Before Hamilton there was Ben Franklin In Paris – Overtures was there

The Broadway season of 1964 / 1965 brought Fiddler on the Roof, Golden Boy, The Roar of the Greasepaint and the London import Oh! What a Lovely War plus Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly! were still playing.  Yet, Ben Franklin in Paris was highly anticipated as it was bringing back to Broadway Robert Preston in his first show since The Music Man.   With so many major hits playing it never really had a chance and lasted only 215 performances.  It is a show that basically disappeared after its New York showing but it is a show that deserves to be looked at again.  Why?  Well it is a piece about American (and of course British) history – the happenings behind the 1776 Independence of America declaration – now the province of mega hit Hamilton and 1776 before that.

There is no particular musical theatre pedigree in the men behind the show.  The book and lyrics are by Sidney Michaels who had a hit play in Tchin –Tchin and another in his dramatisation of the life of Dylan Thomas called simply Dylan starring Alec Guiness.  The music is by Mark Sandrich Jr. whose claim to fame was a rich and famous Hollywood father.  Ben Franklin in Paris was to be their only show. 

There were, in that great Broadway tradition of shows on the road, problems.  The original director and choreographer left to be replaced by Michael Kidd – a scoop as great as getting Robert Preston for the title role.  The libretto was revisited and Jerry Herman brought in to do some doctoring – two of his songs survive (‘To be alone with you’ and ‘Too charming’).

The tale they told was based on the trip that founding father Benjamin Franklin took to Paris to get support for the colonies fight against the English crown.  There is, of course, a love interest which enables him to get close to the court of Louis XV1 and then it follows the successes and failures in the struggle taking place.  The happy ending is the recognition of the United States of America by the French court and Dr Franklin being named the Ambassador of the new country.

If it had not been the good advance ticket sales it may well have closed even earlier.  Luckily there is an original cast album and that has been re-issued on CD.  It proves the score to have charms and is a pleasant listen.  What is evident is that the score bends towards the operetta, something that was not popular on the Broadway of the sixties, but is less a problem now.  Also the published libretto shows the piece to have a solid traditional feel, it tells the story well.

There has not been a British production and only one American revival.  But with the frenzy over Hamilton it would be interesting to see a Ben Franklin in Paris revived for us to compare a more traditional musical comedy treatment of that period in our history.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive