I’m going to be honest and say that I feel fairly unqualified to write this thing that I’m writing. I’m not a huge musical fan, or more accurately, I don’t think of myself as one. I’ve come to think over the years that maybe I just don’t like Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, and that’s all I thought there was for a long time. But as I’ve seen more – Avenue Q, Sweeney Todd, The Book of Mormon, Once, The Lion King – I’ve come to realize that I was maybe selling musicals short as a kid, and that goes doubly for many of the classics. (Teaching and viewing Les Miserables this year has reminded me that, yeah, there’s a reason that one’s such a classic.)
And if that’s not enough, there’s the fact that nothing makes me feel more like a middle-aged white guy than talking about rap and hip-hop. I’m getting more and more into rap these days; from The Roots to Jay-Z, from Kanye to (especially) Kendrick Lamar, to all the various members and permutations of the Wu-Tang Clan, I’m finding more and more to love and enjoy about rap, but I’m still acutely aware of my lack of experience in the genre. I’m diving into it with more and more passion, but it’s a genre that I’m new to, and much of the essential history is still unknown to me.
All of which makes me feel unqualified to talk about Hamilton, given that a) it’s a Broadway musical, b) it’s a hip-hop album, and c) it draws on and alludes so heavily to the history and traditions of both that I’m only catching maybe a quarter of the references. And besides, it’s Hamilton. What new could I possibly bring to the table after all the acclaim, all the reactions, all the praise?
And yet, here I am, feeling compelled to write about it. Why?
I mean…have you heard it?
Look, if you haven’t, you may well be like me. I’d heard bits of Hamilton over the last year, ever since first becoming aware of it in an NPR story about its (then) pending jump to Broadway from a successful off-Broadway run. Since then, the acclaim has piled on, and I’ve often thought, “Yeah, I should check that out,” but just never gotten to it. The concept – a hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton- sounded great, but also like a gimmick. And even though I liked what I heard, I had a feeling that a) it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype around it, and b) if it did, I suspected it might rely so heavily on the main performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda that I’d be more impressed with him than the show.
Then I heard it this week, and turned out to be wrong on every single count. Hamilton didn’t just live up to the hype; it surpassed it, blowing past my expectations again and again until I was in awe. By the time the first song ended, I was hooked; by the time I was at the end of the third track, I was starting the whole thing over just to take it in again; by the time I was finished with the first act, I was in awe; by the time I finished the whole thing, I was pretty much just stunned.
Where to start? Maybe, let’s start here: Hamilton isn’t the single-performance spectacle I expected. Yes, Miranda is phenomenal as Hamilton, bringing out the swagger, confidence, intelligence, and aggressiveness that makes the role so instantly iconic. But Hamilton is packed with rich characters, and many of the show’s best numbers are given not to Hamilton/Miranda, but to the supporting cast. Listen, for instance, to Reneé Goldsberry belt out “Satisfied,” a rapid-fire dissection of her own conflicting emotions and pained sacrifice. Or Daveed Diggs’ staggering machine-gun pace – in a French accent – as General Lafayette explodes back onto the stage in “Guns and Ships.” And none of that gets into the quiet, malleable performance by Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr, whose solo number “Wait For It” is a burst of unexpected energy from a character known for his reticence.
Because, that’s one of the true joys of Hamilton. Even though I’ve only experienced the musical through the cast recording, there’s no worry that you might lose the story. Every character – every single one – has their own “voice,” their own rhythm, their own pace, their own motifs, to the point that even though many actors play two roles, you know who they’re playing as soon as they start into their part. Listen to how Hamilton always has to have a faster pace than everyone else around him, running around them in more complex rhymes to demonstrate his own dazzling intellect. Or listen to how Burr, always unwilling to commit to a position, shifts his voice and rhythm to fit the song around him, making him the eternal chameleon. Realize how you know that Jefferson is a true rival for Hamilton as soon as he demonstrates his flexibility (most notably in his frustrated, raging burst in “Washington on Your Side”), to the point where their two “Cabinet Battle” numbers are a staple of the show, as these two verbally spar and duel back and forth.
So, yes, Hamilton is astonishing from a musical perspective. The songs are catchy, the voices compelling, and oh, the motifs that link the show together are dazzling. The way Miranda turns time into the foil of so many, from the slow count of a duel to the way our legacies are removed from our own hands through the slow clock of history. Look at how satisfaction drives characters, both in its emotional terms and in terms of honor. And that’s just scratching the surface – Miranda knows what he’s doing, and what he’s doing isn’t just making a rap album. It’s a coherent, tightly constructed experience, to the point where I struggle imagine listening to many of the songs out of context, knowing how much they gain when you put them all together.
And, oh, those lyrics. At this point, I’ve spent a fairly large amount of time digging through the Genius annotations on the songs (many written or approved by Miranda himself), and even then, I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of it all. As if it’s not enough to create insane rhyme schemes, duelling verses, raps that dive through other characters’ words to make their own verse (as in “Farmer Refuted”) – as if all that’s not enough, Miranda manages to interweave nods to Broadway shows throughout the ages, countless legends of hip-hop and rap, and historical details through and through. Indeed, that latter one is fairly incredible; by all accounts, Hamilton is far more faithful than I would have expected, showing off that Miranda knows his history and his players, and dives into their emotions and ideas, using them not just as background, but as part of the musical. What other musical doesn’t just orbit around the founding of the nation, but makes its debates and struggles part of the text? (I know. 1776. Shut up. Miranda knows that too.)
But none of that would matter – not the infernally addictive songs, not the insanely crafted lyrics, not the brilliant writing – if Hamilton weren’t so emotionally powerful and rich. Miranda isn’t just telling the story of history; he’s telling the story of a man who was desperate to prove himself, who wanted to use his intellect to make something more of his life and find a place in that. It’s the story of a man whose gifts made him arrogant at times, and off-putting, and whose very gifts were the very thing that undid him. But it’s also the story of a man who always held back, fearful to commit. It’s the story of a woman who loved a man but gave him up for her sister, and always regretted it. And most importantly, it’s the story of Hamilton’s wife, who stood by him, fought with him, forgave him…and crafted his legacy in ways he might never have dreamed.
Miranda doesn’t just make these characters walking icons from history; he makes them people. And if you doubt that, try not feeling George Washington’s weariness when he tells Hamilton that he needs time to himself, to tend his own vine. Or when Burr and Hamilton sing to their newborn children. Or, most critically, when Hamilton loses his child, and the brutal, devastating “It’s Quiet Uptown” follows their marriage in the aftermath. Never – and I say this without hyperbole – never has a song hit me like this one has. It’s a quiet song, and a simple one, following Hamilton and his wife as they grieve, and listening as Hamilton – ever hyper-verbal, ever fast-paced – for the first time is without words. And it wrecked me. And then on the second time? It wrecked me even worse. It’s a devastating, haunting number, and if you doubt that Miranda has succeeded in making these characters come to life? Listen to it in context and try not to feel the pain in every line.
At this point, I look back over these 1,500 words and realize that I haven’t even scratched the surface of how great this is. How it’s genuinely inspirational. How it reminds us that, even nearly 250 years later, that era was uniquely American, and the men within it every bit as revolutionary and wild as some we see today. How we all strive to create something larger than ourselves, and want to leave behind a story that people still tell. Or just how damn good it is – not just important, but fun and exciting and listenable and enjoyable. How awe-inspiringly well-written it is, and how stupidly, unfairly talented Lin-Manuel Miranda is. (He’s my age, almost exactly. What a stupid, super-nice, incredibly talented, apparently incredibly humble jerk.)
In other words, it’s just another middle-aged white guy raving about Hamilton. But dammit, people…you try listening to it and not having something to say about it all.
And if you’re thinking this is a lot of words, well, I like to think Hamilton himself would be okay with that.