Okay, so we're doing this.
First thing's first: I have been extremely late to the party on this, and I am always hesitant to jump onboard any train that has been hyped nearly as much as Hamilton has. But it has been a bandwagon worth jumping on, with both feet.
I also feel as though there's a slightly late second wave of fandom coming around to this show, especially since the Tony Awards, and that many of the people I know who are just now fully appreciating the work, as I am, are also teachers who don't often consider themselves fully fledged human beings until the end of the school year hits. We now have a chance to enjoy music that's not a part of concert or audition repertoire.
I'd experienced smidgens of Hamilton here and there before this summer, from the Grammys and from the universal praise it'd received among many of my friends. One old friend criticized the show, asking pointedly, "Why don't the women get to rap?" and at that point, it gave me further excuse to put the soundtrack further down on my "to listen" list. (Note: I disagree with my friend's assessment as the women in the show are pretty terrific, strong female characters with incredible parts.)
A "to listen" list? Every musician has a "to listen" list. Every musician's list has a lot of great masterworks on it. There's not enough time to listen to them all. And if you're like me and a teensy bit obsessive about re-listening to and re-visiting the things you feel strongly about, you're never going to hear everything. You're never even going to get close.
But if you're like I was at about the start of June of this year, I implore you to give this particular masterwork a listen.
Not every masterwork moves everyone. But masterworks are considered such for a reason. Not being a student of musical theatre, I know what the hit musicals are but I'm not sure I could name what The Masterworks are. Porgy & Bess comes to mind. As does Les Miserables, even though I know plenty of people who don't like Les Mis. (I vehemently disagree with those people.)
In the band world, our masterworks are largely from a century ago and written by English dudes. But they're masterworks for a reason. I've witnessed as a string player colleague of mine was brought to his feet, cheering, upon listening to & studying Gustav Holst's First Suite in Eb. That's the power of a masterwork.
I think it is safe to say that Hamilton, written, composed, and brought to flesh and blood by auteur Lin-Manuel Miranda (hey! if film dudes get to call directors auteurs, then LMM most certainly gets the distinction) will be remembered as a masterwork of the 21st century. Here are a few reasons as to why I feel that way. At least, these are reasons why this particular work has moved me so much.
There are ten things you need to know.
- It hits the high water mark of meeting both "popular" and "fine" art. I started to write out a whole paragraph about the concept of "high" and "low" art, a la Bernard Gendron, but that gets a little dry. Gendron's concept is a lot of what motivates my work on this blog -- highlighting some of the tenets found in highbrow music that are also found in popular music. This is what's important: Hamilton blends hip-hop, as an exceedingly popular and undeservedly criticized art form, with high-level classical composition. The songs in the show combine high speed rapping with mind-boggling vocal arrangements. The lyrics in the show reference Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance and shortly thereafter Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy". And these songs strike a perfect balance. I really don't know how he pulled this off, but he did.
- I love a good anachronism. Here, the anachronisms serve as a means of connecting long since dead folks to the deep emotional context we find in the music. It connects the struggles of the Founding Fathers with the political and social struggles we face in America today, particularly with immigration. Writers, directors, impresarios, and teachers have been finding meaningful ways to connect history to a modern audience for centuries, and I can think of very few anachronisms that so squarely hit their target as this show does.
- History (has it's eyes on you), duh! Surely, there are some inaccuracies here and there within the plot of the show (apparently scholars have stated that the biggest factual grievance is the idea that anyone would call New York City the greatest city in the world anytime between 1776 and 1804). But the telling of the tale brings so many things to light and has inspired so many to delve deeper into the study of this time period and the relationships between these founding fathers (and mothers!).
- It's an unparalleled exercise in language. Statistical analysis of Hamilton shows that the sheer number of words LMM packed into the nearly two and a half hours of the show (as recorded on the cast album) is stunning on its own. The rhymes themselves, though, are staggering. There are no groan-inducing puns found here. Every word has been thought out completely, is completely intentional and although there are a lot of words sung & spoken, none of them are used superfluously.
- The music speaks for itself. While I haven't analyzed the scores myself yet (can you imagine how long that would take? There are going to be some interesting dissertations coming out of this work in the next few decades), there are so many brilliant musical things occurring. Upon listening to the original cast album for the first time, I just kept thinking, "Oh man, I hope they do that thing!" and then they DID just the thing I was hoping for, in terms of voice parts, rhythmic stress, and extraordinary placement of rests. It's such a satisfying listening experience. Much of what I talk about here on the blog -- lots of theory goodies & fundamentals -- are at work here to a hugely effective degree: changing meter, modulation (a neat self-aware key change on "Farmer Refuted"), lots of clearly deliniated intervals that create motifs ("Angelica -- Eliza!"), cross-rhythms (see "Guns and Ships"), and so many tasty chords that it's impossible to wrap your head around it all. I love you, Alex Lacamoire. And although you find many of these things in many other Broadway scores, very few composers pull it off to the same effect that Miranda and his crew do. It is all so densely composed that it takes multiple listenings to gather everything you can from the work.
- The show's musical structure is downright operatic. Again, musical theatre is not really my forte (sorry), so forgive me for my lack of knowledge, but it seems that many musicals, especially those written in the last 25 years, are more akin to a collection of songs. Many of the songs used early on in a show that assist in characterization have a reprise later in same show. I have seen and spent some time with some modern classics like Wicked, The Book of Mormon, and Avenue Q, and while these shows are all very good, they seem to follow this particular pattern. I've seen and studied a bit of The Phantom of the Opera and Chicago. There are some musical themes throughout these aforementioned shows that appear in strategic places, but in contrast, Hamilton is downright Wagnerian. Characters have leitmotifs popping out all over the place, many of which converge in the Act I finale in a way unlike almost any other musical, with the exception of maybe "One More Day" from Les Miserables. (LMM, of course, is also a huge Les Mis fan.)
- These prior list items converge to bring about some real emotional devastation. This is the aspect of the show that I was least prepared for. When listening to the masterworks on your "List", they don't always grab you emotionally at first. Hamilton affected me deeply in so many ways, right from the start. It can be difficult to emote through historical texts, but it happens at every turn throughout this show, both through the content of the composition and the brilliant delivery of the performers. Christopher Jackson brought George Washington to life, showing not just his bravery but his desperation. Phillippa Soo redefines the torch song in the aptly titled "Burn", and the moment in that song where she just about loses it is devastating. And Leslie Odom Jr. is bursting with gravitas every moment he's singing. In the aftermath of what happened in my hometown, I was just starting to listen to Hamilton and could not hear the "look around / how lucky we are to be alive right now" motif without tearing up. I have probably listened to the soundtrack album about 25 times all the way through in four weeks and can't properly get through a listen without tears.
- The respect given to hip-hop throughout the show. In my less than stellar moments, I do my best to correct people's misconceptions through social media comments. I try to stop myself, but sometimes I'm unable to do so. Some genius stated last week on social media that Hamilton was not a real hip-hop musical. I told him that he should consult Questlove on the matter, who helped produce the show and the soundtrack and helped to form the sonic landscape of the show. In a time when there is continual disrespect of hip-hop, Hamilton respects the conventions of hip-hop while allowing the genre to flourish onstage. In a parallel fashion to the way that Gershwin's Porgy & Bess brought jazz music to a greater audience, Hamilton elevates hip-hop and modern R&B themes to concert hall arrangements. Not only that, but in a genre that record executives have largely watered down to meet commercial potential (also: most commercially productive genres of popular music have been watered down a great deal over the last 15 years -- I mean, have you heard country music from this past decade?!), Hamilon hearkens back to more sentimental hip-hop days, with musical characteristics and arrangements hearkening to beloved classic 90s jams. The cadence of most of the rapping in Act I draws tremendously from the characteristic tone of 90s rappers Bone Thugz & Harmony. "Wait for It" and "Say No to This" could easily have been number one hits in 1996. It's downright magical. And I also know that I need much more Daveed Diggs in my life.
- Lin-Manuel's commitment to the show's educational impact. This show is a gift to history teachers, sure, but also to language arts teachers as well as music teachers. So how is this being promoted to the greater world? Only in the best way you can imagine. He and philanthropic partners are making sure that tens of thousands of students can see the show for deeply discounted costs, working with the Rockefeller Foundation and the #Ham4Edu program. Additionally, LMM is a true nerd's nerd. Somehow amidst all of this major emotional storytelling and historical showcasery, he manages to make his deeply serious characters sound like snarky 15-year-old girls on the internet -- and it is so funny. ("Awesome! Wow!" / "Do whatever you want, I'm super dead!" / "I'm a general -- wheeeee!")
- This is only the beginning. Miranda has been at the helm of Hamilton, authoring it, composing the brilliant music, and starring in the show, but I have a controversial opinion: some actors who follow him may do a better job in the lead role. No one else will adequately replace him as Alexander Hamilton, but future performers will bring further nuance to the character and to the sound of the show. And beyond Miranda, Hamilton's original Broadway cast is in a class of its own. Leslie Odom Jr., Phillippa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry (controversial opinion! Angelica Schyler has the best part in the show!), Daveed Diggs, and Christopher Jackson have made Hamilton what it is. As the fans know, Odom and Soo are leaving the cast this weekend as well. I've been having a fun time in the meantime imagining a dream cast assembly: firstly Richard Roxburgh as King George ("President John Adams...good luck!") and, stay with me here, Wayne Brady as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison.
I find it tremendously refreshing that my generation has our own masterwork to point to. While most of us can't say we were there to see the show in its first run (although eventually we will), even those of us who got on the bandwagon a year late can say we remember when Hamilton was breaking Broadway records and redefining what is possible in musical theatre. We'll have awhile to think about this, because Hamilton will be with us for a long time to come. That is a wonderful thing.
(And yes, my one-year-old has heard the soundtrack a lot, as well.)
*Edited for further clarity on May 29th, 2017.