For the Record: Hamilton-An American Musical

By Devin McGrath-Conwell

In 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and was inspired deeply by his story. A few months later he read what he called Hamilton Mixtape at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word accompanied by Alex Lacamoire.

Miranda was fascinated with the story of the maverick founding father who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to champion the U.S. Constitution, found the New York Post and defeat competitors such as John Adams, Aaron Burr and others who did not want to take the risks he saw as necessary to help the fledgling nation. Miranda’s interest gave birth to a project of rare creativity and historical importance. In February 2015 Hamilton-An American Musical, with music, lyrics and book written by Miranda premiered Off-Broadway, and in August it made its Broadway debut.

In telling the under-appreciated story of Hamilton, Miranda assembled a cast made up of underrepresented minority American actors. The music itself is an astonishing eclectic mix of genres rooted by a phenomenal collection of hip-hop and rap numbers, which, alongside its unceasingly original production, deeply distinguishes itself from the majority of the other shows playing on Broadway. The show has received immensely positive critical acclaim and an unprecedented box office response. In September, Atlantic Records released a studio recording by the Original Broadway Cast of the 46 original songs from the show. The result is a remarkably album that allows a glimpse of the incomparable show for all of us who don’t yet have the opportunity to see the show on the stage.

The soundtrack opens with “Alexander Hamilton.” We are introduced to the eponymous hero when Aaron Burr asks us “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, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” He may be asking us, but the musical intends to tell us in explicit detail the rise of the man. This first song works as one part historical lesson and one part soaring R&B piece that introduces the musical and lyrical themes that will be repeated throughout the soundtrack. This is a practice employed wonderfully by Miranda, who introduces specific genres and melodies with different characters to ground them in their music.

The first act details the landing of Hamilton in New York where he meets Aaron Burr and becomes involved in the politics of the fledgling nation. The song “My Shot” is Hamilton’s first solo song and shows us his inner thoughts. Miranda, who plays Hamilton, is a formidable performer and he unloads in this song encapsulating the drive of the soon-to-be-Federalists who rap about their need to create a truly free nation. Shortly after we are introduced to “The Schuyler Sisters”: Angelica, Eliza and Peggy (two of whom will fall in love with Hamilton and provide a touching love story and deliver musical highlights throughout the play). In their introductory piece the sisters sing about “the Revolution happening in New York” and the need for Thomas Jefferson to include women “in his sequel” to the Declaration of Independence. Following the expository pieces of the first act, “You’ll Be Back” is a brilliant song delivered by King George, who is quite sure that the silly American colonies will come crawling back when he sends “a fully armed battalion / To remind you of my love!”

The remainder of the first act delivers other brilliant songs including “Satisfied”, a powerful ballad where Angelica delivers a toast at her sister Eliza and Alexander’s wedding realizing she wishes she could be beside Hamilton, and the hip-hop piece “Ten Duel Commandments,” which introduces the concept of a duel, which returns later in the play. But all of these songs lead up to “Non-Stop” at the close of Act One, which is one of the standouts in the show. The nearly seven minute song details the non-stop pursuit of equality and reformed government by Hamilton, and builds to a series of emotional crescendos that set-up the tribulations of Act Two, and encompasses the run of the musical themes in Act One. In Act Two, Miranda fully reveals his melodic and lyrical talent. The second song of Act Two, “Cabinet Battle #1,” is a rap battle face-off between now Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson over Hamilton’s financial plan. Jefferson fights against the idea of the consolidation of state debt because Hamilton can’t “tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade,” but Hamilton retorts with his hot-headed and passionate beliefs by pointing out that most of the South’s economic base is gleaned from slave labor. The framing of the debate as a rap battle infuses it with energy and it has both striking and humorous lyrics. Following up a few songs later, we hear “The Room Where it Happens” (my personal favorite song from the show) detailing the conversation between Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson to agree on a financial plan while ceding that the capital would reside in Washington D.C. The song is a daunting jazz composition that is bookended by themes of hip-hop.

To avoid any spoilers for those who do not know the remainder of Hamilton’s story, I will end my review here. Even outside of the context of the show itself, the songs of “Hamilton” are a remarkable feat of songwriting. It is an album that contemplates the way that history is told and who chooses what is remembered by the ages. Miranda has chosen a powerful figure to base his songs off, and his talent will no doubt make his brainchild a musical accomplishment for the ages.