On ‘Hamilton’

For almost a year I heard about how good Hamilton was. Since its off-Broadway premiere at New York’s Public Theater, media outlets and followers of the Great White Way spoke breathlessly about its genius, about how it was a game changer, about how it’s just so damn good. But I never gave into the hype because hype is just that, hype. It’s a meaningless thing that’s meant to sell tickets and build buzz, not to accurately portray the quality of any particular thing. (Case in point: the cronut, avocado toast, etc.) Even after Billboard Magazine put Hamilton’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda on its cover for an exact issue I also wrote something for this past August, I barely skimmed the story. I ignored all of it, even as a freelance music journalist who depends on following trends in order to write about them and get paid. Yes, I rely on learning about today’s music so I can make money in order to buy food and pay my rent and I still didn’t even look into it. I mean, how good could a ‘rap’ show about the American Revolution be? It just couldn’t possibly be as good as people are saying. There was just no way in hell.

My aversion went on for about a year. I simply wasn’t going to give into the Hamilton craze. That is until one day I was bored of my regular crop of music and wanted something fresh. Thanks to my subscription to Apple Music, I have every single album known to man at the push of a button and saw the Hamilton record on the service’s homepage. So, I decided to give it a whirl; I mean, I just wanted to see how dumb this was. I could always turn it off and go onto whatever was next. (Maybe the new Pitbull song? That’s a joke, I’m not a masochist.)

I clicked play and the show’s opening track, Alexander Hamilton, started to blare through my headphones kicking off with its now-familiar opening line, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore…” This is usually people’s first taste of the musical and also happens to be the first track Miranda crafted for the show. (He’ll later say he was inspired to write it upon reading a book about Hamilton while on vacation.) After listening, I was indifferent. That was okay, I thought. Then came the next song, Aaron Burr, Sir. Again, it didn’t really grab me- outlying historical characters were being introduced that I had never heard of and there was some rapping in a thick French accent that I couldn’t fully comprehend. However despite my confusion, I didn’t turn it off. Then came track three, My Shot, a five minute and 33 second introduction to Hamilton’s character and, in essence, the spirit of the show. My Shot is a rap song that blends musical elements, but really isn’t either of those things. I can’t really compare it to anything else I’ve ever heard before; the song is so unique that when it ended I had to listen to it again. And again. And again.

This trend continued and after an hour I had only gotten up to track five. Each song, like the best meal you’ve ever eaten, needed to be savored to be fully understood and enjoyed. The brilliance of Hamilton is that its very uniqueness is the both the thing that first turned me off and later led to a deep appreciation. It wasn’t until a day or two later after I was fully immersed in the show that I realized that Hamilton’s hype wasn’t just a shallow ploy to sell tickets but something that signaled a turning point in not only American theater but music in general. As I made my way through the album I kept on looking for a weak point or the moment things went off the rails, but that never happened. You get to deeply know these characters as the story becomes more intricate and slowly begin to discover that each song is better than the next.

**

The show works on multiple levels. Artists have issues writing an album with more than just one or two merely good songs. Hamilton contains 46 amazing songs, which is all the more impressive considering they span a variety of genres. One sounds like a track Beyonce would cut, another has echoes of a 50s girl group, another is a blues track, another sounds Eminem-like, and there are also your typical Broadway show-stoppers and ballads. There are even hints of artists like Kanye, Katy Perry, Billy Joel, you name it. But these iconic singers are merely inspirations for Miranda, because the album isn’t full of mere soundalikes of the aforementioned artists, but they instead build on their respective genres, taking them to new places. On top of that, most tracks are instant ear worms. (Listen to My Shot and if its infectious chorus doesn’t get stuck in your head than you are probably either deaf or a cadaver.)

The music is only a piece of the equation, because everything also doubles as a history lesson; not only of the incredibly true yet little known life of Alexander Hamilton himself, but of the founding of America in general. This makes its lyrics layered to not only tell you about the early days of the United States, but to also paint rich portraits of every character’s personality. Just completing one of these tasks would be a difficult chore, but doing both at the same time and making the music actually good? Almost unreal. In addition, Miranda somehow successfully crafted energetic and thrilling songs about the most boring topics imaginable, like the writing of The Federalist Papers. It’s an impossibility he pulls off with such maddening ease that it’s easy to see why people are referring to him as a genius.

That leads into the other great trick of the show; both its story and its standing as a work of art is an inspiration. Alexander Hamilton’s life is about someone who had nothing and worked his way to the top. The Hamilton show should have never been as good as it is, but it triumphed above all expectations. When Miranda debuted the title song during a performance at the White House and explained the initial concept, people were literally laughing at him. (According to Miranda, this was a common response during the early days of production.) The show’s main inspiration lies in the fact that this is something that shouldn’t work at all, but it not only works but thrives in spectacular fashion. It’s almost like when Susan Boyle came out to audition for The X Factor. No one believed she could actually be that good.

Then you have everyone Miranda skillfully surrounded himself with. By now everyone knows that Hamilton’s company features a diverse roster of actors who range in ethnicities, so when all is said and done your original perception of old, white historical figures are irrevocably shattered. Each cast member’s talent as not only actors but singers is unmistakable, from Leslie Odom Jr. who plays narrator Aaron Burr, to Phillipa Soo who brings beauty and gravitas to the role of Elizabeth Schuyler. These actors don’t just deliver archetypes but fully realized, realistic and layered characters. Even Odom’s Burr, the man who famously shot and killed Hamilton in a duel, is viewed in a sympathetic light and not as the villain of the story. The company brings these historical characters to life in such vivid detail that could have otherwise been seen as one note are instead complicated portraits of people doing what they can to survive.

The running joke now about Hamilton is that it’s impossible to get tickets and that everyone is saying it’s good. The show is so good that it’s turning into a cliche to talk about how good it is. (A fact hilariously captured by writer Tim Sniffen in this humor piece.) But it’s all true. It’s a history lesson about droll, dull topics made fun. It’s a musical without any the qualities that turn people off about Broadway. It’s an rap opera that fans of both genres would appreciate. In a show full of contrasts, Hamilton’s greatest triumph is that it makes you both believe in the same cliches it teaches you to second guess.