The hip-hop musical about an American politician has gained international recognition and it’s notoriously impossible to get a Broadway seat. Fans across the UK scrambled for tickets when the West End production, opening later this year, was announced – but if you’re left wondering what’s so special about it, best read on…
It’s engaging, educational, and emotional, but what exactly makes Hamilton so good? The premise of a political musical about one of the American Founding Fathers sounds far less exciting than the reality of the story, one that creator Lin Manuel Miranda has described as embodying hip-hop. It is not just the dancing and the visuals that mean this performance is so in demand; it’s the music that really makes it.
“Every word is important and necessary, and perfectly crafted to imbue knowledge without overwhelming the story-line”
Music is the lifeblood of any musical, and more so in Hamilton than some. Not only does the entire plot progress within the songs, music itself forms the basis for character introduction and development. When we see John Laurens, the Marquis de Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan for the first time in ‘Aaron Burr, Sir’, the introductory raps are rhythmic but basic, with only later numbers in the musical developing to faster and more complex mastery of language.
This set-up provides for a clever contrast with Hamilton’s rap in ‘My Shot’; the central character’s early mastery of the musical form represents his intellectual capabilities in comparison to his peers, demonstrating his love of words early in the show.
The lyrics themselves are also beautifully composed, both in sound and meaning. Lin Manuel Miranda expertly crafts fast-paced and electrifying lines with complex internal links, and not one is a throwaway. Every tiny reference pertains to some historical fact; for example, Thomas Jefferson’s taunting of Alexander Hamilton in ‘Cabinet Battle #1’, “when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky / Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whiskey”, refers to the very real Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-4.
Likewise, Jefferson’s earlier casual request that an otherwise unmentioned character, Sally, open a letter in ‘What’d I Miss?’ brings in the historical figure Sally Hemmings, a subtle reminder of the system of slavery that built modern America. Every word is important and necessary, and perfectly crafted to imbue knowledge without overwhelming the story-line.
“This is a work of art that both encapsulates and transcends theatre”
A series of significant lines and melodies are chosen to repeat in a number of different songs, tying together the plot and emphasising important moments in Hamilton’s life. Phrases like “just you wait” offer an optimistic outlook for the eponymous character in opening number ‘Alexander Hamilton’, but gain an increasingly sinister undertone as the musical progresses. Angelica Schuyler’s line, “I know my sister like I know my own mind”, is used twice in the show, with very different meanings in the context.
Repeated melodies and musical riffs link songs across the musical to great effect, and if you haven’t heard ‘Ten Duel Commandments’ in one earbud and ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ in the other at the same time, you need to. The repetition is expert, somehow not feeling repetitive at all.
This is a work of art that both encapsulates and transcends theatre; it is a musical masterpiece, and one that has earned its creator the worthy title of lyrical genius. Listen to it once, and you’ll cry. Listen to it twice, and you’ll be hooked. It’s all you’ll be singing for the next few months, and its variety and beauty means you’ll never get bored. It’s political, but it’s popular; it’s a story about the elite, and yet a story about the everyday. It’s a story about rising to the top despite everything, and it’s the very essence of the hip-hop genre it uses.
Lin Manuel Miranda has been open about his many musical inspirations writing Hamilton, and his passion for the genre really comes across in his work. Reading the book of the musical, ‘Hamilton: The Revolution’, the footnotes point out a number of moments where he draws on his musical heroes, but even listening to the soundtrack makes it clear: this man knows his stuff.
“If it came on the radio, this track wouldn’t seem out of place”
What’s brilliant about Hamilton, though, is how accessible it is. You don’t need to know the genre intimately to get the music, you don’t need to know anything about the American Revolution to follow the storyline, and you don’t even need to see the musical to appreciate it (though it comes highly recommended), because it’s all there in the soundtrack.
Individual songs can even be listened to without the context of the rest of the musical. Take the beautiful ‘Wait For It’, for example. Every song means something and pushes the storyline along, but if it came on the radio, this track wouldn’t seem out of place.
The musical as a whole – its existence, but also its popularity – also sends an important message about modern America through telling us about the origins of the USA. The hugely diverse cast portraying a majority of white male historical figures highlights the need for inclusiveness in contemporary storytelling, and the narrative of immigration is especially poignant considering current events.
The music gets these significant ideas across in clever, beautiful sounds that both educate and entertain, and that is why Hamilton is so good.
Image courtesy of Travis Wise via Flickr (cc search).