Broadway’s “Hamilton” Soundtrack A Hit
Maura Monahan | Thursday, October 1, 2015
The new Broadway musical “Hamilton,” from Tony, Emmy and Grammy Award-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, is taking the world by storm.
When “Hamilton” opened off-Broadway last winter, the sold-out run received so much acclaim that by the time it premiered on Broadway this August, New York Times critic Ben Brantley knowingly acknowledged the hype in the opening of his rave review, writing, “Yes, it really is that good.” With the release of the Original Broadway Cast (OBC) album last Friday, all who have not scored tickets finally got the opportunity to partake in “Hamilton.” While theatre is quintessentially a live medium, and no recording can fully encapsulate the experience of a production in the flesh, like all OBCs, this album at least shares the production’s music. As it turns out, the music alone is pretty genius.
“Hamilton” chronicles the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton from his immigration to New York as a young orphan through the trials of the Revolution and developing America up to his — spoiler alert for a two-centuries old event — death at the hands of Aaron Burr. The subject matter might seem stiffly academic; yet, its rendering is anything but. Frame Hamilton’s life as a hip-hop musical and let a dazzling multiethnic cast perform it, and “Hamilton” produces a brand new revolution.
Miranda, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics of “Hamilton,” also stars as the play’s title character. Miranda previously composed and starred in “In the Heights” in 2008. Listening to “Hamilton,” it is easy to detect echoes of his earlier work, in particular his harmonies and rhythms. However, the Latin music tropes that infused “Heights” — brass flourishes, bolero guitar strains, fluid bilingualism — are replaced here by a musical language inspired by genres including baroque counterpoint, the bass of rockabilly and stylistic R&B.
The integration of rap — a total rarity on Broadway — into both Miranda’s scores moreover serves different purposes in each. “Heights” used rap to authentically represent the vernacular and tastes of a twenty-first century Washington Heights neighborhood. In “Hamilton,” the use of hip-hop is unapologetically anachronistic and serves a critical interpretive function: Miranda, by framing Hamilton’s life through hip-hop, creatively and boldly forges connections between experiences and fervors in the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries.
In “Hamilton,” form suits function perfectly. Probably the most pervasive image of revolution in musical theatre is that of French schoolboys leading idealistic anthems from the top of barricades in “Les Misérables”; revolution in “Hamilton” is grittier, sharper, and closer to earth, dripping with feverish speed from impassioned mouths. The stakes are high. Miranda knows how to generate momentum in a track, opening with a single voice over a minimalist snap beat and gradually adding characters, each with unique individual motifs, until the full ensemble explodes into thrilling sound.
Meanwhile, Hamilton’s cool, pragmatic foil and rival Aaron Burr, played fascinatingly by Leslie Odom Jr., who narrates the show, repeats this mantra to Hamilton: “Talk less.” It is a striking thing to say in a loquacious rap musical, and it frustrates the fervent Hamilton, who finally lashes back, “Burr, we studied and we fought and we killed / For the notion of a nation we now get to build / For once in your life take a stand with pride.” Every bit as ambitious as Hamilton, but less inventively, less nobly so, Burr provides vital counterweights to Hamilton’s ideals in a show that is deeply interested in how power is created and maintained in a democratic nation.
If in Act One rap is the language of a band of brothers striving together, in Act Two, with the war won, rap becomes the key of torrid political debate in a more fractured cast. Federalist Hamilton wages slamming, intense, “8 Mile” styled “Cabinet Battles” with Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, played by a versatile Daveed Diggs, making a convincing case that all Congress sessions should be conducted in rap.
Miranda’s characters sound modern, but the setting’s use of elevated eighteenth century diction helps create a witty fusion of vocabularies brimming with philosophical contemplation. “Hamilton” ruminates on Thomas Paine, Macbeth, and timeless immigration politics; it alludes musically and lyrically to Beyoncé, Notorious BIG and Gilbert and Sullivan. Jefferson’s eruption in “Washington On Your Side” demonstrates the electricity found when rap meets natal politics: “I’m in the cabinet. I am complicit in watching him grabbing at power and kissing it / If Washington isn’t gon’ listen to disciplined dissidents, this is the difference: This kid is out!”
The R&B that occasionally slides into the Broadway belt of the score tends to be the mode for women and love. The principal actresses, Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldberry as Schuyler sisters Eliza and Angelica, respectively, deliver with smartness, feeling, and impressive riffs. Miranda may be more of a rapper than a singer, but the vocal talent of the rest of the cast is top-notch. In fact, the sparseness of fully lyrical musical moments makes their appearances all the more impactful, like Eliza’s heartbroken turn in “Burn” or Burr’s jazzy self-revelation in “The Room Where it Happens.”
Similarly distinctive, the Loyalist position is articulated wildly differently from any other music in the score. “The Farmer Refuted” has a classical melody accompanied almost exclusively by harpsichord and strings. Jonathan Groff as King George sings three of the album’s forty-six tracks, and they all have the same tune: a catchy radio pop melody that becomes an outright earworm. If it sounds frivolous in a score full of hardcore rap, it is supposed to. Miranda illustrates the empty allure of the British Empire’s promises to the colonies with a musical language that is full of platitudes and eventually devolves into a saccharine chorus of nonsense syllables. The revolutionaries’ ability to see through the music’s irresistibility emphasizes their clear-sightedness. Comedic lyrical and musical disjunction reinforces Britain’s hypocrisy, as the king sings, “And when push comes to shove / I will send a fully-armed battalion / To remind you of my love.”
King George is also the musical’s voice of doubt, dooming the American project to fail from afar. Additionally, his cynicism underscores the comment that George Washington, played by the dignified and commanding Christopher Jackson, makes to Hamilton: “Winning was easy, young man / Governing’s harder.”
It is a challenge that Hamilton faces, if not undauntedly, willingly. He is the heart of the show, fully flawed and fully human, bearing the weight of goals that are almost too much for any man to carry. He raps, “I’m past patiently waitin’. I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation / Every action’s an act of creation / I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow / For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow / And I am not throwin’ away my shot.” What starts as a vow — built on a darkly and ironically foreshadowing image — to take the opportunity to challenge oppressors and make his name accumulates meaning throughout the show to become Hamilton’s refrain, pledging to build an impactful legacy with the time he has. He makes convictions that bright people have a duty to make a difference. “God help and forgive me,” Hamilton says, “I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me.”
Maybe with “Hamilton,” Miranda and his team will accomplish just that. “Hamilton” is a triumph of a biomusical, succeeding not only in thoroughly and compellingly conveying the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life and legacy, but also in binding this history to contemporary America. The energy and complexity of the play’s rhymes demand subsequent listens, and each will be enjoyable. For history enthusiasts and for anyone who seeks thoughtful and fun entertainment, “Hamilton” is a must-listen.