For Christmas, I put on my wishlist the soundtrack for Hamilton, the hip-hop musical about the first Secretary of the Treasury in U.S. history. He happens to be on the $10 bill.
And if ya don’t know, now ya know.
My eldest niece (who’s awesome, like all my niblings) hooked me up with Hamilton on iTunes. It took me some dancing and jumping about but I eventually got the album downloaded onto my computer, where I could get it onto my iPod. I’m sure there are all good reasons for this.
My wife, for Christmas, had asked that I take her to New York to see the musical Allegiance, starring George Takei. We booked tickets for January, since I was afraid February might have bad weather (the show was scheduled to close late February, so we had to move on this sooner rather than later.) Since we’d be in New York the night before Allegiance, we also got tickets to see Sleep No More, which was an amazing experience.
But, for me, the best part of the trip was the drive up, where I got to hear the Hamilton soundtrack for the first time. (You know, it’s hard to drive while moved to tears. Just saying.)
Occasionally, I’ll run into someone who hasn’t heard of Hamilton the Musical, or maybe it’s on their radar in some way, but they don’t realize how amazing it is. (Which means they haven’t heard any of the songs…) So I decided to write something about it. Or maybe about why it seems to affect me so emotionally.
Hamilton is, as I mentioned, the story of Alexander Hamilton, based largely on the biography by Ron Chernow. (Full disclosure, I have not read the book, but it must be great to have inspired this musical.)
The story is largely framed by narration from Aaron Burr, who plays a sort of Salieri role with Hamilton being Mozart. The first time through, I did not appreciate Burr as much as I should have. On multiple listenings, Burr’s songs are so powerfully emotional, I can’t help but get teary-eyed. (Look, this post is going to be all about me wiping tears out of my eyes. Let’s just establish that now.)
Battle of Yorktown
Much of the musical is a back and forth between Hamilton and Burr: their different outward demeanors in regards to supporting the revolution, their relationship with General Washington, their roles as seconds in a duel, their political maneuverings in regards to supporting the Constitution and their respective political waxing and wanings in general.
But one part of the musical is absent of Burr narration or perspective, the Battle of Yorktown. For those of you not up on your American revolutionary war history, the British surrender at Yorktown to combined American and French forces set the ending of the war in motion, as British support for continuing the war evaporated. The British had fortified Yorktown, and were unprepared to be surrounded by American forces (whom they assumed would be striking at British-held New York) and having their escape route by sea blocked by French naval vessels.
Okay, I’ll skip over any further details, since you can either read about it on Wikipedia or whatever.
Here’s why I’m bringing it up. I was raised in Virginia, not far from Yorktown, so much of the American revolutionary war history we were taught focused on the war’s end, this battle specifically.
The song is a joy to listen to as Hamilton narrates his pre-battle strategy and worries, the disposition of his comrades and their individual contributions (HERCULES MULLIGAN! HE NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION), the battle, the surrender by British forces, and the aftermath.
The coda of the song (I have no idea if I’m using the word coda correctly, but I’m a rebel) is simply:
We won – We Won – WE Won – WE WON – the world turned upside … down!
That never fails to bring tears to my eyes, I’d be lying if my eyes were dry as I’m typing this. Why is it so emotional for me?
Well, the music is certainly geared to elicit an emotional response, it’s quite moving, with the final build up, sustain, and release on the final beat. I think humans just react to music in this fashion. But there’s more.
The celebratory series of We Wons is transcendent. A buddy of mine is learning to speak Hungarian (I assume because he wants to one day welcome our Vampire Overlords or something) and he once explained to me that in Hungarian (and I’m sure other languages) there are two versions of “we” – an inclusive form where we refers to the speaker and the listener, and an exclusatory form that refers to the speaker and others but not the listener. (As in “we went to lunch (just not with you)”.)
When the chorus sings “We Won” it just feels inclusive. It doesn’t feel like it refers solely to the American and French soldiers who defeated the otherwise formidable British forces in 1781, Yorktown. It makes me feel like I won. It makes me feel like my daughter won, and my neighbors. And basically, everyone.
To me, this is particularly relevant in today’s political climate, where there seems to be a lot of hollow invocations to the Founding Fathers without really respecting who they were, and what they were fighting for.
Lafayette: Monsieur Hamilton…
Hamilton: Monsieur Lafayette…
Lafayatte: In command where you belong…
Hamilton: Are you saying “no sweat” ? We’re finally on the field, we’ve had quite a run…
Somehow, Political Essay Writing Is Made Sexy
The revolutionary war might be the backdrop of most of the first act, but it doesn’t dominate the musical, perhaps as much as Hamilton’s political aspirations and his conflicts with the other Founding Fathers.
Oh my God, you might be thinking. Why would I want to watch a musical about politics?
I respect your skepticism. And yet…
You might have a hard time believing me… but near the end of the first act, there’s a song with a reasonable chunk dedicated to Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison writing political essays defending the Constitution. I kid you not.
The. Federalist. Papers. A topic in a song. And it’s awesome. It’s even sexy sounding. It’s a triumphant moment. About guys writing opinion pieces. It totally works.
Somewhere in the dusty cobwebs of my brain, I remember the Federalist Papers being brought up in social studies or American history or whatever. I couldn’t care less. But now I want to read them. ALL EIGHTY-FIVE (see, the musical taught me how many essays comprised the Federalist Papers. I can even tell you how many were written by Jay, Madison, and Hamilton apiece. But that would be telling.)
The Schuyler Sisters… WORK!
I should wrap this up soon, but I’d like to briefly touch on the outstanding cast.
Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry play arguably the two most important women in Hamilton’s life, Eliza and Angelica Schuyler.
Jasmine Cephas Jones plays the “don’t forget me” sister Peggy, who isn’t quite as relevant in Act 1, but the actress plays the role of a different woman in Act 2, who is a much more crucial element in Hamilton’s story.
If you want any more details from me, I’ll just say no to this.
I might have mentioned that I have not seen the musical, and have only listened to the soundtrack, but Phillipa Soo’s voice is unbelievably ethereal. It cannot be confused with any other. The character of Angelica might be the more interesting role, but it’s Eliza at the end that — excuse me, I have to wipe my eyes… allergies — that brings everything home to a wonderous conclusion.
I better type about something else or I’ll flood my keyboard.
Alexander Hamilton is appropriately larger than life, and so are his friends, Lafayette (the Lancelot of the revolutionary set), Hercules Mulligan (HE NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION!) and John Laurens, the intrepid abolitionist.
All three actors, Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, and Anthony Ramos play different roles in the second act. I will respectfully refrain from discussing Ramos’ role. For reasons. HE’S GREAT, by the way.
“Oak” Onaodowan is outrageously joyful and physical as Hercules Mulligan, but transitions into the thoughtful and reserved James Madison for act 2, the compatriot of Thomas Jefferson, played by Daveed Diggs.
Growing up in Virginia, I’ve always had a certain affection for Thomas Jefferson (and he’s on the $2 bill.)
The fact that Diggs is the anthropomorphism of charisma hits the nail on the head. He’s awesome in act 1 as Lafayette, America’s favorite fighting Frenchmen. (One only has to listen to Guns and Ships to realize that. There’s a British animator on Twitter that I follow, who has announced that her life’s goal is to be able to rap the Guns and Ships verse. I wish her well.)
Jefferson has an interesting role in the musical, as he’s not only a political rival for Hamilton, but he’s also one for Burr. Jefferson’s character is usually remembered from the musical 1776, which is the theatrical portrayal I grew up with. (One day I might talk about the time that I ran into Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson when I was a child when my family was visiting Philadelphia. They were the actors for the local 1776 musical, and were very much in character.) This isn’t quite the version from 1776, but this Jefferson is a perfect foil for Hamilton. The cabinet meeting rap battles are epic.
Here Comes the General
I know I said I wanted to end this soon, but I want to pay special attention to Christopher Jackson’s portrayal of George Washington, America’s heroic general and first President (and on the $1 bill.)
Washington is a legendary figure (even King George III recognizes that no one looms quite as large) and therefore Jackson would have some rather large boots to fill as the father of the country. I have not seen Hamilton the Musical, other than what’s been packaged for YouTube, the recent performance at the Grammys, and photos (like the one above) but Jackson provides a powerful voice for Washington on the soundtrack.
One of my favorite Washingtonian parts of the musical is not necessarily his triumph at Yorktown, instead it’s at the end of his term as he sings to Hamilton about his decision not to seek re-election. (Ooops, sorry for spoiling American history for you. That event only happened ~224 years ago.) It’s a powerful song about setting the precedent of the highest executive position being a temporary one, and to set the stage that the people should expect and adapt to political change, even welcome it.
I’ve often said that Jesse L. Martin’s character of Detective Joe West on the Flash is so great as Barry Allen’s foster father, that Martin should just play every single dad on TV. I almost feel that way about Jackson and his performance as Washington. He should just play Washington in everything now.
Your Obedient Servant, A. Burr
Okay, I can’t stop (the man is non-stop) until I talk about Aaron Burr.
Leslie Odom Jr. has a formidable task, not only of building the framework for the musical with his narration, but in performing tightly coupled rapping exchanges with Hamilton, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
I’m actually not going to talk about Lin-Manuel Miranda, the guy who wrote the lyrics, composed the music, and stars as Hamilton. Miranda is so exemplary and talented that I don’t think I have to say anything about him at all. I love that guy.
But I’m really impressed by Odom’s emotional portrayal as Burr. In his dealings with Hamilton, he counsels him to “talk less, smile more” and gives off a rather inscrutable vibe (so his opponents won’t find anything to attack him on) but his songs are deeply personal monologues.
If I can quote from one of Burr’s songs Wait For It, which is powerful and sets up some of Burr’s musical themes…
If there’s a reason why I’m still alive
when everyone who has loved me has died
then I’m willing to wait for it.
I’m willing to wait for it.
Usually the sentiment would be something like “everyone I’ve loved has died.” It seems more poignant and tragic that he feels alone and unloved, because everyone who felt love for him is gone.
Excuse me a moment. There’s something in my eye.
Okay, Burr’s story shadows Hamilton’s throughout, so the musical is nearly as much about him as it is about Alexander. There’s a particularly moving song where both men sing to their newborn children about their hopes, as Burr’s daughter and Hamilton’s son are born during the birth of the free nation.
These two men should be friends, but they’re out of sync, one seems to offend the other even while recognizing their kindred spirit nature. And lines are increasingly crossed.
There’s a chance that some of you don’t know the history behind Burr and Hamilton, and I won’t spoil it here, but honestly, the very first song of the musical sets the stage and lays out the final chapter. (Or does it?)
My poor descriptions and prose have done no favors for Hamilton the Musical, which is far better than I could hope to describe. I feel I’ve done a disservice by not talking more about it, especially the Schuyler sisters.
But I hope that I’ve at least convinced some of you who haven’t heard the Hamilton soundtrack to give it a chance, to see what all of the fuss is about. The lyrics are amazing. (Because of the rapid fire hip hop nature of the musical, there are a lot of lyrics, it’s supremely quotable.)
My daughter might not be delighted by this behavior, but she’s at least amused that her otherwise proper parents will sing the opening song of Hamilton without trying to clean up some of the words…
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 and squalor
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The Internet, that creative cortex of chaos, has brilliantly appropriated the Hamilton story and applied it to various famous properties. Once both of the Stars, both Trek and Wars, have been covered, you’re speaking to a large audience.
Luke Skywalker Hamilton:
My Spock (brilliant original parody of Alexander Hamilton’s signature song.)
I’m just waiting for some Game of Thrones/Hamilton mashups to come out. Get on that, Internet. History has its eyes on you.
The subtitle of this article is I’m willing to wait for it, which is not only a reference to a Burr catchphrase, but also to the fact that the musical is pretty much sold out for this year. It’s phenomenally successful, so eventually there will be traveling productions, and I assume nearby Washington DC will stage a wonderful production (just not with the original cast.) I suspect that nothing will stand in our way in seeing it. I’m not throwing away my shot.
(I’d like to apologize to my wife, the best of wives and best of women, for us not being able to see the musical this year.)
I’m willing to wait for it. I really have no choice. Unless a miracle happens and I win the Hamilton Lottery. Which is a thing. If I do, I’ll make sure to tweet out “We won We Won WE Won WE WON!!!”
(Comments are always welcome, super-welcome. Especially if you’ve seen the musical, or are just crazy about the soundtrack like I am.)
Images are from the Hamilton musical, obviously. Google provided them to me, and I’m extremely jealous of the photographers, since they got to see the show. Jealous!
I make no claim to the artwork, and no claim to the text from Hamilton the Musical, which I have presented as block quotes, but have also spread here or there throughout the text of this article, always italicized. (It should be obvious what’s mine, what’s not mine.)
© Patrick Sponaugle 2016 Some Rights Reserved