“The world turned upside down.” Hamilton
There’s really nothing else I want to talk about for this year’s “Thing(s) I Love” post. I’ve been having a mad and crazy love affair with this new musical called Hamilton. I can’t stop listening to it or thinking about it.
There’s a good chance you’ve maybe heard of this musical sometime in the last year, but if you were like me up until two weeks ago, you might not know anything about it. Let me give you the elevator pitch:
“It’s a musical about revolutionary war hero and the first American Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. He’s on the American $10 bill. He’s killed in a duel. Oh, it’s all done in hip hop.”
Wait! Don’t walk away!
It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? It really does. I mean, take the relatively dry and boring topic of American History and couple it with a gimmicky musical hook and what do you get? Some weird parody thing that surely can’t be a whole musical, right? I mean, it must be a “Funny or Die” style video, or maybe a digital short on SNL or something, right? RIGHT? In fact, if you happen to look up “Alexander Hamilton” on youtube, you’ll come across a video of composer Lin-Manuel Miranda performing the musical’s first song at the White House. I wouldn’t recommend watching this clip until after you’ve listened to the whole soundtrack. It’s pretty interesting to watch later, because he introduces the song as a bit of a joke, and the audience THINKS it’s a joke and so the tone of the room is sort of exactly what you might think of when you think of a story about Alexander Hamilton set to hip-hop. (i.e. when I saw this video a few months ago, I didn’t connect with it, and thought it was pretty lame, actually. I dismissed it as some piece of pop culture that I wasn’t ever going to be into. Some cheap American propaganda from a country that likes to carve likenesses of their presidents into the sides of mountains.)
Then Hamilton opened on Broadway last August after having an Off Broadway run, and the reviews were off the charts positive. And yet, I still resisted paying it any attention. Why?
I think a part of it was my natural suspicion of anything universally adored. I have just enough of the iconoclast in me that I tend to be harder on something just because other people like it. I know. I’m a monster. All this talk of Hamilton changing people’s lives and whatnot just sort of rubbed me the wrong way. I thought it probably said more about people’s need to brag about seeing something that isn’t available to everyone that what it said about the content of the thing they were praising. You know, one of those, “Oh I just saw this thing and it was amazing and you should see it too. Oh, you don’t live in New York or have hundreds of dollars for theatre tickets? Too bad. I’m better than you.”
Or so I thought.
Then, a couple of weeks back I decided to borrow the soundtrack from the library (through our Hoopla app) to finally see for myself. On a recent episode of “Judge John Hodgman“, the judge spent quite a bit of time talking about the greatness of this musical, and for the first time I actually took notice. He had been listening to the soundtrack on its own even before he had seen the play live. (He has since seen the play, subsequent to the recording of that podcast). So the fact that he liked the musical on the strength of the soundtrack alone gave me hope. Around this same time, a friend of mine (and friend of this blog, I may say), also borrowed the soundtrack and had been listening to it for a few days. The reviews from her were glowing, as well, and I like a lot of the same stuff that she likes, despite the fact that she is an unrepentant Sondheimite, sooooo…
So it seemed like it was the perfect time to give it a try. What did I have to lose?
I can’t stop thinking about this musical. It’s been about two weeks now, and I’ve been playing it every day. I’m really behind on my podcast listening because during my morning walks I only want to listen to Hamilton. It’s best through headphones, but in the car is also good. Every time I listen I hear something new. No joke. And it’s also worthwhile visiting the lyrics pages at genius.com. Not only do they have all the words, most of them have been annotated by theatre fans and some of them have been written or approved by the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. I’m learning so much about the show and the characters in it. I even clicked on the Thomas.gov website the other day (it’s a government site that houses primary historical documents) and read through some of the Federalist Papers. I’m down for the count and I’m, drownin’ in it.
Where do I begin? How does one begin actually talking about this musical? Make sense of it? Just when I think I have a favourite song or a favourite moment, I’ll listen to some other part and think “oh YEAH. That’s so great”. In fact, if you were ask me what my favourite part is, my answer will probably be whatever part I’ve just finished listening to and still have in my head.
I love the Schuyler sisters, especially Eliza, BUT ALSO ANGELICA. “Helpless” was the first song I really connected with on my first listen, and then a second later “Satisfied” came on and IT became my favourite song, and then the two of them together really fit and I can’t really think about one without the other. That’s the other thing. There are only a handful of what I’d call traditional “songs” in this musical. You know, the kind you could pull out and perform on their own during a “Broadway Night Variety Show”. “That Would Be Enough” and “Dear Theodosia” are two that come to mind. The rest of the tracks are made up of different themes and motifs that weave themselves in and out of all the characters’ lines throughout the whole musical. And then you get layers upon layers. You know how in musicals you will sometimes get reprises of previously sung songs? Well, imagine having 5 or 6 of these themes woven together at certain moments. I’m thinking of “Non Stop”, the last song before the intermission. You get Aaron Burr singing some exposition of what happens after the war, but then you get the “why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room?” rhythm that carries through to the end of the song and before it’s over you’ve got elements of “Helpless”, “Satisfied”, “My Shot”, you’ve got George Washington singing “History has its eyes on you” and Hamilton throwing Eliza’s lines “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now” back at her. And it works, because it’s a musical. It would just be incomprehensible noise otherwise. The idea of layering themes isn’t new. It happens all the time in musical theatre. Another good example of it is “One Day More” in Les Miserables. But what’s different about Hamilton is the frequency of these wonderful, breathtaking moments.
And I’m not even exaggerating when I say these kinds of moments happen probably 5 or 6 times PER ACT. If there is any criticism to be had, it’s that there is just too much for an average theatre-goer to take in on one sitting. I know I listened intently to the whole thing (actually I listened to Act 1 twice before moving on to Act 2), and I estimated that maybe I absorbed about 15% of it the first time through. That was a generous estimation. Knowing what I know now, it was probably closer to 5%.
And even though people were laughing with (and probably at) Lin-Manuel Miranda when he debuted “Alexander Hamilton” at the White House, it is not, by any means, a comedy or a parody. It is so earnest and truthful, there’s no mistaking the sincerely bled into this work. Having said that, the play does have its moments of levity, most often when mad King George III pops up now and then to check on how things are going in America. His catchy tune, “You’ll Be Back” appears three times throughout the play, once before the war, once at the end, and once when George Washington steps down, and it’s always a delight. Fun fact: it was the first song Lin-Manuel wrote for the musical, and it’s a different style to all the rest. It’s done in a more of a “Beatles/British Invasion” mode, which makes sense since it is the English King singing it. The rest of the humour in the show doesn’t appear to come through traditional jokes, but rather through moments of clever word play. I say “doesn’t appear” because all I have to go on is the soundtrack at this point. The more I listen, the more I pick up, and the more I appreciate the references. Is this what listening to hip hop is like? I’ll admit I know nothing about that genre, but I would imagine I would be the type that’s always looking up all the lyrics and rhymes and trying to make sense of them if I ever got into it. Thank goodness for the internet.
There is a lovely balance between pulse-pounding rhyme-heavy pieces and softer, reflectively tender moments. I can’t honestly tell you which I love more. You go from having your heart throbbing to your heart breaking. Some of my favourite “heart throbbing” moments include George Washington’s first appearance in “Right Hand Man”: “We’re outgunned! [What?] Out manned! [What?] Outnumbered Outplanned!” and a couple of songs later in “Yorktown” where the British finally surrender. This song, or series of themed moments, may be in fact my single most favourite moment of the play. (But of course I’d say that. It’s the part I just finished listening to right now).
Just listen to the intensity when Hamilton sings about a daring bayonet attack on the British:
“Take the bullets out your gun! [What?]
Take the bullets out your gun! [What?]
We move under cover and we move as one.
Through the night we have one shot to live another day,
We cannot let a stray gunshot give us away.
We will fight up close, seize the moment and stay in it.
It’s either that or meet the business end of a bayonet.
The code word is Rochambeau, dig me? [Rochambeau!]
You have your orders now, go man go!”
It makes sense to stop there, but the next few lines are really excellent too. I think I have them memorized.
“And so the American experiment begins, my friends all scattered to the winds.
Laurens is in South Carolina, redefining bravery. We’ll never be free until we end slavery!
When we finally drive the British away, Lafayette is waiting in Chesapeake Bay….”
Okay, I’d better stop or I’ll just keep going.
I mean, the next part has HERCULES MULLIGAN, for heaven’s sake!
And as far as “heart breaking” moments, well: “That would be enough” and “Dear Theodosia” come to mind. Part of the fun of NOT seeing the musical staged is trying to imagine how things are choreographed. I imagine for “Dear Theodosia” we get Burr and Hamilton standing on the stage together, both holding their little bundles of joy in their arms. They are sharing a physical space on the stage, but are in their own homes in the story. Each one is singing to their little newborns, talking about their feelings about becoming fathers and how one day they will be so impressed with what their children will accomplish they will “blow them all away”, woven into a beautiful duet. And “That would be enough” is all Eliza, singing comforting, loving words to her husband. It begins with the reintroduction of that theme that we first hear in “The Schuyler Sisters”, “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” Just one of many lovely, tender moments.
AND THAT’S ALL JUST IN ACT I, you guys.
Look, just listen to it and we can talk.
Part of the thing of loving a new thing is that you want to introduce others to that new thing too. You love something, and you want the people YOU love to love it as well. It was inevitable that I would eventually try to get my wife to listen to some of Hamilton over the last couple of weeks. It’s a tricky thing, right? You don’t want to over-do it. You want people to go at their own pace and you certainly don’t want to put somebody off. I had to be aware of this as I have been wanting to play Hamilton at every opportunity. Doing dishes, making breakfast, playing boardgames, you name it. My wife was very good about it, humouring me. And it couldn’t have been easy, because I wasn’t really giving her the chance to sit down and absorb it. I was playing little snippets here and there all out of order:
“Listen to the King’s song! Isn’t it fun? This is the part where Hamilton cheats on his wife. He’s in a bad situation but isn’t it funny when he gets the letter from the husband? This is the part that made me cry today, after their son dies. Listen to how they pronounce the word unimaginable! Listen to these 10 Duel Commandments. Aren’t they great? Does the way they sing the chromatic scale on “Most disputes die and no one shots” make the hair on your neck stand up? Isn’t Jefferson’s introduction fun? That guy is a smooth talker. Has Hamilton met his match? Doesn’t your heart break when Eliza sings Burn? “
I was worried I was on the verge of turning her off of it completely when I found a partial clip of “Yorktown” on youtube. The thing with this musical is that it is really difficult to find any clips. (I think I’ve watched all that’s out there, and there are maybe 4 or 5 all told?) and the Yorktown clip is the longest, at just over 3 minutes. Even so, it’s not the whole song.
But that’s what did it, you guys. That clip.
My wife responds to things visually way more than I do, which is probably why she enjoys ballet more than just going to listen to a symphony orchestra. She loved the choreography, the fact that they use women as soldiers and they are so physical, the staging, the costumes. Actually EVERYTHING that you can’t get from a sound recording, she liked.
I mean, I could go on and on about this musical. I can’t remember the last time I got into a musical so much BEFORE I actually saw it. Last year, I spent much of March youtubing Book of Mormon songs, but that was after seeing the play. Beforehand, I knew maybe one song, “I Believe” and that was it. This is more like back in the hey-day of the late ’80s when I was a teenager and I had the soundtracks to Cats, Phantom and Les Miserables on cassette. DOUBLE cassette! Remember those big, cube-like cassette holders? My Dad and I played those soundtracks non-stop before ever seeing those plays, and in his case he never DID get to see them live. For him, the soundtracks would be enough. And this, of course was pre-internet, so any available info was sketchy. I remember checking out a glossy coffee-table book on The Phantom of the Opera that oddly enough included the entire Libretto, so I could follow along, reading the dialogue that happens between the songs. I remember singing a medley of songs from Les Miserables in high school before I ever had a chance to see the play. It was all we had, and we made the best of it. I feel the same way about Hamilton right now. If all we have is the soundtrack, that would be enough, for now at least. It might be years before a travelling production comes to town, and the way the dollar is now, a trip to the U.S. is not realistic. It helps that the musical is almost entirely sung (i.e. very little spoken dialogue), so there really aren’t any missing gaps on the soundtrack. Those 46 tracks represent pretty much the whole thing.
Another unexpected gift from being won over by Hamilton is that it has ignited a rebirth in an interest in musicals for me. I watched the live production of Grease last week. I had never seen the stage or movie version of Grease before. I really liked it. My only complaint was that is seemed to borrow heavily from Grease 2, in my opinion. I’ve watched A Chorus Line this week, which has some great moments, but is probably due for a “re-do”, maybe as a live event? I’m keen to rewatch Rent in the near future, and who knows maybe even a SONDHEIM? This is all thanks to Hamilton. (Let’s not get CRAZY, here. Maybe I’ll hold off on the Sondheim.)
This is a love affair, and like a love affair, it must come back to reality at some point. I SUPPOSE there will be a time in the near future when I don’t listen to it everyday or when I don’t reference genius.com for a particular line. There will be a time when I’ll take a break, and run away for the summer, a time when I’ve been taught to say goodbye, say goodbye, you and I. But it’s been two weeks and I’m helpless. The sky’s the limit. This musical doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes it takes it takes. My world’s turned upside down.