Tuesday, January 5, 2016

On Hamilton: An American Musical

*Insomuch as there can be spoilers on a musical based on historical events from 250 years ago, this post contains spoilers. I imagine. I don't know, this is the first sentence I'm writing of it.

EDIT: There's an eensy kinda-spoiler that I don't really think counts.

I have not yet been able to see this show, however I have listened to the cast album. I have to say, I was positively floored. Hamilton deserves every bit of the hype it's receiving, and frankly, if you are a student of The Great American Musical, you need to learn this show. I predict it may be the harbinger of a new era of American musical theater.

I went into Hamilton with a heavy dose of skepticism.

My husband played a few songs for me to get me interested. This was not what interested me, and it's frankly not the best way to introduce the show. It was when weeks later, he was still talking about it that I finally got interested. Now I'm obsessed with it, too.

Let's first talk about the elephant in the room, which is the musical style. Well-educated musicians like myself may feel that rap has no place in the conversation of American musical theater, and in many cases, they might be correct. However, Lin-Manuel Miranda accomplishes something I previously thought impossible, which is to make rap not only palatable to the musical-loving ear, but relate-able, compelling, and fun. He blends in melodic singing and beat poetry, adding the chorus to certain words for emphasis, and even establishes multiple layers of leitmotif that not only recall characters, but specific moments and emotions, all through the use of spoken word.

The score is sung-through, but it is not rapped-through. There are many hauntingly beautiful melodies, rooted strongly in R&B and pop, with some throwbacks reminiscent of Frank Loesser and Frank Wildhorn. The instrumentation draws heavily from modern music, sampling classical instruments like strings and harpsichords alongside piano and vocal sampling. There's even some tasteful auto-tune. Yes, I said tasteful auto-tune. It's only in one song, and when you hear it, you'll understand. And you'll think, "Oh yeah, tasteful auto-tune. Totally."

The libretto is self-referential, which one might think would make it repetitive; however, by repeating words and phrases from particularly significant moments in the show, Miranda creates a verbal shorthand with the audience to illustrate characters' internal reactions or connections to events in the story. In fact, the use of verbal shorthand is part of what makes this musical not just the musical of the year, but a culturally significant piece of literature.

The action of the play spans 30 years of Hamilton's life, which would be difficult enough to effectively communicate. Add in that it's during the founding of the United States, and covering that span of time seems nearly impossible. This is where the music genre comes in.

Because of the genre, the ear gives the show permission to use modern idiom and pop culture references alongside the more flowery language of the period. Those idioms boil down pages of writings and historical documents into instantly comprehensible phrases, explaining whole chapters of history in minutes. When I realized Jefferson and Hamilton were about to debate the creation of a centralized national bank in a rap battle, I pretty much made this face.

But this isn't just a culturally significant work. It's fun. It's funny. It's tense. It's heartbreaking. I can't tell you how many different times I cried and laughed out loud listening to the cast recording. And the cast is phenomenal. Everyone smoothly transitions between melodic singing and spoken words. The heavy vocal lifting is left to the two female leads, Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, however the whole cast is called upon to sing in tight jazz-inspired harmonies and they do so with alacrity. If I had to make a critique, its that several of the voices are similar, particularly Jefferson and Washington and Eliza and Angelica, sometimes making conversations between those characters harder to follow. However as it's intended as a staged play, not only an album, I wouldn't really call that a critique so much as me whining.

In short, Miranda brings history to life in his brilliant show, making us care deeply not only about the interpersonal drama and relationships of the characters, but also about the various issues and political questions of the day. And WHEN they make a movie of the musical, it will be added to the list of films I watch each 4th of July, alongside 1776 and Independence Day.