than in fiction. It was a hard thing, forging this nation.

And try doing it in Philadelphia in the heat of the summer!

The UNCSA production, featuring actors from both Studio III and Studio IV (junior and senior classes), is directed by John Langs, a graduate of the UNCSA directing program. Previously at the school, he’s directed such productions as Two Shakespearean Actors, Our Country’s Good and The Trojan Women.

His other award-winning credits include King Lear (Seattle Footlight Award for Best Production of the Year), The Shaggs Philosophy of the World (Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Original Musical and Backstage Garland Award for Best Direction), and The Brothers Karamazov (seven LADCC Awards including Best Production and Best Direction).

Mr. Langs also received the first Gregory Falls Award for excellence in direction last year for his production of The Adding Machine at the New Century Theatre Company in Seattle.

1776 runs through Sunday. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12 (adults) and $10 (senior citizens and students with valid ID), plus a $1 facility usage fee. Reservations are suggested. For tickets or more information, call 336.721.1945 or see performances.

For those who love stage musicals, and you know who you are, Masterworks Broadway has unearthed some rare finds from the vast selection of Broadway musicals, newly available on CD.

Topping the bill is the reissue of Originals — Musical Comedy 1909-1935. Originally released in 1968, this recording includes comedy and songs by the likes of such stage legends as Cole Porter (you simply can’t go wrong with Cole Porter), Eddie Cantor, Beatrice Lillie, Al Jolson, Fanny Brice and Helen Morgan.

Based upon the classic James Thurber story, which provided the basis for one of Danny Kaye’s best movies, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was produced as an off- Broadway musical in 1964 (running less than 100 performances), featuring future TV legends Cathryn Damon (TV’s “Soap”) and Rue McClanahan (“Maude,” “The Golden Girls”).

Originally produced in 1971, Inner City was a Broadway musical that examined urban life through song and dance, adapted from Eve Merriam’s best-seller The Inner City Mother Goose, which reinterpreted Mother Goose’s fairy tales in an urban setting, and was conceived and staged by award-winning Hair director Tom O’Horgan, the same year he directed the Broadway premiere of Webber & Rice’s smash Jesus Christ, Superstar… which should give you an indication of how successful Inner City was. Nevertheless, cast member Linda Hopkins walked away with the Tony Award as best featured actress in a musical.

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