I’m about to write about three things that shouldn’t go together: Broadway, Rap, and American History. Just you wait.
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
Sincere apologies to Kendrick Lamar and Drake: the year’s best rap album isn’t playing on the radio, but at Manhattan’s Richard Rogers Theatre. It’s there that Hamilton, the new musical and soon-to-be Tony Awards juggernaut from Lin-Manuel Miranda, is electrifying audiences on a nightly basis. So much digital ink has been spilled about it since its opening in August that you’d think it was literally the only thing going on in New York right now. Beyoncé and Jay-Z were there last week. Busta Rhymes and Mandy Patinkin saw it on the same night, just a few rows apart. President Obama has seen it twice. Even Dick Cheney loves it.
The vast majority of people, however – and that may include me, though I’m hoping for a national tour in 2018 or so – will only ever experience Hamilton via its cast recording, released a few weeks ago and produced by The Roots’ Questlove and Black Thought. There’s always a concern with these albums that it will lose its impact without the visuals reinforcing it, but this is a special case. Judging by how quickly myself and others have become flat-out obsessed with it, it’s safe to say that the work of Miranda and his remarkable cast speaks for itself. From its opening, “Alexander Hamilton,” we’re hooked by…well, its hooks.
Hamilton is about the words in the same way the man himself was about his words. The historical Hamilton was a prolific to a fault, churning out over 50 of the essays that make up The Federalist Papers, while also leaving behind bookshelves full of personal letters and other assorted writings. He was a polymath, a brilliant wordsmith, a known lothario (the center of America’s first national sex scandal), and a hothead. He was impatient to make his mark on the world, or, as he often sings here, take his “shot.”
It’s these attributes that led Miranda, reading Ron Chernow’s biography of the man while on vacation from his first show (In the Heights), to envision Hamilton as the 18th century version of a street rapper, raining down verbal fusillades on anyone he disagreed with. That includes luminaries like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but also Aaron Burr, his chief rival and ultimately his opponent in that fatal 1804 duel. And in transposing these reams of historical documents into a compelling story, featuring intricate rhymes that would make Eminem jealous, Miranda has truly brought history to life like few others ever have. Hamilton should be required listening in every high school U.S. History class. Take this scene, a cabinet meeting argument between Hamilton and Jefferson staged like a rap battle from 8 Mile:
I’m a musicals guy, it’s true. In high school I spent more time working in the wings than on stage, but I come by my love of the art form honestly. It’s not something I get to write about a lot here; I typically cede those assignments to Sean or Rachel, though if this site existed a few years ago, I’d have written extensively about Tim Burton’s gloriously Grand Guignol Sweeney Todd, or defended Russell Crowe’s manful (if tuneless) performance in Les Miserables. My iTunes library includes everything from West Side Story to The Book of Mormon, the former of which I’ve seen in New York, and the latter on tour. In short, when something like Hamilton drops out of the sky and has critics universally praising it as “the musical of a generation,” I sit up and take notice. The distance between my iTunes library and real hip-hop, however, is quite a bit wider.
On first listen I was entirely ignorant of the many, many winking references Miranda has baked into the show – quotes from Notorious B.I.G. (“If you don’t know, now you know, Mr. President,” says Jefferson at one point) Mobb Deep (Hamilton: “I’m only 19, but my mind is old”), and Grandmaster Flash (see above). He even retrofits Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments” as the “Ten Duel Commandments,” played for laughs in the first act, but tragedy in the second. That this bold appropriation has only drawn the respect and affection of the hip-hop community speaks to how brilliantly Miranda (a recent recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Grant”) has pulled it all off.
But even if you don’t know your rap history, Hamilton is an exhilarating, highly addictive (Warning: HIGHLY addictive) listen from start to finish. Take “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” where the rebels win the war as guitars and strings grind an ascending chromatic chord progression lifted from Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” Or the playful “Washington On Your Side,” where Jefferson and Monroe are fed up with Hamilton getting to do what he wants while riding the President’s coattails; the song features what the (stunningly dense) annotated lyrics on Genius.com call “a ninefold dactylic internal false rhyme, alliteration and assonance” — WHEW:
I’m in the cabinet. I am complicit in
Watching him grabbin’ at power and kiss it
If Washington isn’t gon’ listen
To disciplined dissidents, this is the difference
This kid is out!
All that said, if it was 46 tracks and 2 ½ hours of only rap, that would be exhausting. But Miranda is smarter than that. He’s equally steeped in Broadway history; sharp listeners will catch echoes of Pirates of Penzance, The Last Five Years, and — of course — 1776, to start. He broadens the range of the music to include not just R&B (“Say No To This,” the best 90s slow jam R. Kelly never wrote), Pop (the Destiny’s Child-infused “Helpless”), and Jazz (the vaudevillian showstopper “The Room Where It Happens”), but more “traditional” Broadway showtunes. Often that comes via the snarky missives of King George III (Jonathan Groff), whose letters to the colonies take the form of hilarious Brit-pop breakup ballads. (See: “You’ll Be Back.”)
Other than Groff, the principal cast is made up entirely of non-white actors – an intentional decision from Miranda that plays into the universality of the show’s themes – and they’re game for any genre that comes their way. Miranda himself plays Hamilton, and while he may have the weakest singing voice of the group, he earns a pass for his raw intensity. (And, as he’s said in interviews, he gives everyone else the best songs anyway.) Daveed Diggs, known for his own L.A.-based electro-rap group clipping., is hysterical in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette (in the first act) and the drawling, dandy-like Jefferson (in the second). He’s the best technical rapper in the cast, and destroys verses that Miranda says even he can’t do, like on the scorching “Guns and Ships.”
And the women, underrepresented in our history books, are just as memorable: as Eliza, Hamilton’s loyal, long-suffering wife, Phillipa Soo is superb; Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays Eliza’s older sister Angelica, is a revelation. In the heartbreaking “Satisfied,” Angelica confesses to the audience her love for her sister’s husband, which she pushes aside for the love of her sister. At the two-minute mark, Miranda gives Goldsberry a head-spinning, slant-rhyming solo a la Nicki Minaj, which she sells as expertly as she does Angelica’s internal longing:
But the likely finest performance (in the best part) comes from Leslie Odom, Jr., magnificent throughout as the show’s conflicted, regretful narrator Aaron Burr. The show traces Burr and Hamilton’s evolution from friends, to friendly rivals, to bitter enemies. Hamilton mocks Burr’s pragmatism, which he sees as a lack of courage (“If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” is a frequent refrain); Burr is jealous of Hamilton’s meteoric rise and repelled by his abrasive outspokenness. He’s the Javert to Hamilton’s Jean Valjean, the Judas to his Jesus Christ Superstar (“What’s your name, man?” Burr cries). It’s a story that’s practically Shakespearean in its heft and its tragedy, as the two men circle each other until they finally find themselves with guns drawn and their world is turned upside down…again. Miranda and Odom, Jr. shade Burr as an ultimately sympathetic character, and in the powerful “Wait For It,” they make a moving case for his humanity:
Life doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall and we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When so many have died
Then I’m willing to wait for it.
There’s so much more, like Christopher Jackson’s work as the paternally unimpeachable George Washington, the album’s flawless production (co-arranged by Alex Lacamoire), HERCULES MULLIGAN, and Miranda’s expert weaving of musical motifs that rewards repeat listening, but I’ll leave those for you to discover. Hamilton is a legitimate phenomenon: a work of extraordinary depth and passion, taking an idea that shouldn’t work at all on paper – a hip-hop biography of the man who created America’s financial system (boring!), presented by a specifically color-blind cast – and coalescing into a masterpiece.
But what makes Hamilton historically great isn’t just how it brings its tried-and-true Broadway structure to new, glorious life. It isn’t just how it’s an effective, emotional, and scholastically accurate portrayal of perhaps our least-appreciated Founding Father. It isn’t just the instantly memorable melodies, catchy rhymes, and incandescent performances. That would be enough, but Hamilton is about something. It’s “the story of America then, told by America now.” It speaks to our diverse 21st century culture, and our nation’s highest ideal: that even an orphan immigrant can rise from nothing to become one of the most influential figures of a brand-new nation. In essence, Hamilton starts from the bottom…now he’s here. (Or on the ten-dollar bill, at least for now.)
‘Hamilton’ is available on iTunes and Spotify.