If, as many science fiction authors and some scientists have posited, there are indeed an infinite number of alternate universes, each a slight variation on the one we are currently experiencing, then we should consider ourselves blessed, because surely we are in possibly the one and only universe in which “A Broadway musical, 4 parts hip-hop/R&B and one part Les Mis, about the life and times of the first U.S. Treasure Secretary” is not a joke or a disaster, but instead a work of genius and the best piece of musical theater in at least a generation.
I’d heard mention of “Hamilton: The Musical” over the summer, not really taking in that this was a thing that existed and that people were raving about, but one day in the autumn, NPR’s All Songs Considered released a special weekend short podcast in which two hosts discussed why this show was connecting with so many people. They played a couple of song samples as examples, starting with the track “Ten Duel Commandments”. (Check it out over on youtube.)
It’s immediately catchy and I was intrigued, so I clicked over to the live stream they had of the full cast recording. About 30 seconds in, I was hooked.
The show, conceived by “In the Heights” composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, does indeed tell the life story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. The first act takes us from Hamilton’s difficult upbringing through his rise to influence during and through the Revolutionary War, and the second traces his political career, his moral failings and their consequences, and the duel that ends his life.
So that’s the story. Which may sound boring or may sound interesting, depending on who you are. You may have cringed at the thought of a hip-hop musical. But give it a listen. Stephen Colbert, whilst interviewing Lin-Manuel, described what it was like to see or hear it for the first time. At first you think, “Okay, this is really clever.” Soon, you’re thinking, “Oh my goodness, this is a work of genius.” And finally, you’re thinking, “Why am I crying right now?”
So here’s your homework. Listen to the show. I’ll give you framework for eighteen listens. (Fair warning: there is a moderate amount of swearing in this show; not a ton, but two well-placed f-words and a few implied ones. Enough to earn the CD a warning label.) (Fair warning #2: the below is really a huge fanboy rant.) Each time through, take in something different…
Listen #1: Don’t worry too much about comprehension or anything this first time. Just listen and have fun! Some songs will grab you immediately, others will sort of just sit in the background while you do other stuff. “Ten Duel Commandments,” “Guns and Ships” and “My Shot” all grabbed me first time through. I also wondered if I was hearing more words per minute than any other Broadway show in history. First time through, it feels relentless. (Actually, after writing this, I looked it up. It is! 20000 words in 2 1/2 hours!)
Listen #2: Try to follow the story. Maybe pay special attention to the advice Burr gives Hamilton in the very first scene (after the prologue). Listen for that to come up again. Brace yourself for Act 2.
Listen #3: Take time to appreciate the performance of Leslie Odom, Jr as Aaron Burr, who I think deserves next year’s Feature Actor Tony. A case could easily be made for him as lead as well. Notice how this is really the story of Hamilton and Burr and their two competing approaches to life. Burr is both a character in the story and the de facto narrator 80% of the time. I don’t know if having the narrator also play a key role has been done before on stage, but it’s interesting to listen to the story through him, as he narrates events subjectively, inserting his own opinion. At times, he explains what’s happening with pure joy (“Guns and Ships”), annoyed jealousy (“A Winter’s Ball”), malicious joy (“What’d I Miss”), pity (“Say No To This”) and increasing darkness (“The Adams Administration”). He is both the villain and tragic figure of the piece. Take special time to enjoy his two biggest solo moments, “Wait For It” and the showstopping “Room Where It Happens”, an incredibly catchy old-school Broadway hit that is possibly my favourite song in the show.
Listen #4: Soak in that one person is mostly responsible for every melody here. Wonder what you’ve done with your own creative life.
Listen #5: Appreciate the women, especially Phillipa Soo as Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and Renee Elise Goldsberry as her sister Angelica. Goldsberry’s big Act 1 number is “Satisfied”, which is a fantastic moment in the show. After seeing the events leading up to Hamilton’s wedding from one point of view, the show literally rewinds during the wedding toast, and we hear the same events from Angelica’s point of view. The section that begins “And I realize three fundamental things at the exact same time…” is powerful and fantastic writing.
Listen #6: You’ve probably picked up by this time through that Hamilton’s three friends in the first act, Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan, are played by the same three actors who in Act 2 become Thomas Jefferson, Phillip Hamilton and James Madison. All three give impressive performances, but what’s remarkable to me is how both Daveed Diggs as Lafayette/Jefferson and Okieriete Onaodowan as Mulligan/Madison change their voices to change roles. Sure, Lafayette has a French accents but his lines are largely performed at a range that’s a bit higher than Jefferson’s, and there are only a few places where it’s clear that it’s the same guy. And Mulligan is played as almost a thuggish ruffian, with a rough and aggressive quality to his voice, whereas Monroe speaks with an intelligence and nobility that again impresses, as it’s the same actor.
Listen #7: King George. You will probably have already noticed how great his three songs (or rather his one song sung with three different sets of lyrics) are, but as a palette cleanser, spend this listen looking forward to them.
Listen #8: Let some of the songs and moments that didn’t immediately grab you really start to soak in. Listen to the great way that “The Reynolds Pamphlet” transitions into “Burn”, and how intense a song that is. Appreciate how well “Non-Stop” does everything it’s required to do, from summing up each character’s main needs to transitioning us out of the war days into the political days to closing out the first act.
Listen #9: Enjoy Act 2’s Congressional-debates-as-rap-battles. It’s amazing how Miranda uses the vernacular of hip-hop to clearly explain political differences in both the establishing of America’s financial system and the reasons why America did not jump into the French Revolution. By this point in your 20 step listen through, you will have learned a lot of history you didn’t know.
Listen #10: Let’s take time to give Christopher Jackson as George Washington some credit. If most of the characters are “just like my country…young, scrappy and hungry”, Washington is the one stable and mature person in the piece, the moral center, as it were. His introduction in “Right Hand Man” is great, but he really shines in the haunting “History Has Its Eyes on You” and in his goodbye, “One Last Time”, which uses actual text from George Washington’s goodbye speech.
Listen #11: You’ve probably favored Act One, which is more “fun”, to Act Two at this point, but at this point I love them both and am giving more time to Act Two. So today, give your focus to Act 2. Hear the dread in the company as they scream “No! No to this!” as Hamilton gives into the trap of adultery; soak in again his wife’s broken and angry torch song “Burn”, sung when Hamilton’s affair has been publicly announced. Tear up over their firstborn son’s senseless death in a duel. And then weep openly throughout “It’s Quiet Uptown”, especially the beautiful and holy moment that arrives as the company sings the word “Forgiveness”, the word hanging there, the whole musical on pause as you soak in the implications of that concept on this story. There’s so much more and it’s not easy listening, but man…powerful stuff.
Listen #12: Time for another palette cleanser! Let’s look at the humor of this musical. There’s obviously the King George songs, but a few other moments stand out. “Don’t modulate the key and then not debate with me!” The joyful teasing of “The Story of Tonight (Reprise)”. And much of what Thomas Jefferson does in Act 2. I especially like his two uses of the drawn out, “Whaaaaaaat?” Especially the one in The Election of 1800. Also from that track: “Can we get back to politics?” “Please?” “Yo.”
Listen #13 :Take some time to appreciate the recycling of melodies for different purposes. I feel like a lot of this, though it sounds very different, was inspired by the musical Les Miserables, which often does the same thing. But notice the way that the melody Phillip Hamilton, as a young child, sings in French later makes up the background of the upbeat parts of “Blow Us All Away.” Or there’s the fun version and then the dread version of “Ten Duel Commandments.” Or the quietly chanted “I am not throwin’ away my shot” when Hamilton is deciding to work for Washington. The way “Wait For It” creeps in to Burr’s turning point in “Room Where It Happens”. The carefree and then sad versions of “Helpless”. And so on.
Listen #14: Actually, take a break from listening today. Instead, it’s youtube time! First, watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance of the first track for President Obama six years ago, when he was thinking of the project as merely a concept album. Then, watch some of the Ham4Ham performances. The show has become such a phenomenon that upwards of 1000 people show up daily to win one of the ten “lottery tickets” in the front row that the show sells for $10. (Broadway theaters in New York have a tradition whereby about two hours before the show, they have a drawing for cheap tickets for that day’s performance. It’s meant to serve New York’s theater student community. My happiest live theater experience of all time was sitting front row center for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, a ticket I won by lotto.) So twice a week, Miranda puts together a little show in the alley by the theater for those hoping to win. He’s brought in friends, cast mates, people from other shows, other New York figures, and so on out for a performance that’s usually less than four minutes long. And he seems to have as much fun doing it as he does anything else. The performance might be funny–some of the men of the cast lipsync the women’s main number–or moving–a gospel choir sings Christmas carols–or just cool. But it’s a great idea, and it will give you affection for the cast.
Listen #15: Think about themes! Burr’s life philosophy is to protect himself and his reputation by not fully committing to things, to wait for life to bring him to the right place. Hamilton’s is to go out and grab what he wants, to take a stand even when it’s brash or risky or is potentially misunderstood, and for most of the show he believes that you will only get what you take. Where do these two philosophies lead each of them? Who is right? Another theme: legacy. What is a legacy? Is it important, if you’re remembered after your death or not? The show also has a lot to say about politics, how America should function, and even thoughts about race and the fruit of insecurity.
Listen #16: Carrying on from yesterday’s deep thoughts, listen especially to the last song. Reflect on time; none of us know how much time we will have on earth, and the show is ultimately a challenge to make the most of the time we’re given. What do you stand for?
Listen #17: Words, words, words! We’ve been big picture for a few days; now let’s just simply rejoice in the beauty of the flow of words in this show. In the use of…
…rhymes. So many creative rhymes here, also economical in the way they convey information. (“Washington hires Hamilton right on sight; but Hamilton just wants to fight, not write.”)
…assonance as an extension of rhyme. (“We want our leaders to save the day, but we don’t get a say in what they trade away.”) (“There would’ve been nothing left to do for someone less astute/ he would’ve been dead or destitute without a cent of restitution/started working, clerking for his late mother’s landlord…”)
…alliteration! (“He’s constantly confusing, confounding the British henchmen…”) (“The venerated Virginian veteran”)
And so on. So many words, so many beautiful, beautiful words.
Listen #18: Sing at the top of your lungs! Act out your favorite parts! Pretend you can rap pretty good. (I’ve got some of them pretty well down myself…) Congratulations, you’ve now begun to absorb the beauty and genius of Hamilton: The Musical, my “Thing of the Year.” Now if I only had a chance to actually see the thing…