Due to this editorial hobby of mine, I frequently receive recommendations for various pieces of music. Much less frequently, I receive recommendations for the same piece of music from various people. Today sees the result of one of those rarer occurrences, as I will be reviewing the soundtrack from the widely acclaimed musical Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
While I enjoy musicals very much, a review for a musical soundtrack is a bit unusual for this blog. By choice, I have decided to go into this review mostly blind. I know that Miranda wrote the music for In the Heights, a popular musical that was on Broadway nearly a decade ago (that I have also not seen). I know that Hamilton is some kind of biography of Hamilton experienced through hip-hop. And, as a history buff, I know a little bit about Alexander Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton was a highly controversial player in the founding of the United States. He was the leader of the Federalist Party, and he wrote dozens of papers on the subject of the need for and role of a Federal government. He was the first Secretary of the Treasury, and was instrumental in developing the central banking system of the United States. His philosophy on economics (Hamiltonianism, or “The American School”) included protectionist tariffs and subsides, and large government spending on infrastructure — these practices dominated the development of the US up until Nixon’s presidency in the early 1970’s.
And of course, the most notorious thing about Alexander Hamilton is that he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, presumably a situation he got into by being a bit of a dick.
As I said before, I am uncertain about how Hamilton’s story will be told in this musical, or indeed what the focus of the narrative will be. The biography of Alexander Hamilton doesn’t strike me as a musical anyone asked for, but its success indicates that there is something about it people needed to hear. The remainder of this post will be my first impressions after listening to the soundtrack — ironically the longest individual piece of music I have listened to all year.
Impressions of Hamilton (do I even need to say “Spoilers”?)
I’ll get the easy part out of the way first: I really liked Hamilton. Acknowledging that I haven’t actually seen it, I would still place it among the top 5 musicals I’ve experienced so far. However, I have to admit that my finger is not really on the pulse of Broadway, and I can’t speak to the relative merits of Hamilton compared to any contemporary productions — is it particularly original? Is it particularly groundbreaking? I can’t answer that. What I can talk about are some qualitative measures that I am more familiar with.
This was not cutting edge hip-hop. At the same time, I honestly didn’t expect it to be. It was a musical first, and a hip-hop project second. I think the only irony is that Daveed Diggs, the actor who played Lafayette and Jefferson, happens to be in a cutting-edge hip-hop group called Clipping. It’s questionable whether the appeal of the musical would have remained if the songs sounded like Intro, but I was leaving the possibility on the table when I went into Hamilton — it stayed there the whole time.
What did I get instead? The first act had a very “Downtown” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis vibe (except maybe rewound one or two decades). It was boppin’, it was upbeat, it was actually pretty funny at times. I am not used to the foundation of the United States being depicted with such levity, and for a while I felt like it was nothing more than a PG-13 version of Schoolhouse Rock.
The female-led songs were a high point of the soundtrack. Philippa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry (the main Schuyler sisters) both have wonderful singing voices, and although the aesthetics of the songs were somewhere between Frozen and 90’s era pop/RnB (e.g. Destiny’s Child), the execution was quite good. I also thought I heard a bit of Alicia Keys in there, but it could have just been the New York references. The contrasting pair of Helpless and Satisfied were their two best songs, although I felt strongly that all of their songs were relatively good.
Conversely, Miranda himself (as Hamilton) was an unperformer for me. It’s not like he doesn’t understand hip-hop, because presumably he wrote all the songs in this musical, including the ones he doesn’t participate in. However, his delivery was just weak (perhaps by design?), especially when compared to Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr). I’ll get more into my thoughts on the character of Hamilton when I begin discussing the story, but suffice to say I found his songs to be needlessly dweeby. What I can say for Hamilton/Miranda is that I enjoyed the “Aaron Burr, sir” motif that he started with track 2. It played well lyrically throughout the rest of the musical.
Odom Jr. stole the show on the men’s side. He was compelling, he was emotive, and he mastered all the musical styles that were given to him. Wait For It was another top track from the musical. Lyrical manifestos are not something I listen to frequently — in fact, the only comparison I have is with Miranda’s sister track, My Shot. Nominally, they follow the same dynamic: start quiet, end loud. However, Wait For It took a concept and developed it throughout the track — the internal loud/quiet shifts in the song had a point. My Shot did not share this nuance — its internal dynamics were not meaningful. This is incidentally something that I see a lot in post-rock that has caused me to revise my stance on what makes dynamic songs good, but that is a story for another time. I preferred My Shot when it was the 1997 Gospel/Hip-Hop track Stomp by Kirk Franklin. Seriously.
The second act seemed to lack any one stand-out song, but it was nonetheless very moving at times. The whole tone was much darker and the hip-hop element was less apparent (aside from two rap-battle segments taking place in the White House between Jefferson and Hamilton). One Last Time was a worthy tribute to George Washington, and a most unexpected one — he had been treated as a second-class character throughout the musical up to that point. It’s Quiet Uptown was pretty intense in context — it doesn’t have the same weight by itself. It’s not uncommon to have that happen with musicals, and I would attribute it to the fact that the lyrics are disproportionately important compared to the music itself. Same situation with the ending song, Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story. It is an incredible closing song… if you have just listened to the rest of the musical.
The musical is called Hamilton, and it was undeniably about Hamilton, but he was an evanescent phenomenon about which other characters revolved. Yes, Hamilton was in the musical, and yes, he did things, but I would argue the story was really about his wife, Eliza, and his rival, Aaron Burr.
Hamilton is a straightforward character in the story: he wants to do something great so that he will be remembered. He is really not cross-examined on this at any point in the narrative, nor are his accomplishments described in much detail. It is why I say again that he becomes an almost allegorical figure when compared to the others in the story. The result of this characterization is that on the nigh only time in which Hamilton is asked to explain himself — his interactions with Thomas Jefferson — Hamilton appears as if he represents some kind of intrinsic good. You have to be really paying attention to what Jefferson is saying about him to recognize the fact that Hamilton represented the interests of the banking elite in New York and made them quite a lot of money during his tenure as Secretary of the Treasury. There is a lot more to be said than that about whether or not his actions were truly beneficial (or necessary) to the country, and the arguably superficial remarks by Jefferson and Madison in the finale do not get us there. Nor does the quasi-topical commentary given by Hamilton during the rap-battles about what makes his ideas so good.
This digression into historicity is all to say that we were given a much clearer portrait of characters like Burr, Eliza, and even her sister Angelica than we were given of the titular character of the musical. We know what Aaron Burr wants (it’s actually the same as what Alexander Hamilton wants), and we know a bit more about why he wants it (a sort of fatalism). In Hamilton’s case, again with “My Shot” as nearly our only study point, we have a question-begging situation of “I want to be great because I want to be great.”
I’m not sure we know what Eliza wants per se (lot of room for a follow-on, here), but we at least know how she feels, which is something we only get in small doses from Hamilton himself. Heck, I would argue we got more out of George Washington by the end than we did Hamilton.
Two songs come to mind that would be an example of what I needed to hear from Hamilton/Miranda to make him a human character. One is Runaway by Kanye West, the other is 30 by Danny Brown. Those are what honest depictions of ambition and obsessive pursuit of a dream sound like. Instead we get the Simba-tier behavior in Meet Me Inside.
On the one hand, I think it was noble of Lin-Manuel Miranda to tell Hamilton’s story, because it is an amazing “started from the bottom” tale, and even I, who was aware of many of Hamilton’s actions, was not aware of his backstory. On the other, I think the reason that Hamilton as a whole is underappreciated today (the reason we don’t all know this story already) could be because Jefferson was right about him. His achievements were fiscal and monetary in nature — something few people take the time to understand. If more of us did, we’d reach the uncomfortable question that I don’t believe Miranda touched: who were the good guys in this story, really?