Tag Archives: musical

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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Book Reviews: November 2014 Picture Book Roundup: It’s Blue… or Maybe Green?

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Away in a Manger illustrated by Lisa Reed and Randle Paul Bennett. Candy Cane-Ideals, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The text and audio of this book are the first two verses of “Away in a Manger,” sung by “Junior Asparagus,” who is unfortunately one of my least favorite musical talents among the VeggieTales cast. The illustrations are bright and colorful, and VeggieTales fans will appreciate seeing familiar faces in a probably equally familiar tableau. I witnessed one parent trying to read this book (or it might have been its sister book, Silent Night) to a child, and stumbling to an awkward halt when it turned out that the audio button was the text in its entirety. That rather detracts from the book’s ability to lead to interaction between a parent and child. A parent can turn the pages, but the time spent on each page is limited and the parent’s voice is lost amid Junior’s warble.

*

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Step Into Reading: Level 2: A Pony for a Princess by Andrea Posner-Sanchez and illustrated by Francesc Mateu. RH Disney-Random 2002.

I was drawn to the book by the promise of a pony but was a little worried by the book being a Disney spinoff. I was more impressed with this book than I expected to be. The plot is well formed. A deductive thinker could reason the plot from details. Belle sees a barrel of apples, and later decides to return to the barrel to sate her hunger, only to find the barrel empty, then logically she seeks to discover what happened to the apples. I do think it unlikely that a wild pony could be so easily caught by a trail of sugar cubes, but this is a Disney story, and Belle qualifies as a Disney princess, so I will forgive the implausibility and call it more of an inevitability.

****

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Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann. G.P Putnam & Sons-Penguin Putnam, 1996. First published 1994. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This was at least a second read. Good Night, Gorilla is something of a classic. I think the illustrations are what make this book. The zookeeper goes about saying goodnight to the animals (making it a plausible animal primer), but on the first page, the gorilla steals his keys and follows him through the zoo, unlocking cages. The whole of the zoo follows him home and into his bedroom. Too many responses to her “Good night, dear” alert the zookeeper’s wife of the trouble, and she calmly gets up out of bed, takes the gorilla’s hand, and leads all the animals back to their cages. The gorilla and the mouse escape even her watch and follow her once more back to the bed that she shares with the zookeeper. I appreciate the presentation of a more alert, more able wife.

***

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Peekaboo Barn by Nat Sims and illustrated by Nathan Tabor. Candlewick, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 0-3, PreK.

This lift-the-flap animal primer comes with a free app download code. This is the first of a few books I’ve since come across with app companions. Apparently, this book was an app first. The animals are cartoonish with bug eyes that are mildly disturbing. Sometimes there’s only one flap on a page, sometimes there are two. At first read, this was confusing, as I didn’t know to look for two flaps and would open the barn doors to discover only one of the animals whose sounds I’d just read. Then I noticed that the loft doors also occasionally opened. I’m not sure if as a toddler reader, this variation would be exciting or confusing. If I’m being finicky, the animals are not seen or entering the barn, but the scene never changes, the sun never moves across the sky. It would have been very simple to introduce more plot into this book.

*

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That’s Not My Snowman… by Fiona Watt. Usborne, 2014. First published 2006.

There’s not much exciting about this winter edition of a series of touch-and-feel primers that spans all manner of creature, machine, and… sculpture. I do puzzle what sort of squishy nose one could give a snowman. I prefer to have logical connections between the illustrations and text. The inclusion of the ever-present mouse in this series adds a nice element of continuity to the story and the series.

**

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An Elephant and Piggie Book: Waiting Is Not Easy! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I am a fan of Mo Willems and of Elephant and Piggie in particular. I was not expecting the mixed media illustrations in this book nor the subtle hint of the passage of time as the white space becomes darker. I think both the messages of patience and of the beauty of nature are valuable to today’s children, so used—as we all are—to instant gratification. I like it even better on a second reading, particularly I enjoy Piggie’s answers to Gerald’s questions Piggie about the surprise.

*****

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Baby Bear Sees Blue by Ashley Wolff. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2014. First published 2012. Intended audience: Ages 2-6, Grades PreK-1.

I am biased towards Wolff’s books and this one in particular. Wolff is a professor at my alma mater. This book I saw as an unbound proof when she read it to us. I saw it later read at a local library story hour and witnessed the unbiased enjoyment of it from the children and the librarian. Wolff’s illustrations are jewel bright, and the text does not seem overly formulaic as many primers can seem, though Wolff does keep some repetition in the line “Baby Bear sees [color]” to give the story a familiar structure and rhythm. Wolff does not shy from poetic language within her text, but she keeps true too to the toddler understanding of the world with Baby Bear’s speech, as when Baby Bear asks who is waving at him, indicating an oak leaf stirred by a breeze. I had not considered till reading a particularly detailed review on Goodreads that the closing line makes the book fit appropriately too into the bedtime story mold.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.