“And If You Don’t Know, Now You Know, Mr. President”
I say “Alexander Hamilton” and you say… “Hip-Hop”. Right? Not so much? Well if America’s Founding Fathers and Rap music don’t instantly strike you as natural counterparts, you’re probably not alone. But when you take some time to learn about this country’s “Ten-dollar founding father without a father” you’ll find that before Hamilton grew up and became one of the most integral forces in the creation of the United States as we know it, he started out as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in in the Caribbean by providence impoverished in poverty and squalor”. Luckily for the rest of the world, Grammy, Tony, and Emmy Award winning composer, lyricist, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, brought a copy of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography on vacation with him a few years back and recognized a hip-hop story in the first few chapters. Miranda recognized in Hamilton the relentless ambition and ability to write his way out of rough circumstances that he admired in so many of his favorite rappers. What makes Miranda such an unusual Hip-Hop Head is that he spent as much of his early years in Washington Heights listening to rap records as he did to musical theatre cast albums.
This highly unusual combination of inspirations resulted in the production of his first Broadway musical, In The Heights, which opened on Broadway in 2008. This salsa-inspired, Hip-Hop infused ode to the northern neighborhoods of Manhattan featured Miranda’s music and lyrics and he starred in the lead role (as is the case in Hamilton as well). Miranda started writing music for In The Heights while he was still in college and while it is exciting,dynamic and totally respectful of, while incredibly different from, traditional musical theatre repertoire, even the huge success of that show could never have prepared people for the landmark venture that is Hamilton. This musical began as a concept album called the Hamilton Mixtape and the song that eventually became the opening number was first performed at the White House’s Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word on May 12, 2009. (Here he portrays Aaron Burr, while in the finished show he portrays the title character).
From that point, he continued working on the project as though it really was going to be confined to a recording instead of being fully staged. While obviously the choice was eventually made to tell Hamilton’s story in a traditional musical theatre format using the vocabulary of hip-hop, it is largely due to Miranda’s original, recording only, plan that the end result is a 2 hour and 45 minute long musical that is almost entirely sung through. There are a few regularly spoken lines in the final version of the musical but otherwise the story of the notoriously verbose and shockingly prolific first Treasury Secretary of the United States is appropriately delivered mostly through the unbelievably dense, heightened language of rap music. The musical also includes British Invasion Pop tracks sung by King George III of England, Destiny’s Child inspired R&B tracks sung by the Schuyler Sisters, and some more traditional musical theatre ballads and ensemble numbers.
Following a twice-extended, sold out run Off-Broadway downtown at The Public Theatre last winter, Hamilton transferred to Broadway this summer and opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on August 6, 2015 preceded by over $27 million dollars in presale tickets. The list of celebrities who have attended the production thus far is lengthy and impressive, including musicians like Beyoncé, Jay Z, Madonna, Busta Rhymes and Paul McCartney, acting and musical theatre legends like Julie Andrews, Barbara Streisand, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and prominent politicians like Bill and Hilary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama (who have both seen it twice). Two importance artists in attendance at the Public Theatre run were Questlove Gomez and Tariq “Black thought” Trotter of The Roots fame. After seeing the show, they signed on to produce the cast album. The now Grammy nominated, 2 disc, 46 track album was released in all its glory by Atlantic Records on September 25th, 2015. Since then it has maintained a presence in multiple Billboard charts, debuting at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 chart and even topping the Billboard Rap Album chart in the week of November 28th, making it, not surprisingly, the first musical cast album ever to do so.
In the words of Questlove: “To be hip-hop is much more than just rapping in the production. It is more in the attitude.” and Hamilton’s incredibly talented cast brings serious skill and attitude through their diverse range of musical backgrounds. Not only are their careers up until this point diverse, ranging form Broadway veterans to complete newcomers with established rap careers, the cast is also really racially diverse. Hamilton is “the story of America then, told by America now” and the first track, “Alexander Hamilton” begins with Aaron Burr, played by Leslie Odom Jr. setting the scene. As there is no overture, this is the first music that the listeners experience and it immediately acclimates them to the vernacular of the rest of the musical/album. This is the evolved version of the song Miranda originally performed at the White House, with almost all of the same lyrics now shared by the full company. In this four-minute song, at least forty pages of Chernow’s biography and nearly twenty years of Hamilton’s life are summarized, prepping listeners for his life in America.
“My Shot” is the third track on Disc One and is another important introduction to Hamilton as a character. It is here that he makes a statement for the first time and shows everyone what he’s got, through really clever, polysyllabic rhymes. This song really becomes Hamilton’s theme and follows him throughout the album. Structurally, it draws some inspiration from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and is intended to sound reminiscent of 80’s rap. It contains direct references to 90’s artists like Mobb Deep and The Notorious B.I.G while ALSO including nods to legendary musical theatre composers like Rodgers & Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. Another huge shout out to Biggie is Track 15, “Ten Duel Commandments” which clearly outlines the rules of dueling in a very modern take on the historical document, the “Code Duello”. Modified versions of this song also appear on Disc 2, before the duel between Hamilton’s son Philip and George Eaker, and the final showdown between Hamilton and Burr.
Other Act 1 standouts include: “Satisfied” – a moment when Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler proves that she is every bit Hamilton’s equal in a number that is a rewind of the preceding song from a new character’s perspective; “Wait For It” – Burr’s powerful counter to Hamilton’s constant forward motion with some dancehall reggae sounds appearing in the beginning that build into a moving choral ending; “Guns and Ships”— the fastest paced song in Broadway history (behind Sondheim’s “Not Getting Married Today” from Company) where Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette manages to spit up to 19 words in one 3 second span; and of course “You’ll Be Back”— King George’s show-stopping breakup letter to the Colonies which sounds distinctly like British Invasion pop.
While I have now gone on at length about Hamilton’s history as a musical and an album and shared a whole lot of things about Act 1/Disc 1, I’ll try to be brief about Act 2/Disc 2. There are a couple of things you need to know. Tracks 2 and 7, “Cabinet Battle #1” and “Cabinet Battle #2” are amazing and are little microcosms of the spirit of the whole show. In these songs, George Washington, played by Chris Jackson, acts as the MC (a la Jay Z’s “Izzo”) and welcomes everyone on stage, in the audience, and now listening to the recording, to the kind of debate I wish we could see in politics today. While many of the company members who did not rap much before joining this cast picked up the necessary skills incredibly well, here we hear two of the company’s most advanced freestylers, Miranda and Diggs, going head to head over high-stakes history and it’s really just a lot of fun to listen to. Immediately following “Cabinet Battle #2” is one of my personal favorite songs from the whole album, “Washington On Your Side”, which includes some really tight harmonies and more solos from Diggs, which are always a highlight.
Obviously, I could go on for days about every last detail of this album but I won’t because it would be much better for you to spend your time listening to it and getting excited about everything yourself rather than reading about my endless enthusiasm. As someone who hopes to work in commercial theatre I have been paying really careful attention to the way that this musical has completely changed the game in the last year and the release of the album this Fall was the icing on the cake. Because tickets go for hundreds of dollars and sell out months in advance, this album is probably the only way that a lot of people are going to get to experience this musical for a long time. For now, that should be more than enough.
*For in-depth annotations of the entire album, you’ll want to start here: HAMILTON Genius Annotations
And you can see a short video about the making of the album from 60 Minutes: Overtime here: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-making-of-the-hamilton-cast-album/