Album Review: Hamilton: Not Your Granddad’s Broadway Musical

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Surprise!  It’s a review of a soundtrack, not a book.

Lin-Manuel Miranda became an inspiration and favorite celebrity of mine when In the Heights, his first musical, the concept of which he began working on in his college sophomore year, went on to win the Tony for Best Musical in 2008. My sister and I somehow managed to get tickets for the show afterwards. I’ve been excited about Miranda’s newest release, now titled Hamilton, since finding a video of his preview of it at the White House Evening of Poetry in 2009.

“I’m actually working on a hip-hop album. It’s a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. You laugh, but it’s true!”

(Miranda has collaborated with others between In the Heights and Hamilton—notably on Bring It On—but this is the first for which he has written the book and the first musical since In the Heights on which he alone is given credit for the music and lyrics.)

I have not been able to see this musical, but I have listened to the soundtrack… a lot. The story seems to be told exclusively or almost exclusively in song without spoken dialogue, so I feel that I can discuss the story without having seen the play, though I want to make it clear that I have not experienced this play fully.

Hamilton is a biopic about Alexander Hamilton, free of the whitewashing that he’s been subjected to in my textbooks at least, starting with his childhood in the Caribbean, though the Revolutionary War, the founding and structuring of the American government, and ending with his death and immediate legacy—and by creating this musical, which has garnered quite a lot of attention, helping to build his more remote legacy.

Hamilton’s fame particularly within the social media sphere I think comes at a very… interesting and potentially important time. I think more people—particularly more people of the age that consist of the primary consumers and target audience of most social media sites and perhaps the primary consumers of hip-hop music too—are paying more attention to politics this year than previously. The twenty-somethings are about to vote in their first or second presidential election and are being inundated by news about the presidential candidates.

Moreover, with America and the world deciding how to treat refugees and many of the ugly things that are being said and cheered, a reminder that our country was built with the help of at least two very important immigrants (Hamilton and Lafayette, both commanders at the Battle of Yorktown, last of the Revolutionary War) is timely.

The (mal)treatment of immigrants is hardly the only current social issue to surface in this historical narrative. The feminist (“ ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m gonna compel him to include women in the sequel” 1.5*) and African American struggles (“Laurens is in South Carolina, redefining bravery: We’ll never be free till we end slavery” 1.18) for equality are both present in the narrative as is the debate between isolationism versus interventionism, which has arisen again with new vigor as America and the world look at the situation in Syria and the unrest caused by ISIS: “If we try to fight in every revolution in the world, we never stop. Where do we draw the line?” (2.7) That so many of the debates and issues in this history are still current tells me much about what we as a nation have learned and more sadly have not learned. We are a nation of people who probably know of Hamilton only that he was shot and killed in a duel (maybe we know that it was Burr who shot him), and we are proving that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it—over and over and over again.

It is not only the relevancy of the issues that make this such a contemporary piece, of course. The music itself—drawing particularly from hip-hop and rap—help to broaden the scope of Hamilton’s reach and to make the story available to a younger audience, in particular. (I’ve actually had difficulty selling this CD because a lot of the people who come to the store looking for history books are not interested in rap or hip-hop, but I have seen younger adults and teens picking up the autobiography from which this musical is adapted—Ron Chernow’s Hamilton.)

I cannot pretend to speak about this on a musical level. I am just not versed enough in the subject to speak eloquently, but I can speak on the poetry and complexity and play of Miranda’s language and of the story and characters, which is astounding and wonderful—easily on par with Mumford & Sons or Ed Sheeran, better-known, more mainstream musicians.

In that same preview in 2009, Miranda said of Hamilton, “I think he embodies the word’s ability to make a difference.” The character of Hamilton’s wife Eliza describes his first letters: “Your sentences left me defenseless. You built me palaces out of paragraphs, you built cathedrals” (2.15).

Miranda said in a 60 Minutes interview: “I believe [rap] is uniquely suited to tell Hamilton’s story because it has more words per measure than any other musical genre, it has rhythm, and it has density, and if Hamilton has anything in his writing, it was this density.”

In a broader storytelling sense, the relatability and reality as well as the modern syntax of these characters’ dialogue make so much more real the history from which they emerge. Even those characters who have fewer words over the 2 hours and 22 minutes—like Philip and Eliza Hamilton—show surprising depth and development.  The social and human struggles that these characters experience–love, loss, legacy, pride and disrespect–are universal and timeless.

For the purposes of plot, Miranda has taken some liberties with the history—as far as I have been able to research, but he is mostly guilty of condensing time between off-screen events and those that happen on the stage. The bones of the story are all fairly accurate.

Even if I can’t speak eloquently or professionally about the music, I want to say how well Miranda uses themes throughout this soundtrack both in identifying characters and identifying moods.  The more I listen to the soundtrack the more I notice the echoes between songs, perhaps most movingly in the 48-second-long “Best of Wives and Best of Women” (2.21), which is a brief exchange between Hamilton and his wife Eliza as he’s leaving bed to prepare for the duel that will end his life.  That song echoes most notably the earlier “It’s Quiet Uptown” (2.18) just after their son’s death but also “Stay Alive” (1.14, 2.17) and “Non-Stop” (1.23), evoking through the similar sequences of notes and repeated phrases the emotions and themes already expressed and established in those songs.

*Citations are first or second CD and then the number of the track. Quotations may not be completely accurate, particularly in their punctuation as I do not have a copy of the book or lyrics, but am transcribing the quotes as I hear them. This caution applies too to the quotes from interviews and videos for which I have no official transcripts, only the video recording.

Hamilton can be listened to in its entirety on Spotify and is also available via iTunes and the CD is available where CDs are sold.

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