Because Songs Matter

Hamilton – Original Broadway Cast Recording – 2015

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Buckle in, folks, because it’s about to get different up in here. In addition to my sometimes fanatical devotion to our mutt genre, I have a few other musical passions; namely, rap and musical theatre. Hamilton: An American Musical combines those passions with my healthy love of American history. Deep down, this makes a lot of sense.

Needing some vacation reading, Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Treasury Secretary. The story of Hamilton’s difficult childhood hooked Miranda, and for good reason; look at his summary in verse:

How does a bastard, orphan

Son of a whore and a Scotsman

Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean,

By providence impoverished in squalor,

Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Miranda was already an accomplished playwright, composer, and actor, haven taken his grad school project In The Heights to Broadway and starring in it. He started working on a a few songs about Hamilton, a “mixtape” he considered a side project. He performed a song, from the point of view of Aaron Burr, for the White House Poetry Jam, and it received rave reviews. Miranda was persuaded to turn the project into a full fledged musical which recently opened on Broadway to rave reviews. It’s innovative in many ways beyond its music, including the casting: most characters (and all of the Founding Fathers) are portrayed by people of color. The project is ambitious and perhaps difficult to imagine; this album is the first chance at listening for those of us unable to get to New York.

It is Essential Listening.

First: rap and the Founding Fathers. Unlike today’s politicians, our Founders did their own speech-writing, legislation, etc. The men (and notable women) who built our country were well-versed in the written and spoken word out of necessity. When they argued, they did so in public; pamphlets and newspaper editorials were launched like slings and arrows…or like diss tracks. When Treasury Secretary Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson argued back and forth in front of President George Washington, it was much more like a protean rap battle than a modern day televised debate.

These men were also incredibly prideful: it’s difficult to find any two Founders who have not been at odds over one issue or another, sometimes with incredible vitriol. Hamilton died in a duel with Aaron Burr, who was the sitting Vice President. These men took their honor and reputations seriously, and it’s hard not to draw the parallel to Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, two other friends turned bitter (and deadly) rivals.

Miranda merges the form of musical theatre (sung dialogue, ballads, pointed music) with the wordplay, dance-worthy beats, and accessibility of hip-hop. This production is a love letter to the theatre, American history, and rap music all at the same time. You won’t be able to stop finding Easter eggs: Jefferson gloating like Grandmaster Flash in “The Message”, George Washington longing for his “vine and fig tree”, and references to musicals from Pirates of Penzance through The Last Five Years. It would be a remarkable feat of writing even if it wasn’t accompanied by such incredible music.

Miranda himself plays Hamilton, though he isn’t our only protagonist. Much of the story is told from the point of view of Aaron Burr, another brilliant orphan who ended up repeatedly running into Hamilton in New York City. The two men couldn’t be more different other than that: Hamilton is incapable of keeping his mouth shut and voicing his opinion, while Burr lives by the creed “Talk less/Smile more”. Burr, a man both exceedingly careful and incredibly ambitious, is played soulfully by Leslie Odom Jr.; it would be easy to portray Burr as a cartoonish villain, desperate for power and consumed by his vices, but Miranda doesn’t go the easy route. Burr has several songs that dig into his psyche: in “Wait For It” he describes how paralyzed he is by the prospect of failure, and his envy of Hamilton begins to take shape. Hamilton, after all, has nothing to lose.

Though the politics of early American history were dominated by men, women played an important role. Much of what we know about John Adams we know from correspondence with his wife, who was a brilliant and savvy politico herself. Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler and sister-in-law Angelica (played by Phillipa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry respectively) were important figures in American history, even if their names aren’t widely known. Eliza gave us Hamilton; after her husband was killed in a duel she dedicated the next fifty years of her life to preserving his legacy, with one notable exception…she burned all of her personal papers, and most of her correspondence with her husband. Angelica was a social butterfly who had a way with men: she exchanged letters with most important figures in American politics. It was likely Angelica Schuyler who let Hamilton know about Thomas Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemmings, and Jefferson’s close relationship with her.

Both women were in love with Hamilton, and both were hurt by him. Angelica could never get the affection from Hamilton that she desired, due to his marriage to her sister. Hamilton likely broke Eliza’s heart when he admitted to what became America’s first sex scandal. The Scuyler sisters are introduced with Destiny’s Child-style harmonies, vivaciously and lovingly singing about New York. Angelica’s ballad “Satisfied”, about the night she introduced Hamilton to her sister, could be a stand-alone hearbreaking R&B song.

I’m a girl in a world in which my only job is to marry rich

My father has no son, so I’m the one that has to social climb for one

I’m the oldest and the wittiest

And the gossip in New York City is insidious

Miranda takes the voices of women who are usually marginalized if they’re referenced at all, and thoroughly explores their characters. It’s Eliza who closes the show, explaining to Hamilton how she spent her time after he died. My favorite piece of trivia about Eliza Hamilton (not featured in the show): when she was in her 80s President James Monroe came to make peace with the old woman, after he spent years trying to ruin her husband and his memory. She wouldn’t let him sit down or shake his hand, and when it was clear that he wouldn’t apologize outright she sent him out of her house.

Hamilton is full of conflicting ideologies without anyone truly being a villain (there is one exception I’ll get to later). From our standpoint over 200 years later it’s easy to forget how touch and go everything was: there were countless crossroads in America’s youth, and any wrong turn could lead to destruction. Jefferson truly believed that Hamilton’s vision of a strong central government with a national bank and funded debt would bleed the states dry, and Hamilton believed that if the states were left to function on their own the union would be irreparably shattered before long. For both men, the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher. Since these arguments carry on well into the present it’s clear that there’s no unequivocal right or wrong- and through their unending battle we’ve ended up with a country that has withstood the test of time. No character is shortchanged, no ideology disparaged.

The dialogue in Hamilton is a mixture of actual quotes from those involved, heightened period language, and modern syntax. It flows so smoothly that it’s hard to tell where one ends and another begins as in “One Last Time”, the Hamilton/Washington duet about Washington’s revolutionary decision to step down after two terms as President (most people expected he would serve for life). Miranda uses actual text from Washington’s farewell address (which Hamilton penned) to powerful effect. The rules for dueling in Revolutionary America are laid out in “The 10 Duel Commandments”, with Biggie Smalls inspired candor.

The music is just as skillful a blend. Miranda and Musical Director Alex Lacamoire have woven the disparate threads of musical theatre and hip-hop together without a seam. Drum machines and record scratches merge with a full orchestra and chorus, elements coming and going with the tone and tenor of the song. It’s almost not surprising to hear a banjo as part of the beat in “The Room Where It Happens”, a jazzy number about backroom political dealing. The album was produced by Questlove of The Roots, and the quality is understandably flawless. The interplay of the score itself is just as impressive: note the distinct signature “Alexander Hamilton” notes and when they play, note that Hamilton’s son’s music lesson is also the prelude to the duel that kills him, note the record scratch that foreshadows Angelica’s woe.

When we think of the Founding Fathers, it’s easy to distance ourselves from who they were as flesh and blood men. They’re on monuments after all, mountains, and our money. But they were as human as the rest of us: flawed, vulnerable, prideful. We may understand that in theory, and witness it in pretentious cable mini-series, but hearing their words in as modern a mode as hip-hop it’s easier to internalize their natures. The musical is incredibly accurate; yes, Miranda had to move some things around for artistic reasons, but overall the verisimilitude is brilliant. Having worked my own way through the ridiculous length of Chernow’s Hamilton, I can speak to that: the Founders spoke for themselves, sometimes too candidly in letters they never thought would go public.

Alexander Hamilton was a genius: a self-made immigrant with no formal schooling before coming to America who created our financial system out of whole cloth. When a group of revolutionaries was about to tear the head of his college apart, Hamilton delayed the mob though he hated his teacher’s politics. The study-book he made himself to prepare for the bar was printed and passed around by law students for decades. He was essentially Washington’s Chief of Staff in both the Revolutionary War and his presidency. Hamilton alone among the Founders saw the bloody path the French Revolution was on, and worked hard to keep America out of that war. He worked constantly against slavery, and was the only Founder to never own another human being.

He was also vain, occasionally praising himself in anonymous letters to newspapers. Once his mind was made up he didn’t change it no matter how wrong he might be; Hamilton insisted war was the only way to keep the French off of American soil even after Adams had found a diplomatic solution. He cheated on his wife, and publicized the scandal to try to save his political future (which backfired tremendously). Most tragically, he was prideful, and that pride lead to his death. Washington was Hamilton’s greatest ally, and he died before his protege. After Hamilton’s murder at Burr’s hands, his foes attempted to muddy his name and discount his contribution to America. They may perhaps have succeeded if it wasn’t for Eliza.

Whether you find yourself constantly waiting for the right moment like Burr, or can’t control your impulses like Hamilton, there’s something to relate to here. Hamilton’s story is a human one, an unbelievable one, a heart wrenching one. This album, 46 tracks of theatrical brilliance, would be worth it if only to understand a man who is so rarely remembered. There’s so much more: a rich score, sick lyrics, and a breadth of American historical knowledge. Have you heard of John Laurens, another aide of Washington’s? He was a statesman from South Carolina who went against the grain of politics to fight for abolition, begging the state to free slaves and give them to him as soldiers. Laurens shines in Hamilton, alongside so many other lesser-known figures: Burr, Angelica Schuyler, Hercules Mulligan. If you like captivating stories, cutting edge music, or learning about America, you owe it to yourself to pick up Hamilton. As I may have mentioned: it is Essential Listening.

I’ve saved the best for last- a special treat for those of you who made your way through this behemoth of a review. Jonathan Groff is riotous in his portrayal of the foppish King George III. The King treats America like a lover who has scorned him, and he sings ballads with hilariously clear inspiration from Billy Joel to try and persuade (or threaten) her into coming back to him. If the piece has a villain it must be George, but he’s almost too pathetic to hate. His songs were the first to stick in my head, and some of the most fun in the show.

When you’re gone, I’ll go mad

So don’t throw away this thing we had

‘Cause when push comes to shove,

I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love

You can pick Hamilton up on iTunes or Amazon. Seeing the show will set you few back a few hundred bucks, and since it’s sold out through 2016…you should cozy right on up to your speakers. Check it out on Spotify if you have to.

1 Comment

  1. September 26, 2015    

    I’m kicking myself for not seeing it when it first opened. His first musical, In the Heights is one of the few musicals I actually like (even though I’m one of the gentrifiers who forces the story’s action 🙁 )

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