Most of my knowledge of American history comes from the musical 1776. Not that I didn’t study the subject in more traditional circumstances. From a year-long U.S. history course at my liberal-leaning New England prep school I gleaned two valuable nuggets of information: First, our government operates via checks and balances; second, back in Lincoln’s day, the Republicans were actually the good guys.
Had the textbooks portrayed our nation’s chronicle as a story, I might have retained more. Instead, the syllabus seemed an intimidating welter of independent facts and civic gravitas, and I forgot it all as soon as possible. By contrast, Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’s musical, which I saw a decade later, was easy to understand and to remember, with its droll portrait of cranky, Machiavellian founding fathers, signing the Declaration of Independence in the fly-infested Philadelphia heat.
HBO’s glossy new series John Adams—premiering March 16, and airing in weekly installments through April 20-is less comic and more intellectual than 1776, and it doesn’t contain any show tunes. But if the first four episodes, released to reviewers, are anything to go by, the program’s strong narrative drive, fastidious direction, and deluxe production values make it almost as user-friendly as the 1969 musical.