I don't feel particularly qualified to review the soundtrack of Hamilton, the biggest show on Broadway at the moment (I'll refrain from listing the specific records it's broken because that's what Wikipedia is for, but just know that it's pretty much completely sold out for the next YEAR--it's the best thing that's happened to Broadway, like, ever). But I'm not really qualified to write about any of the things I do, and I don't have a content editor other than my mom and maybe one sister if it's a slow work week, so here I am. I was compelled to write about this album when I realized that it's made up of quite possibly the best lyrics I've ever heard in my life, and I've heard a lot of good lyrics in my life. I can't stop thinking about every motif, pattern, repetition, symbol, and euphemism--and I haven't even gotten tickets to the show yet. As a general rule I believe that anything you can't go more than a few hours without thinking about is certainly worth writing about.
I listen to a lot of different music, but that only occasionally includes soundtracks. As a kid I was known to dance around my grandmother's living room listening to Chicago's "Cell Block Tango." This also says a lot about the way I grew up, but I'll discuss all that in my memoir one day. I also have a vague yet fond memory of a winter night, a turquoise sweater, worn out slippers, a small dorm room during my freshman year of college, and dancing around, singing with some undefined accent, when you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dyin' day! Although these were true moments of passion for me, I never knew how much I could love a Broadway soundtrack until I discovered In The Heights, the 2008 winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Lin-Manuel Miranda started writing In The Heights during college. I know what you're thinking: I can barely keep up with this blog while in college, but Lin-Manuel Miranda WROTE A MUSICAL. Please excuse me while I examine all of my life choices.
Anyway, I fell in love with the In The Heights soundtrack when I was 14. My sister had seen the show with her Spanish class and we listened to the soundtrack on our drive to school every morning. I have many memories of dashboard drumming like a fiend before the line me and my cousin runnin' just another dime a dozen, mom-and-pop stop-and-shop! I sang "Enough" to audition for the spring musical in tenth grade. I used to rap verses of "In The Heights" at my high school lunch table, looking for laughs and rounds of applause like the true ham that my mother insists I've been since birth. I fell in love with the lyrics first, as I always seem to do with music. Kellie and I were able to see the show twice before it closed in 2011. I still listen to the soundtrack regularly and my ability to rap its lyrics remains about as impressive as my ability to rap Ed Sheeran's lyrics. (Interpret that skill level as you wish.)
Now Lin-Manuel Miranda has written Hamilton, and (although I am not qualified to) I'll say that it has made him a Broadway legend at only 35 years old. The meter he's written could put Vergil's dactylic hexameter to shame. The first line of the opening track is a symphony of a sentence. The rhyming feels infinite; the 46-song soundtrack sounds like one continuing rhyme scheme, one question that needs to be answered: "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?" The following 45 songs answer that question. I've compiled a few highlights.
In "Aaron Burr, Sir," Hamilton is a young, nervous kid, star struck as he meets Aaron Burr. Even at his most inexperienced, Hamilton is immeasurably more intelligent and articulate than his peers (in this case, Laurens, Lafayette, and Mulligan), as proven when the album transitions into its third track, "My Shot," which took Miranda an entire year to write. Miranda spent 2009 crafting this song into a perfect display of Hamilton's mastery of the English language. Hamilton, beginning here but repeatedly throughout the show, swears he is "not throwing away [his] shot" to "rise up." This line, of course, ironically foreshadows his final battle with Burr, where he literally throws away his shot and is murdered as a result. In "Farmer Refuted," Hamilton and a Brit speak simultaneously, representing both sides of the revolution. The men rhyme with each other while saying completely opposite things. When the king chimes in as a comic relief, his declaration takes on a British pop genre, contrasting with the R&B of the rest of the soundtrack. It is King George in the style of Lily Allen. Miranda has since confirmed: it is a literal British Invasion.
The arc of the Schuyler sisters is compelling throughout the entire soundtrack. "Helpless" and "Satisfied" are sister songs. Two narrators describe the same event; Eliza Schuyler sings the former, her sister Angelica takes on the latter. When these two women meet Alexander Hamilton, they are both immediately charmed by the politician. Angelica introduces Eliza and Hamilton, and they later marry. In the second of this pair of songs, Angelica tells listeners her experience as her sister's maid of honor, and intertwines it with the night she met Hamilton—just moments before Eliza did. She reveals that she believes Alexander to be the most suitable man she's ever met. Throughout the rest of the show, Angelica's painful, unrequited love for her brother-in-law resurfaces, especially at the most pressing times. When she sacrifices her true love to her sister, we hear a mirror-image representation of a crucial night for both of these Schuyler sisters.
At the end of Act I, in "Non-Stop," Miranda has arranged a layered, upbeat composition that chronicles Hamilton's major strides as a lawyer alongside his enemy Burr. Most of all, this track tells listeners how incredible and influential Hamilton's writing is. (I yearn.) The song is chaotic and climactic but not messy—elements of several previous songs are layered on top of each other seamlessly to round out the first half of Hamilton's story. Although all the formerly introduced major characters star in this song, it remains a cohesive building-up to the second act. When Burr bellows, "Hamilton wrote the other 51!" I dare you not to raise your fist in triumph.
Act II begins with the entrance of Thomas Jefferson in 1789. His musical number sounds like it's straight from Monticello, just like Jefferson himself. This is how Miranda creates characters out of songs. There are hints of jazz and soul in Jefferson's songs, separating his soliloquies from the rest of the cast's. To allow an incredible volume of ideas in a short amount of time, Miranda's characters can rap excellently. The most distinct examples of rap music are the two intense and savage cabinet battle songs, which, for the record, made my expectations for the recent Democratic Debate far too high ("Hey, turn around, bend over, I'll show you where my shoe fits!").
"Say No To This" is a theme song of possibly the earliest recorded sex scandal in American political history. (Go ahead, read that sentence again.) It simply sounds like an affair. It's sexy and complicated and sad and angry and tense and frustrating and enticing. Hamilton publicly admits to the affair in "The Reynolds Pamphlet," which is actually frightening to listen to. It is inarguably the musical's darkest track, even though in the subsequent scenes Hamilton's son, Philip, dies in a battle after taking his father's fighting advice. "Stay Alive (Reprise)" voices Philip's heartbeat until it doesn't anymore. "It's Quiet Uptown" follows, and proves the emotional range of Miranda's writing and Hamilton's character. In simpler terms: you're going to cry when you hear it. There is a generational parallel between father and son—the two men are in nearly identical moral situations in pairs of songs like "Stay Alive" and its reprise, or "Meet Me Inside" and "Blow Us All Away"—a link that inadvertently highlights the absence of Hamilton's father.
I'm inclined to comment more specifically on the soundtrack's production just as I would with a typical studio album, but for a musical it feels more fitting to talk about composition rather than production. Like any good album, the soundtrack builds the sounds of its songs from the lyrics up. This can be a simple concept requiring simple actions, like making sad songs slow and happy songs upbeat, but Miranda does nothing simply. Instead, he creates the literal sounds of his scenes. "Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)" sounds like war. "Best of Wives and Best of Women" sounds like 4 in the morning. "Burn" sounds like a heart that is actively shattering into pieces—the heart of an angry, formerly trusting woman. The second half of "The World Was Wide Enough" sounds like Hamilton's eulogy, sung by Hamilton himself.
The show ends with "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story" to reiterate the predominant theme of the play. These 46 songs uncover the life and death of Alexander Hamilton, 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, a hero and a scholar. Eliza sings the final song, as she lived another 50 years after Hamilton's infamous duel with Aaron Burr, and went on to tell Hamilton's story. Now, Miranda is telling Hamilton's story. And it is an essential one, though it seems to have been mostly overshadowed until now. There is a similarity here to the major motif of In The Heights. At the end of In The Heights, when the members of the Washington Heights barrio move out of their neighborhood, the protagonist Usnavi decides to remain and tell the stories of his people—Abuela, his parents, the ladies at the salon, the Rosarios, himself. He asks, "If not me, who keeps our legacies?" Well, Usnavi, I'd say Lin-Manuel Miranda is a good candidate.