Hamilton is a Broadway phenomenon about one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. It has amassed an enormous number of awards, some of which are a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a Grammy for best Musical Theater Album, and 11 Tonys. Not only that, but the Musical reached #1 Album on the Billboard Rap Charts—something nearly unheard of for a cast recording. Hamilton has been making the rounds, reaching ears around the world, including the skeptics. I should know, I was one.
Here’s the thing: I heard about Hamilton months ago. Of course, I looked it up, but upon seeing it was a medley of hip-hop and R&B, I clicked away. At the time, all I knew about the musical was that it was widely popular and told entirely through rap and hip-hop. I was never into rap and hip-hop, so seeing that put me off, and looking back now, I can’t believe I was so prejudiced that I didn’t even give it a listen until June. So, I’m here to tell you to forget about any preconceived notions or ideas you have and just take a listen, because it will blow you away.
The first song from the Original Broadway Cast Recording that I listened to was “Burn”. At the time, I didn’t know that the story was told entirely through song, so I just tapped “Shuffle” and that was the song that came first. “Burn” takes place around the middle of the Second Act, so not really the right place to start off if you’re a newbie, but what really got to me were the words of the song. I was listening to the first couple bars, thinking “okay, this sounds good,” but then I started actually paying attention to the lyrics and I was hooked.
Phillipa Soo, pictured above, as Elizabeth Schuyler-Hamilton
The words from Hamilton are beautiful. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator, wrote both the music and lyrics. He has an incredible gift for stringing words together, filling them with double meanings and metaphors and internal rhymes, thus making every single song a multi-layered gem. “Burn” has many of those. A powerful line from the song is, “You built me palaces out of paragraphs”. This song is sung by Hamilton’s wife Eliza, when she hears about how he cheated on her. The whole musical revolves around Alexander Hamilton and how his greatest weapon is his words, so there’s a huge emphasis on the power his words hold. He writes Eliza love letters until she falls for him, which she illustrates in that phrase. Miranda manages to put all of the love Eliza had for Hamilton and how deeply she fell for his words into one line. He does this over and over again throughout the song. For instance, when she says, “I’m burning the letters,” she not only means that she is physically burning his letters, but also the mark he left on her heart, and it displays her heartbreak, betrayal, and disappointment.
For many of us, our chances of seeing the musical live are very slim, so the words are all we have. These lyrics have the power to give multiple emotions at once, stab us in the heart, make us laugh, cry, and that’s ultimately the reason we all read or listen to literature.
Moving past the brilliant lyrics, I have to talk about how each song is completely different yet there are melodies from previous songs woven in, and the result is really astounding. In my opinion, there aren’t any songs from this cast recording that are in any way lacking. Every song has a distinct melody with a completely different set of words and rhymes. This is incredibly staggering, considering this is a two hour and a half production with 46 songs. One would think that there would be at least a couple “bad” songs or ones without much melody or written ingenuity, but there aren’t: every song has new rhymes and symbolisms, with more magical words that illustrate the story.
Another thing that’s important about this show is that it’s cast is comprised mostly of people of color. Traditionally, those characters would have been cast as predominantly white. To Lin-Manuel-Miranda, “this is a story about America then, told by America now,” which I think is really amazing. The United States is full of people from all different backgrounds and it is only right that that be represented on Broadway. Of course, there’s been some backlash about this, because many people like to stick to traditional ideas and get defensive over anything that breaks the mold. Miranda, though, says in an interview with Emma Watson, “We know what the [founding fathers] look like. That takes zero research.” He pictured them as popular R&B artists, and thought about which artist had the right “temperament” for each character Lin was creating in his mind. For George Washington, for example, he was picturing artists such as Common and John Legend instead of the actual Washington. This is exceptionally beautiful because it sends a strong message: it tells young children of color that they don’t have to conform to the racial stereotypes that are all around them, and that they don’t have to be afraid of a role because they don’t match the skin of everyone else auditioning. Who would think that there could ever be a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, a founding father, a white man, with a mostly non-white cast? Miranda is breaking the mold, encouraging other Broadway musicals to start bringing in more actors with diverse backgrounds, something that has been notably lacking in many musicals along Broadway.
And lastly, I wanted to discuss how this musical tackles many of the political issues we as a nation are having today. There is a constant theme of immigrants in the play, questioning what it means to be a “true” American, and how people should or should not run the country. Throughout the show, the word “immigrant” is used as an insult to degrade people, and Hamilton rises above that and proves his doubters wrong. In the show, there are also many debates on whether the United States should enter in foreign affairs, or help other countries. In Hamilton, the issue is whether or not they should help the French in the French Revolution. Today, we discuss how involved we should get in the wars in the Middle East, and the terrorist attacks in Europe.
Another important issue is gun violence. Many of the historical figures from the show died because of gun violence, including the titular character, Alexander Hamilton. Again, there have been many problems with gun control over the past year, and this show perfectly illustrates the repercussions of such actions. For instance, in the song, “Ten Duel Commandments”, Hamilton is with John Laurens and Aaron Burr, ready for a duel against Charles Lee. As the duel between Laurens and Lee begins, the music turns erratic, and the sense and order of the words fall apart, illustrating the consequences of their actions, and ultimately resulting in Laurens’ death. In the following song, “Meet Me Inside”, George Washington berates the men for their lack of foresight and their gun use. This is symbolic towards how gun violence is not a light topic and shouldn’t just be used because someone you know has a different opinion. In the United States, I think that that is too often the case. A gunman may open fire on a group of people he doesn’t agree with, such as a particular race, or religious group. This isn’t the right way to go about things, and I love that Hamilton addresses many of the consequences and political issues we are having today.
This musical has everything you could ever want in a musical: gripping and unique music, a diverse cast, great storyline, and most importantly, it emphasizes issues we are currently experiencing and doesn’t dilute them. It makes the problems known in an attempt to get people to see them and change them. That is something that I really love about the musical: it has opened so many doors for so many people, and I think that is really wonderful. For me, it’s opened my eyes to a new genre of music I never knew I liked, piqued my interest in American history, and really made me love words and rap. I know I’m not the only one. Millions of people around the world are finding love with this show and it makes me immensely happy to hear. This is a show for the history books. How lucky we are to be alive right now.
Images via: Hamilton Broadway, EW, lafbaguette.tumblr.com, The Vista Voice, USA Today, The Guardian
Ting Ting Chen