Tag Archives: music

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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Travel: May 25, 2014: Keep Walking

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We left Hostel Kanouya the next morning. Our hostess followed us out into the street and just as we were about to turn the corner, we turned around to share a wave. “Wait. It’s tradition,” I said, before turning. After we’d turned the corner, Kari told me that it was in fact traditional to see guests off like so. 

We went to Kyoto Station, checked all of the coin lockers, and eventually settled for putting our luggage in the luggage room downstairs for a little more money and a bit less stress. There are fifteen floors in the JR station. We climbed as high as we could go through a series of staircases and escalators for the view from the top of the building. Plexiglass kept us from a dizzying fall but also obscured the view a bit. There was a small garden on the rooftop. There have been buildings I’ve regretted not climbing, however, so I’m glad this cannot be one of them.

A train then took us out to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine, easily one of the most photogenic architectural pieces I’ve ever seen. I have a wealth of pictures of the complex, which ranges across the mountainside along 2.5 miles of trails (let me tell you, it felt like much more than that). Trying to cull them down to the best to put on this blog has been a challenge.

We spent very little time by the main shrine itself. It was a breezy day however, and the breeze made the streamers flutter, so those pictures are worth including.

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Then we left the main complex to strike out for the trails, and perhaps you will recognize the site from this first picture.

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There are two branching trails beneath rows of these orange torii. The crowd thins the farther you go along the trail, but even so it was difficult for me to take pictures that would not include fellow travelers.

The trail wound and branched and deposited us at minor complexes, abandoned save for us—or maybe they belonged to men or women who lived on the mountaintop. One just off the path backed up against a house, which we discovered only by accident by taking narrow, greenery-lined trails. I can only imagine that the shrine was there first, for the stone has an ancient feel to it—but perhaps that is the my Western mindset speaking, where a standing stone is a thing of ancient wonder, no one knowing how long it’s been there, how it came to be there, or why it was set so. Still, there’s moss on the steps of this shrine complex.

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Kari had told me that this particular shrine sports feral cats among its patrons and inhabitants. I lost Kari briefly following one beautiful tom down a narrow path.

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There too I shared a moment with a pair of Japanese women over arachnophobia when I spotted a spider dangling not too far in front of me. Some things truly are universal.

A little farther on and higher up, past at least one way station where refreshment and talismans could be found, we passed a passel of kittens among the azalea bushes. I rested a long while, watching them. By that point in our hike, Kari and I were flagging, but then began the litany of “Just a little farther” and “I just want to see what’s around that bend” and “I just want to see the view from there.”

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That litany, joined by the occasional rendition of VeggieTales’ “Keep Walking,” took us the rest of the way along the mountain trails, with a few setbacks.

A man at a map of the trails told us to take the trail to the left after the way station that we would come to, claiming it would be the quickest way to our destination (I’m not sure we had a destination, but apparently, we did).  We found the next way station, which boasted a lookout area as well. We rested a bit.  We thought that we’d turn around, and with the thought that we might leave, I decided to climbed a steep set of stairs on the right. They led past a small house and to a mazy collection of shrines.

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As I wandered the narrow paths between stone torii and upright markers, all dotted in orange torii-shaped petitions and red bibs for the kistune, the man from the house came out to his porch to play his wooden flute. It was a magical moment I wouldn’t have missed it for nearly anything.

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The rest changed our minds, and we thought that we could go a bit farther.  We thought that we took the leftmost turn, but we were mistaken. We went a ways and turned around, lured back to the way station by the promise of soft serve ice cream. I’m still puzzling whether soybean flavored ice cream provides more than the usual protein found in soft serve.  (It was delicious, sort of sweet and salty at once.)

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Kari found the third trail that we’d missed, the leftmost. We followed this beneath orange torii that opened up in occasional glades of stone and orange torii and upright stones. As we were following this trail, we passed a couple who were pausing before the shrines.  I’d heard a strange trumpet earlier in the day, and had wondered, and I witnessed this man now blowing a long note on his conch shell. If you’ve read Lord of the Flies, you’ll recognize the importance of the conch shell. It is a magical thing. I thought then that these were perhaps genuine pilgrims, travelers here for the shrines and not for the trails or to check another feature off in sight-seeing bingo. Now I wonder if this man was a priest, having learned that conch shells are sometimes used in Shinto religious ceremonies.

This trail took us most quickly too to the peak of the trail. I think this was the destination to which the man referred.

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The trail from there, of course, went downhill—and we began to worry how long the trail might be and whether it would loop or whether we could wander too far from the gate and be stranded in the dark woods overnight.

We waited on a steep flight of stairs for a passerby, and Kari asked if the trail did in fact loop and whether we would find an exit if we continued downward; neither of us had much desire to climb the steep steps upwards.

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Having learned that we in fact were on a path towards and exit, that we weren’t likely to be lost in the wood, we continued downwards with a little more enthusiasm. We stumbled into more glades of shrines, including one that featured a small waterfall that could be found down a very narrow and by then quite dark trail, its stones dark with runoff, but was out of sight above or outside of that cleft. I wish that picture had come out more clearly.

Eventually we met up with a familiar path and familiar friends.

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We also met up with a woman who seemed to live on the mountainside, carrying her groceries up the path. The cats were following her. She wanted to practice her English and gave us gifts, including a paper crane.

Having found the exit, we had to catch a train to Tokyo, where we had hostel reservations for the night.

Inari was a great way to end our stay in Kyoto, and for only having been there three days, we saw a great deal.

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We arrived in the new city late at night and in a heavy rain. We decided to call a cab rather than risk being lost and confused in such a situation. The drive was short, but our cabman was amiable.

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.