Alexander Hamilton. Hip-hop. Broadway. Three words that you would never expect to see together in a sentence, much less brought together on the stage. But guess what? That’s just what Lin-Manuel Miranda did! He wrote a hip-hop Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of the United States’ Founding Fathers.
The buzz is strong with this one. And it’s real buzz too, the kind that’s organic and that comes from people actually going crazy over it. It’s the talk of the current Broadway season.
I had to get my hands on the cast recording. And let me tell you: I am obsessed. My love for hyperbole keeps me from ever doing things halfway so I’m either in love or in hate with something. I am in love with Hamilton. I have not seen the show so I have to content myself with the music. And I can say that the music alone is more than enough (for now!).
Who else but the genius Miranda (literally – he won the MacArthur Genius Grant) could write a hip-hop musical about a Founding Father? It’s based on the Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow, and to be able to grasp the main themes of his life and distill all that – into rap no less! – is just plain awesome. Listening to the music, you can already understand the characters’ personalities – not only through the lyrics, but the style of music they sing. I never realized how rich and complex hip-hop can be. It unifies all the songs, but it allows for a lot of flexibility. Miranda plays Hamilton, and his numbers are mostly rapid-fire complex rhyming, to show not only his keen intellect but also his over-achieving personality. Think Eminem. Our main “villain”, if you will, is Aaron Burr who (SPOILER!) shot Hamilton in a duel. He’s a smarmy and opportunistic politician so his songs are mostly R&B-ish. Think Usher. The women in Hamilton’s life are the Schuyler sisters Angelica and Eliza (whom he eventually married). Angelica is strong-willed and feisty, so she raps quite a bit too. Eliza, on the other hand, is more submissive and docile, so her songs are more mellow.
All the other characters are clear-cut as well. You know who Jefferson is and what he wants – I wish I knew more about hip-hop to make a better comparison, but though he raps considerably too, his style and voice are more laconic and laid back. Maybe a bit of Snoop? The different personalities of Hamilton’s friends – Mulligan, Laurens, and Lafayette – also shine through.
There is no prologue or overture, and the musical grabs you from the first number, a powerful driving song introducing Hamilton and the cast. The first sign that this is a complex multi-layered story is the one-two punch of “Helpless” and “Satisfied”. In “Helpless”, Eliza sings of how she fell head over heels in love with Hamilton. It’s an upbeat, lively number. On first listen I thought it was a straightforward love song. But then the next song is Angelica’s “Satisfied”, which tells the story from her point of view – she fell in love with Hamilton too, and if it weren’t for her realization that being the eldest daughter meant she had to marry money (A. Ham is poor), she would have been Mrs. Hamilton. You see, Hamilton was shamelessly flirting with her before meeting Eliza. So right here you already see that this Hamilton dude is way flawed.
The character Aaron Burr (not the real person of course) reminds me of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. He’s also a mostly misunderstood bad guy, but he is not inherently evil. Like Judas, he acts as the musical’s narrator. He just has different values from Hamilton – A. Ham is idealistic and a bit of a radical, while A. Burr is a cautious type who keeps his true feelings to himself. They start out as friends, but eventually their ideological differences drive them apart and lead to the climactic duel.
Is it possible to have a crush just on a voice? Because Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, is perfect. His voice sounds like caramel butter and really distinguishes the almost mythological Washington from the young revolutionaries. In the stirring “One Last Time”, Washington decides to step down and not run for the Presidency. To voluntarily give up power must have been a mind-blowing decision, and Jackson’s delivery adds so many more levels of emotion and bittersweetness to the President’s goodbye. I could listen to that song forever – and I may have had it on loop for days now, judging from my sister bursting into the song at random moments.
Another revelation is Jonathan Groff, who plays King George III. I never knew he sounded that good!
The first time I listened to the album, I was so engrossed in the music, that when I reached the point where (SPOILER!) Hamilton’s son Philip dies in a duel, I actually teared up. And that was only from listening to the music, for the first time. If I cried at Philip’s duel, you can imagine how I reacted to Hamilton’s own duel and the results. *sob* Our hero may be flawed, but he is brilliant (the first Treasury Secretary, founder of the Bank of New York and Coast Guard, among other things), and damn if that closing monologue is not heart-wrenching.
I have never listened to a cast recording over and over, almost exclusively, every day. Until now. This album has 46 tracks – 46! – so you can never complain that there isn’t enough. There’s no song that drags everything down, and no song that you would skip.
Another reason why I love this so much? I have been looking for a great book about American history ever since I got to visit Mount Vernon. Thanks to Miranda, I also found out about Chernow’s book, which is nothing short of fascinating. Knowing a bit more about American history makes my Mount Vernon visit all the more special because I actually got to see George Washington’s estate. The one thing that struck me after that visit is how much Americans value their history. That’s why they’re such a superpower. They know who they are as a people. I mean, come on, a musical about your first Treasury Secretary?
Don’t you just love it when a simple album can make you think of all this? So when I say I am obsessed with Hamilton, I do mean it.
There’s also a whole treasure trove of trivia and annotations from Miranda himself on the official lyrics page. Warning: you will lose hours just singing along and reading about history once you go there.
Now how long do I have to wait before I can actually see this for reals?