Reading a lot of the American arts press, it’s hard to avoid the juggernaut that is Hamilton, the musical currently crushing all in its path, and capped off with this week’s announcement of a MacArthur Fellowship to its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. So, naturally, I went to have a listen to the score which is handily provided in full on the NPR website or, if you are less scrupulous, on Youtube.
Good golly miss molly, I want to squeeze onboard that bandwagon myself.
Taking a rather dry period of American history- if you ever wanted to hear a Cabinet debate in the medium of rap this is your show- Miranda has somehow fused together a seamless, practically sung-through musical out of funk, soul, hip hop, rap, Britpop, showtunes and who knows what else (is that some vaudevillian music hall I hear?). I am not an expert in any of these genres, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the finesse and downright catchiness (a vital ingredient in a musical) of the music.
So instead, let’s turn to the astonishing wordplay in the lyrics. A few randomly selected thoughts, having listened to the album pretty much on constant loop at both work and at home over the past few days:
The number ‘The Room Where it Happens‘ morphs into Kander/Ebb style dance number but what I’m most impressed with is the key lyric. Can you think of a better, more concise line than ‘I wanna be in the room where it happens’ to express a combination of political exclusion and political ambition? I cannot. Also, the sultry fall back at the 4′ mark is one of those musical effects that a good musical deploys perfectly to bring the house down.
The soul female trio of ‘The Schulyer Sisters‘ is insanely catchy and infectious- work, work- and is just generally all-around recommended (that chilled, close harmony that pops up with ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident’- I die every time). I cannot confirm nor deny that I have taken to singing this around my apartment.
The early number of ‘Aaron Burr, Sir‘ that introduces Burr, who (spoiler alert!) eventually kills Hamilton in a duel, for me is one of those perfectly constructed musical numbers that advances the plot in both lyrics and music- the halting hesitation mixed with enthusiasm in Hamilton’s line and his ‘I’m not stupid’ is expert, contrasting the suave, controlled lines of Burr (‘talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for’). And then, just when you start to get comfortable, he pivots perfectly into a three part, comic rap between three early Revolutionaries (John Laurens, Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan) that includes probably my most favourite, audacious line- ‘lock up your daughters and your horses/of course its hard to have intercourse over four sets of corsets’. FOUR. SETS. OF. CORSETS. I can barely count the internal rhymes. Every time that line comes up I am amazed anew.
Finally, we have Thomas Jefferson who becomes the quasi-villain in the piece. His comic number, when he returns from France, ‘What I’d Miss‘ is part of a lineage that includes Act 2 comics like Herod’s turn in Jesus Christ Superstar– ‘I’ve been in Paris meeting lots of different ladies/I guess I basically missed the late eighties’.
What I think makes this work is that somehow- somehow!- Miranda makes the founding fathers of the USA sound both entirely contemporary and historically realistic in a completely anachronistic genre. How? How does he do this? Witchcraft? Since I’ve only heard and not only seen, this article is also worth a gander for the very interesting politics of having an almost entirely non-white cast perform as the founding fathers. In conclusion, even though it’s fully sold until 2016, should you be in New York please see this on my behalf and file a comprehensive report.