Critic’s Notebook: ‘Hamilton’s’ revolutionary power is in its hip-hop musical numbers
“Hamilton,” which began off-Broadway at the Public Theater and is now happily ensconced at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, where tickets are fetching a Russian oligarch’s ransom, is the most important American musical to come along since “Rent.”
A commercial hit that is also an artistic watershed, the show has apparently satisfied everyone, including carping critics, young people deathly allergic to the theater, and tourists who can’t believe how much money they’re forking over for hip-hop rather than Andrew Lloyd Webber (whom interestingly and somewhat surprisingly Miranda has acknowledged as an influence).
After seeing the Broadway production earlier this fall (and winning the enmity of every friend and family member I didn’t invite to be my plus-one) and after listening repeatedly to the recently released original cast recording, I’m more convinced than ever that the show’s magic is in the music. This hip-hop-infused show owes much of its phenomenal success to the way it distills its story into electrifying musical numbers.
How does he connect audiences to characters separated by more than 200 years, funny costumes and vastly different imperatives? By relating the hopes and setbacks, squabbles and seductions, triumphs and tragedies, of these 18th century American rebels in a score that allows the past to speak in the musical language of the rebellious present — rap.
Ron Chernow’s book “Alexander Hamilton” was an inspiration for the show, which faithfully follows the outline of Hamilton’s life. But it’s clear from the opening number, in which Miranda conveys with canny concision Hamilton’s early biography, that this is not going to be any high school social studies lesson.
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten / spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, / grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
This question, punched out by that rival MC Aaron Burr, introduces us to Hamilton, whose relatively short but astonishingly consequential life is the subject of the musical. (Fitting, somehow, that the man who jealously slew Hamilton in a duel is the first to take up the mystery of his story.)
Soon Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington and even Hamilton’s future wife, Eliza, are adding their poetic encapsulations of Hamilton’s Dickensian childhood. From the shadows, Hamilton, a new immigrant to America determined to get an education worthy of his “top-notch brain,” slinks onto the stage like a cat staking out unfamiliar territory.
The score, which incorporates R&B and jazz in a sinuous flow that artfully makes use of Broadway songwriting paradigms without Broadway-izing the sound, isn’t the only modernizing force. The casting of multicultural actors in these historical roles accentuates the parallels between the revolutionary aims of the characters and the ongoing struggle to extend this grand democratic project to all people.
How did Hamilton, with all of his manifold disadvantages, manage to become a crucial architect of a new nation? The answer in Miranda’s necessarily circumscribed character study is drive, overpowering drive. Or as John Laurens, soldier, statesman and an early opponent of slavery, memorably phrases it: “The 10-dollar Founding Father without a father / got a lot farther by working a lot harder, / by being a lot smarter, / by being a self-starter.”
I am not what some might call a “show queen.” My home contains no vault of cast albums. I don’t sit and mentally re-create obscure musicals from the privacy of my living room, à la Man in Chair from “The Drowsy Chaperone.” I am devoted to Stephen Sondheim and own every available recording that Barbara Cook and Audra McDonald have made, but when I’m not listening to NPR while stuck in traffic, you’re more likely to catch me lip-syncing to Beyoncé, Adele or Kanye West than to a power ballad from “Wicked.”
But the only thing playing in my car these days (sorry, Ari Shapiro and Audie Cornish!) is “Hamilton.” It’s not simply that the music suits my taste. It’s that replaying the score has revealed new layers in Miranda’s storytelling. Better still, it allows me to relive the prowess, dynamism and communal spirit of Thomas Kail’s sensational production.
So, for instance, when I hear the number “The Room Where It Happens,” in which Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison defy the odds by compromising on a consequential deal that will relocate the capital to the Potomac and advance Hamilton’s handcrafted financial system, I’m not just getting a better sense of the horse-trading nature of history. I’m grooving to the memory of Leslie Odom Jr.'s tour-de-force moment on stage, when his Aaron Burr ditches his usual political double talk for no-holds-barred showmanship.
Hamilton’s relentless race against time is captured with Eminem combustion in “My Shot.” The song turns Hamilton’s story (“just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry”) into the tale of every striving American underdog. His later Cabinet battles invite him to match wits with his snooty political adversaries in rap, a language that gives this talented upstart a decided advantage.
In “Helpless,” Miranda shows that he can deliver romance with the flair of Destiny’s Child, thanks to the heavenly voice of Phillipa Soo’s Eliza. He then immediately complicates the love story with “Satisfied,” in which a fiery Renée Elise Goldsberry as Eliza’s sister Angelica sheds darker light on the partly transactional nature of marriage, with hearts going one way, heads another.
No contemporary musical has touched grief in a song as profoundly as “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which I’ll confess is impossible for me to listen to without tearing up. Hamilton, wandering the city alone with his regrets and self-recriminations, is mourning the death of his son while trying to earn his wife’s forgiveness for all he has put her through.
Daveed Diggs’ flamboyantly assured handling of Miranda’s jams (his entrance as Jefferson in “What’d I Miss” at the top of Act 2 is worthy of Prince), Jonathan Groff’s British pop nuttiness as King George, Christopher Jackson’s husky command as Washington and Jasmine Cephas Jones’ sensual soulfulness contribute to the show’s impressively varied and beautifully coordinated palette.
Whether you have been lucky enough to see the show already or are planning to catch it when it eventually tours, the cast recording of “Hamilton” will deepen your appreciation for a musical that ingeniously communicates its story through a transcendently theatrical score.
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