It’s doubtful that any two stars have logged more hours in Revolutionary-era frock coats than Lin-Manuel Miranda and William Daniels. Roughly 50 years before Hamilton exploded on Broadway, Daniels created the role of persnickety founding father John Adams in the original Broadway production of 1776; the show became a political lightning rod and snagged the 1969 Tony Award for Best Musical. In 2016, Encores! revived 1776, and Playbill brought Miranda and Daniels together for a rambling, affectionate phone chat about the musical’s enduring legacy and the commonalities between the two pieces based in the history of the American revolution. Of course, they couldn’t help but talk about performing at the White House and the talismanic significance of Mr. Feeny.
In celebration of Independence Day, we’re republishing their conversation:
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Mr. Daniels, I’m talking to you from the lip of the stage of the 46th Street Theatre—
WILLIAM DANIELS: (laughs) Oh, my god.
LMM: —where you did 1776, and where we’re doing Hamilton. It’s now the Richard Rodgers. My first question is: Which dressing room was yours? Were you stage right?
WD: I think I was. Stage right, with a little door facing the audience.
LMM: You either have our stage manager’s office or you have George Washington’s current dressing room.
WD: (laughs) How are you holding up, doing eight a week?
LMM: It’s a lot. But, you know…it’s all my fault. I really have no right to complain. I wrote the words that I say, and I gave myself a lot of them.
WD: Well, I would much prefer to have met you personally, rather than over the phone, and shake your hand for the great success you’ve had with Hamilton.
LMM: Thank you, sir. Likewise.
WD: I really am looking forward to seeing it. We’re planning to go back to New York soon. I know it’s a very tough ticket to get—but I’ll give it a try.
LMM: I know a guy. I’ll make it happen.
WD: (laughs) That’s very good. And I want to pay for them, for sure. I’m sure the producers keep a sharp eye on the weekly gross.
Before we get too deeply into ticketing, I want to talk a bit about 1776. Today we think of it as being in the pantheon of great musicals, but in the 1960s, the show was so unconventional that Sherman Edwards had a hard time getting it produced. “Some of the biggest [names] in the theatre,” he recalled, “looked at me and said, ‘What, a costume musical? A costume, historical musical?’” Mr. Daniels, do you remember your initial reaction to the idea?
WD: I read the script with a bunch of people at somebody’s apartment. Sherman Edwards was a former schoolteacher from New Jersey, and he had written not just the songs, but the script. It was a little stiff; I remember thinking, We’re in the middle of Vietnam, for Christ’s sake, and they’re waving the flag? I really had to be talked into doing it. At any rate, when the script came back to me, Peter Stone had taken ahold of it, and he’d gone back to the actual conversations in the Second Continental Congress. He had written them out on little cards and injected them into the script, and it made all the difference in the world. It added humor and conciseness and truth.
LMM: I love that anecdote, because it gets at something that I discovered in writing Hamilton: The truth is invariably more interesting than anything a writer could make up. That Peter Stone went back to the texts written by these guys, who were petty, brilliant, compromised—that’s more interesting than any marble saints or plaster heroes you can create. And the picture you all painted together of John Adams was so powerful; in the opening scene, he calls himself “obnoxious and disliked,” which is a real quote. We don’t have a John Adams in our show, but we can just refer to him, and everyone just pictures you, Mr. Daniels.
LMM: Yeah. 1776 created such an iconic, indelible image of Adams that we just know who that is now. It’s also, I think, one of the best books—if not the best—ever written for musical theatre, in that you long to see them talk to each other. Which almost never happens in a musical. Most musicals, you’re waiting for the next song to start. That book is so smart, and so engaging.
WD: Howard Da Silva played Ben Franklin, and he said to me, “Bill, we’ve got an ending.” (laughs) And we did; we always had that rousing stage picture of them all standing there and signing the Declaration of Independence.
How did you discover 1776, Lin-Manuel?
LMM: I came pretty late to 1776—probably college. I fell in love with the movie, and it’s a singular movie because it has that incredible original cast doing their thing. That’s very rare. Can you talk a little bit about that opportunity?
WD: That was Jack Warner. He saw the show and said, “I want the whole cast.”
LMM: That was amazing.
WD: He didn’t want to make that mistake again, so he hired the entire cast—and Peter Hunt, the director. I was disappointed in the film, because on a proscenium stage, the play had a certain style—and film is very realistic. And yet it worked, and people watch it. Every year on July 4th, I get all these letters saying, “You’ve made us look at history in a different way.” As a matter of fact, doing the show got me interested in history. I think that may be the connection with your show, Lin-Manuel. I can’t think of a musical about American history coming before 1776.
LMM: I’ll tell you, I think you’re absolutely right. 1776 certainly paved the way for Hamilton—not just in that it’s about our founders, but also in that it engages fully with their humanity. I think it makes them accessible to us in a very real way. To begin an opening number with everyone telling another guy to shut up—what better way to pull these people that we see on statues and on our currency off of the pedestal? It’s an extraordinary opening number.
WD: That was always an interesting moment. Doing John Adams was one of the highlights of my acting career: you come out in front of the curtain, and the people are sitting there rustling their papers, and the men are probably wondering why they bought these tickets—and then you start, “By God, I have had this Congress!” And it was always Con-gress. Sherman Edwards said, “You have to say Con-gress.” That whole speech was done in front of the curtain, and then the curtain opened up and this whole choir of voices sang, “Sit down, John!” That really grabbed them. You know, Lin-Manuel, I saw the 60 Minutes piece about Hamilton, and I was so impressed. The way you put his story into music, into—I don’t know what you call it. Be-bop? Rap? It really grabs people. And it has to grab people. Otherwise, it could be kind of boring just to talk about history.
LMM: Someone said something really smart once: “You kind of have to work hard to make this story boring.” My arc in learning about all this was actually similar to yours, Mr. Daniels, in that I didn’t know anything about this era of history until I started writing it. And as I fell in love with the research, and these stories, I found that if you make the political personal, you can get away with putting in as much information as you want—as long as it always has a personal angle, and they remain flesh-and-blood creatures. Once everyone starts spouting, then you’re dead in the water.
Abigail Adams wasn’t in Philadelphia during the events of 1776, but she shows up in the musical as an apparition. Did the writers insert her to humanize John Adams?
WD: Well, [his wife] Abigail was such a strong influence in his life, so it was important that she be in the show. I think it broke up the run of scenes in the Congress that we were able to get that song, “Yours, Yours, Yours,” in there.
And that song is largely made up of direct quotes from John and Abigail Adams’ correspondence. Adams really did send his wife a “Catalogue of your Faults,” and the song’s refrain—“I am as I ever was, and ever shall be, yours, yours, yours”—came from a letter he wrote her in 1780.
WD: I’ve read those letters, and they’re very moving.
LMM: One of the great legacies of John Adams’ is his correspondence with his wife, because through that correspondence, we get to see the human side of all of the founding fathers. He describes Hamilton as “the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler,” which is the line I riff off in the opening number of our show. During his time with Ben Franklin in Paris, he writes letters home to Abigail, being like, “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” In his frankness in his letters to her, we get to see the founders as people. And that’s an invaluable legacy, because all of these guys had one eye on the prize and the other eye on posterity. They’re all angling to look good, because they know they’re going to be talked about. In those letters, you’ve got Adams being like, “Well, Washington’s kind of boring.” (laughs) He paints a very human side, because he’s kvetching to his wife.
WD: Adams was known for never really feeling that he had said enough. You couldn’t shut him up, you know.
LMM: Well, there’s a virtue in that. There’s a virtue in speaking up for what’s right. Adams and Hamilton were sort of the loudmouths of the founding fathers. (laughs) So it’s nice that they’ve spoken up and had their moments in 1776 and Hamilton, respectively.
Like Hamilton, 1776 became something of a lightning rod for politicians. Vice President Hubert Humphrey said, “This is how history ought to be taught,” and in February 1970, President Nixon invited the show to play the White House—making it the first full-scale Broadway musical ever to do so. What do you remember about that night?
WD: It was a negotiation that took over a year, actually, because the Nixon Administration wanted us to cut “Cool, Cool Conservative Men.”
WD: Because it was about them. (laughs) But our producer Stuart Ostrow said, “We won’t do the show without doing ‘Cool, Cool Conservative Men.’” [Ed. note: By the time 1776 opened on Broadway, the word “Conservative” had been softened to the more euphemistic “Considerate.” Daniels, and others involved with the production, still refer to the song by its original title.] Finally they allowed us to do the whole thing. But when Stuart called and said they’d asked us to come to the White House, I said, “For Nixon?! You must be out of your mind.” Most of the cast were Democrats, and felt the same way. There were about three Republicans. At any rate, we did go, and performed in the East Room. There was no room for the orchestra, so they were out in the hall, and they were playing too loud.
The United States Marine Band was part of the orchestra that night, which might explain the volume. After the show, Nixon got onstage and spoke, didn’t he?
WD: He stood next to Howard Da Silva and me. I think he inadvertently made an amusing remark, and when he got a laugh, then you couldn’t stop him. It was a very memorable experience being there. Practically all of the Senate and the House came to see it, and at the end, they stood up and raved and carried on. It reminded me of that saying—“Patriotism is the final refuge of a scoundrel.” (laughs)
Lin-Manuel, you’ve said that you hold a ten-dollar bill differently now because “that’s your dude.” Mr. Daniels, did starring in 1776 change your view of John Adams? Had you studied him in school?
WD: To be honest, I did not have a proper education. I was working. I was in Life with Father on Broadway, and my sister and I were a song-and-dance team that worked at night. I went to a performers’ school, with all the kids who were in shows, but it was run out of somebody’s apartment and there was nothing going on there. I was never in class; I’d go in, say I had an appointment, and then go and read the New York Times. (laughs) Somehow I decided that I wanted to go to Northwestern University, and they sent the fellow who ran my school a questionnaire about my grades. He called and said, “Bill, you’re applying to college?” I said, “Yes, yes, I am.” He said, “I have this form here about your grades—but, you know, we had a fire here, and all my records are lost. Do you remember any of your grades?” A light went on in my head. I said, “Yeah, I think I do.” (laughs) We went down the whole list and made up a whole bunch of numbers. I’d never had American History, and I gave myself an 88.
Just an 88?
WD: (laughs) I didn’t get greedy.
Does it ever feel ironic, then, that an entire generation knows and loves you for playing a teacher on Boy Meets World?
WD: Mr. Feeny? I never thought about the irony of it.
LMM: Listen, if we start talking about Mr. Feeny, we’re gonna be on the phone another hour. (laughs) Because I am the same age as Ben Savage, and you helped raise me too, sir. But that’s a conversation for another day. We’ll have that in person.
One last question: Stephen Sondheim has said, “Lin knows where musical theatre comes from, and he cares about where it comes from.” Why is that sense of history important? What do we lose if we stop performing, and listening to, great musicals from the past?
LMM: Well, the answer is simple—you learn from what inspires you. Musical theatre, when all the elements are clicking, takes us to emotional places nothing else can touch. It’s very tricky to get right. Why would you not want to learn from the ones that got you there?
Matt Weinstock is a writer based in Brooklyn.
Look Back at William Daniels and Betty Buckley in 1776 on Broadway