What’s your name, man?
My name is Alexander Hamilton
And there’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait, just you wait
These lyrics come from the song “Alexander Hamilton,” the opening number of the Broadway smash hit Hamilton: An American Musical.
So why is DJ Dave writing about Hamilton? My family and I attended a matinee performance of Hamilton on Broadway in New York on May 1st. While my daughters Amy, Stephanie and Julianne had all attended shows on Broadway in the past, this was the first opportunity for my wife Priscilla and I to attend a show in New York.
For this edition of my musical musings, I will be exploring my first ever attendance of a Broadway musical, specifically focusing on the music of Hamilton. My daughter Stephanie will also be sharing some of her thoughts on the biggest Broadway musical hit in recent memory.
The playwright, lyricist, and star of Hamilton is Lin-Manuel Miranda. He based his musical on a 2004 biography of founding father Alexander Hamilton, written by historian Ron Chernow. Miranda bought a copy of Chernow’s book and took quite a few years researching Alexander Hamilton’s life before coming up with the finished product.
In fact, as Miranda told CNBC: “It took me seven years to write this show. This is no overnight success — took me a year to write the second song in the show ‘My Shot.’ I’m in awe of people who can just write well and quickly.”
“…[I]t took me a long time to be able to write about that guy, but that was sort of what inspired me about his story,” Miranda stated in the CNBC interview.
A tweet Miranda wrote in 2009 shows the struggle behind his genius: “Spent the entire day working on one couplet about George Washington. Hamilton’s slow-going, my friends, but I promise you it will be worth it. It’s hard converting whole swaths of history into a hot 16 bars.”
Since this message is strictly about the music and songs of Hamilton, I will not be critiquing the traditional theatre aspects of the play, or the historical accuracy of Miranda’s script. Much has been written on those features during the past four years, and you can check out those unique evaluations elsewhere by searching the Internet.
After seeing Hamilton on Broadway, it is evident to me that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music is the glue that holds together the story of the script. I estimate that some type of music was played at least 98 percent of the time during the play.
The show actually contains 46 songs. According to Leah Libresco from FiveThirtyEight, there are “20,500 words in the Hamilton script and an average of 144 words are-sung, rapped or spoken per minute.”
In an interview by Rembert Browne of Grantland, Miranda stated it would be impossible to tell Hamilton’s story at the traditional pace of a Broadway play.
“It would have to be 12 hours long, because the amount of words on the bars when you’re writing a typical song — that’s maybe got 10 words per line,” declared Miranda.
Hamilton clocks in at 2 hours and 23 minutes and is broken down into two acts. The pace of the play is excellent, aided by the carefully crafted songs. I consider the majority of the songs in the show to have up-tempo rhythms but there are select ballads that are normally associated with Broadway theatre.
The music from Hamilton is altogether different than most other musicals on Broadway. Miranda utilizes hip-hop as the unifying musical style throughout his theatre masterpiece.
However, don’t misunderstand: Hamilton is more than just a hip-hop music vehicle. The play also incorporates unique and diverse sounds from genres such as R&B, big band jazz, pop, rock, rap, and traditional show tune melodies. Miranda’s blending of multiple musical genres has proven to be a groundbreaking success in the world of Broadway musicals.
As stated above, Hamilton’s script contains over twenty thousand words. Miranda’s fusion of lyrics with various styles of music is brilliant. So what makes the blending of words and music in Hamilton come alive during this Broadway play?
According to my daughter Stephanie Woodson, Miranda’s use of repetition is one of the keys to success with Hamilton: “As an English teacher, I cannot stress enough the importance of an author using repetition. There is something immensely satisfying about it. Hamilton’s use of repetition indeed left me satisfied. The connections within the lyrics are simply a work of genius. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a true artist.”
So you may be asking: What are the best Hamilton songs, from purely a musical standpoint? After spending my afternoon watching the play, I have fresh comprehension of Miranda’s music.
While many Broadway critics have ranked what they consider to be the “best” songs from Hamilton, I am going to refrain from this type of critique. The rest of my message will chronicle what I feel are the most significant songs from a diverse musical perspective.
Please note that as I transition to a detailed accounting of Hamilton songs, none of the songs I am listing are ranked and are all placed in a totally random order.
“My Shot,” the third track from Act 1, is a quintessential throwback to 90’s old school hip-hop. The song features a killer beat, is catchy and reminiscent of golden age rap.
The phrase, “I’m not throwing away my shot” is repeated in multiple other songs that follow and the unforgettable line is a foundation for the entire show. This is an impressive song.
The Room Where It Happened
“The Room Where It Happened” by far is one of the most musically complex songs in Hamilton. The music fuses big band/ New Orleans style jazz, new wave, pop, hip-hop and even features a banjo. “The Room Where It Happened” has a prominent backing chorus and is similar to traditional show tunes on Broadway.
“Helpless” is song that focuses on the romance and eventual wedding of Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton. I describe the song as classic Motown/R&B/hip-hop, girl group groove. Lyrics are half-rapped, half-sung cadences and the upbeat, sing-a-long chorus help make “Helpless” one of the more memorable songs from Hamilton.
Wait For It
“Wait For It” has Aaron Burr lamenting about Alexander Hamilton’s quick rise to power and showing determination to ultimately prevail against his foe. The tender pop ballad has an excellent mix of stuttering beats and a Jamaican reggae dancehall sound. A cello played with the melody line gives the song a superb vibration.
“Satisfied” features a duet between Angelica Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton. Arguably the most popular song in the play, it combines R&B/hip-hop grooves with a string section and chorus line backing. The rapid-fire vocal delivery, followed closely by singing of operatic vocal runs by Angelica is absolutely amazing.
You’ll Be Back
“You’ll Be Back” is an outstanding tribute to British Invasion pop/rock and American Sunshine Pop from the 60’s. I definitely heard influences of the Beatles’ songs “Penny Lane” and “Getting Better” during the play, as well as positive vibes similar to the Turtles’ song “Happy Together.” Miranda’s musical salute to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is the catchiest song in his award-winning musical.
“Non Stop” is the last song of Act 1 before intermission and utilizes the best of multiple musical genres. This melodic tune blends piano based synth pop, samba, reggae, funk and even record scratching as part of the mix. The diversity and blending of musical styles on this song is a masterful work of art.
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” completes the Hamilton play as the last song of the show. Although it is most like traditional Broadway show-tunes, the song still fuses R&B/hip-hop/pop with a lush classical orchestra musical bed. With the entire cast singing on this selection, the song is a crown jewel as the finale of the show.
Obviously, there are many other excellent songs in Hamilton but I have limited my writing to just the 8 tunes listed above. For additional information on Hamilton music, please go to the official Hamilton New York online site.
Before I leave the topic of Hamilton, I must ask the question: Will the music of Hamilton appeal to all different types of theatre patrons? Especially those loving traditional old school Broadway plays?
Since some people have an aversion to any type of hip-hop music, I understand how those folks will never embrace the music of Hamilton. Even though Miranda’s story is based on the beginning history of America’s founding fathers, Hamilton’s music will never resonate with some individuals.
However, for the rest of us, Hamilton’s music is riveting, exhilarating and stimulating. Without a doubt, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical theatre achievement is one of the most engaging Broadway plays to be performed during the 21st Century
As I ponder back on my first ever Broadway play experience, I was definitely blessed to attend Hamilton as my first show. I told my family, “I’m not throwing away my shot” and missing the opportunity to see Hamilton in New York. Sharing this event with my family will always be a fond memory for me.
Lyrics for “The Schuyler Sisters” song summarizes my final thoughts on Hamilton:
Look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now!
History is happening in Manhattan and we just happen to be,
In the greatest city in the world.
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