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’1776’ — not ‘Hamilton’ — is the musical that best portrays the Founders

Even though it debuted decades earlier, ’1776′ mythologizes less and tackles slavery head on.

SAN JUAN, PR - January 11: Lin Manuel Miranda thanks the audience after his performance of the award-winning Broadway musical, Hamilton, in Puerto Rico. Miranda, brings up his theater masterpiece to Puerto Rico in an effort to donate money for the Island. San Juan, Puerto Rico (Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo/For The Washington Post)
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With its racially diverse cast and infectious soundtrack, “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award winning 2015 musical, upended the conventional understanding of Broadway theater and shaped how Americans view and talk about the American Revolution. Yet, for as pathbreaking as “Hamilton” was, it presents a fairly stodgy take on the Founders, one that mythologizes them and especially glosses over their relationship to slavery. It also completely overlooks African American experiences during the period of the show. In fact, “Hamilton” is not even the edgiest musical about the Founders. That title belongs to Sherman Edwards’s and Peter Stone’s Tony-award winning 1969 production “1776.”

It didn’t push the boundaries of the musical genre much, and its cast was all White. Yet, “1776" confronted uncomfortable aspects of America’s racist past as it attempted to address the politics of the day. It exposed contradictions in the nation’s founding as a society reliant on slavery and offered realistic portrayals of the Founders — including their flaws — despite receiving blowback from conservatives, including President Nixon.

Sherman Edwards, a World War II veteran and high school teacher turned musician, composed “1776.” Initially, he struggled to generate interest in a historical Broadway musical steeped in American patriotism, with numerous producers telling him that colonial America was “unsuitable for the theater.”

But, producer Stuart Ostrow saw potential in Edwards’s proposal and he hired Peter Stone, an award-winning screenwriter and librettist, to retool Edwards’s lacking script while leaving the musical numbers intact.

Edwards was not vocally political, and he considered his musical primarily educational. He sought to depict the “men and events of the time with honesty and respect for reportage of the facts.” Stone and especially Ostrow, on the other hand, believed that “1776” provided an excellent opportunity to advocate for liberal policies, including racial equality and ending the Vietnam War. Both Edwards’s historical realism and Ostrow’s overt political activism contributed to “1776’s” edginess.

Historical scholarship at the time focused on White men who played leading roles in American politics, and so too therefore did “1776.” When it opened on Broadway in 1969, the story followed John Adams and his allies, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, as they labored to secure the unanimous adoption of the Declaration of Independence in a deeply divided Second Continental Congress. The production pitted Adams’s patriots against conservatives in the Congress who hoped to rekindle amicable relations with the British and refused to declare independence without explicit protections for slavery.

Despite the dearth of available historical detail, “1776” didn’t shy away from showing the centrality of slavery to White Americans’ wealth, power and freedom. One song, “Molasses to Rum,” unsettled many northerners with the revelation that their ancestors were just as complicit in slavery as any Virginia tobacco planter.

The musical’s portrayal wasn’t perfect; it made the Founders seem much more anti-slavery than they really were. For example, in one scene, Thomas Jefferson announces, “I have already resolved to release my slaves” — a woefully inaccurate distortion of the real Jefferson’s lifelong reliance on slavery. “1776” also veiled his role in founding scientific racism, overlooking documents like “Notes on the State of Virginia,” where Jefferson had insisted that “the blacks … are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

Yet, on balance, “1776” tackled racism and slavery head on with more vigor than was mustered by even liberal, White chroniclers of early America at the time. Edward Rutledge, a South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress and one of “1776’s” villains, exposed the importance of slavery to the early American economy, in both the North and the South. In “Molasses to Rum,” he asks his fellow delegates, “Who sails the ships back to Boston, / Laden with gold see it gleam? / Whose fortunes are made / In the triangle trade? / Hail, Slavery, the New England / Dream!”

Another of the play’s songs, “Momma Look Sharp,” made the case against war at the height of the Vietnam War, when such a message was highly controversial. Performed by a common soldier fresh from the field of battle, this song exposes the senseless cruelty and needless death of warfare and makes clear the inescapable fear felt by young, American men during the Vietnam era.

And the show’s cast and crew made sure the connection to Vietnam was inescapable. Ostrow, with permission from Stone and Edwards, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times in the show’s name supporting Sens. George McGovern (D-S.D.) and Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.)’s amendment to end the Vietnam War in 1970 — a measure that was soundly defeated in the Senate 39 to 55 that year.

Little wonder, then, that when President Richard M. Nixon invited the cast to perform “1776” at the White House on account of its implicitly patriotic subject matter, his staff instructed them to cut “Molasses to Rum” and “Momma Look Sharp” along with “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” which poked fun at conservatives. Ostrow and the cast stood their ground and demanded to perform the play in its entirety; the White House begrudgingly gave in.

Their fortitude didn’t alter Nixon’s desire to reshape the production so that it better reflected his uncritical vision of America’s past and present. He even asked his longtime acquaintance Jack Warner — the staunchly Republican former president of Warner Bros. Studios and producer of the 1972 movie version of “1776”— to cut “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.” Warner not only made the cut but attempted to make it permanent by ordering his editor to shred the negatives of the scene. Despite these efforts, a copy of the footage was saved and stored in a Kansas salt mine where studios preserved many of their films before the digital age. Nonetheless, thanks to Nixon, audiences didn’t see the full movie version of show until the 2002 release of the director’s cut.

With its diverse cast and brilliant rap-pop fusion, “Hamilton” both looks and sounds a lot more like America than “1776.” Yet its script actually did much less to expose the nation’s founding flaws. Based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton — a classic of the Founders Chic genre — “Hamilton” propagates Chernow’s traditional and militantly pro-Federalist view of the Founding. It also elides the role the Founders played in preserving slavery and constructing the institutional racial inequality that persists to the present day. Moreover, as the historian Lyra D. Monteiro notes in “Historians on Hamilton,” “not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character [of substance] in the play.”

And “Hamilton” fell into this trap despite there being far more available knowledge of African American history than Edwards and Stone had in the 1960s. In the intervening half century, the field has exploded, producing countless books and articles providing a real picture of life for enslaved Americans during colonial times.

Even on the score of activism from the respective casts — something for which “Hamilton” has been praised — “1776” rates better. Famously, on Nov. 18, 2016, “Hamilton’s” cast, with Miranda’s support, challenged then-Vice President-elect from the stage to “uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.” Only then did conservatives complain about the show, or at least the actors’ politicizing the theater.

Miranda self-admittedly had “an allergy to and cynicism about politics,” and it reflected in his show, with its idealized yet starkly inaccurate image of a peacefully multicultural America that risks misinforming a generation of Americans about their past. Historically accurate and politically-relevant fiction can do great work to help Americans understand our past and present and improve our future. But that only works if plays, movies, musicals, songs and novels take Sherman Edwards’s advice and handle said history with “honesty and respect for reportage of the facts,” good and bad.