It wasn’t hard since nearly a half century ago Broadway was smitten with another ground-breaking production with an 18th Century patriotic motif. In 1969, a musical reenactment of the writing of the Declaration of Independence called “1776” opened on Broadway and went on to win three Tony Awards and inspire a 1972 movie.
Last weekend “1776” came to life again with a stirring, but brief, revival featuring Broadway stars and a full orchestra as part of the “Encores” series at the New York City Center. As I watched John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the Continental Congress cavort on stage, I realized that “1776” was an ode to the secret ingredient in the founding of America — the spirit of compromise.
At the beginning, Adams is portrayed as the Ted Cruz of his era, a fiery crusader for independence whose intemperance makes him the most hated man in Philadelphia. The opening song conveys Adams’ political isolation: “John, you’re a bore; we’ve heard this before. Now for God’s sake, John, sit down!”
But under the wry tutelage of Franklin, Adams slowly and reluctantly learns the legislative tactics needed to win allies. Before the musical is over, the stiff-necked rectitude of Adams is repeatedly tested as he is forced to water down Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration in quest of a unanimous vote by the 13 original States.
Yes, “1776” is the only musical in history celebrating the horse-trading needed to forge legislative consensus. It is also a product of an era partly defined by the Capitol Hill triumphs of Lyndon Johnson, from civil rights to Medicare.
In contrast, “Hamilton” is a 21st century valentine to the diversity that shaped America. Lin-Manual Miranda’s show revolves around the question: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore … grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
The two musicals (both performed at the White House) are so different in time, tenor and tone, but they are united by their rare respect for the nuances of history. As Peter Stone (who wrote the book of “1776”) and Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) put it in a joint essay, “The first question we are asked by those who have seen — or read –1776 is invariably: ‘Is it true? Did it really happen that way?’ The answer is: Yes.”
While “Hamilton” offers a corrective to the Rich White Men school of American history, “1776” embodies a message equally needed in today’s political world: The beliefs that unite us as a people are greater than the trumped differences that divide us.
But these days, it is nearly impossible to negotiate with most of the Republican Party and the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democrats. Ideological consistency is prized rather than the double-jointed flexibility needed to accomplish anything in Congress or in politics.
For more than seven years, the GOP has adhered to the scorched-earth legislative strategy devised by Mitch McConnell. In its essence, it consists of three words: Give Obama Nothing.
It is not hard to draw the connection between this snarling obstruction and the rise of Donald Trump.
I recall the words of Tom Farynowski, whom I interviewed in a Columbus suburb on the morning of the Ohio primary. “I’m for Trump because he’s an outsider,” explained Farynowski, who works in information technology. “The insiders in Washington aren’t getting anything done. Maybe an outsider could get something done.”
Now McConnell is on the cusp of losing his Senate majority, as the Republican Party seems doomed to splinter over Trump’s attempted takeover. Whether Trump wins or loses at the GOP convention in Cleveland, the bilious billionaire and his brand of incoherent populism probably represent a greater threat to McConnell than the tea party ever posed.
The Bernie Brigades — in a similar but far less extreme fashion — excoriate Hillary Clinton for the compromises that she has made during a quarter-century in public life. (The Clinton campaign, to be sure, has also strip-mined Sanders’ congressional voting record on guns). In the world of TV attack ads and snarling press releases, any deviation from ideological orthodoxy is seen as the political equivalent of Benedict Arnold’s treachery.
Every generation writes its own history of American’s founding decades. And as “1776” reminds us with desperate dispatches from George Washington as he was forced to retreat from New York with a ragtag army, the Revolution almost died before it was born.
But it wasn’t just patriotic resolve that kept America going as Fourth of July oratory might have you believe. It was also the give-and-take required to find common ground. The story of the Declaration of Independence was the original “Art of the Deal,” but the bargaining reflected the highest national aspirations rather than selfish egoism.
As Ben Franklin says on stage in “1776” as he did in reality before the Continental Congress voted to declare independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. He is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter at @MrWalterShapiro.
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