A host unto himself: 'Hamilton' astonishes

I realize that I am somewhat biased, as someone whose idea of recreation is reading late-18th Century biography. So keep that in mind but try to set my funny sense of fun aside when I tell you that the new musical “Hamilton” is the most electric listening experience I’ve had in years. A bunch of guys in breeches and frock coats singing about arcane two-century-old political disputes? Well, I did like “1776,” but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” is something else entirely. Read my review and hear some samples after the jump.

For one, “singing” is something of a misnomer. “Hamilton” is a a self-described “hip-hop musical” where characters communicate through rap instead of just song. The 1790s debate about whether the federal government should assume state debts may seem the height of boredom (I disagree!), but it’s a lot more palatable when it takes the form of a mic-dropping rap battle between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Rap is, of course, a musical form emerging from African-American culture, and “Hamilton” is aware of this: as a stage musical, the parts of America’s august Founding Fathers — the ultimate dead white guys — are played by black or Hispanic actors. The Broadway show is sold out roughly through America’s tricentennial, so I haven’t actually seen it performed on stage. But there’s the next best thing: the show’s soundtrack is available for purchase and free streaming. And since this is a “sung-through” musical where all the dialogue is contained in its songs, you can get the entire lyrical and musical experience just by listening to the soundtrack — as I’ve been doing more-or-less nonstop for the past few days. Miranda, the show’s writer who also plays Hamilton in its sold-out string of Broadway shows, zeroes in on the modern aspects of Hamilton’s story: an orphan immigrant pulling himself up from poverty with talent and hard work, a proud man whose determination is the root of both his success and his downfall:

The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.

The show isn’t just a “hip-hop Hamilton” — it incorporates a wide range of musical styles, from rap to R&B to traditional showtunes. It’s also densely laden with references to history, rap and musical theater. The show’s musical brilliance comes in how all of this weaves seamlessly together. Miranda makes heavy use of leitmotifs, as lines and strains repeat over and over, foreshadowing and recalling and recontextualizing key moments, characters and themes. Telling Alexander Hamilton’s story necessitates Aaron Burr, America’s third vice president most famous these days for shooting Hamilton in a duel. Mirando holds up Burr as Hamilton’s shadow, an equally ambitious young man who wants the same things as Hamilton but isn’t quite as successful as getting him. And just as Miranda finds modern resonance in Hamilton’s drive, in he also gives Burr a modern feel: a practical, sophistic politician with a refrain you might imagine a current member of Congress echoing. “Talk less,” Burr advises a young Hamilton. “Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”

Aside from politics, Hamilton’s personal life also has an emotional arc. The man who could “never be satisfied” proves his own undoing, and then drags his whole family down with him as he clears his name from America’s first political sex scandal.

The Schuyler sisters — Hamilton’s loyal wife Eliza and her vibrant sister Angelica (plus the quickly forgotten Peggy) — are a vibrant presence throughout the show, starting with a Destiny’s Child-style trio as they search New York for “a mind at work” (which is not, alas, poor Burr):

As Hamilton’s tragic personal story nears it’s climax in the second act, Eliza’s response to the escalating betrayals and tragedies gets particularly poignant — tear-inducing, as one friend described it. The roughly two-and-a-half-hour musical is remarkably dense historically, including lots of real historical figures and events that could have easily been excised, condensed or replaced. The show introduces a loyalist named Samuel Seabury for the space of a single song so he can get smacked down by Hamilton in a recreation of a real-life 1775 pamphlet battle; another figure, General Charles Lee, doesn’t even get that respect (not that Lee would have deserved it): he’s introduced for a swift clash with a tertiary character. Even the more substantive characters often have lots of minor asides ripped directly from the historical record, and on several occasions Miranda quotes at length from contemporary letters, pamphlets and speeches. The musical was based on Ron Chernow’s best-selling biography of Hamilton, which has long been on my to-read list but just shot up toward the top. That’s not to say the show’s perfect, historically. Hugely important contributions Hamilton made at the Constitutional Convention and writing the Federalist Papers are waved away in a few lines. Other events are condensed or reworked: Hamilton in the show is confronted by Jefferson, Madison and Burr over his affair, while in real life it was James Monroe and another, more obscure senator; the show implies the Burr-Hamilton duel came as a direct result of the Election of 1800, when in fact it happened several years later in response to some intemperate words Hamilton probably said at a dinner party. More seriously for fans of Revolutionary history, several key characters get very short shrift. Jefferson and Madison’s political views are reduced to mere southern sectionalism, so don’t expect this unapologetically Hamiltonian show to capture the powerful and still resonant political disputes that convulsed the early Republic. Poor John Adams barely appears just to be dismissed and mocked — a fact Miranda apologizes for to the actor who portrayed Adams back in “1776”:

Though as an Adams fan perhaps I should count my blessings that Miranda cut the diss track about His Rotundity he originally wrote for the show: <iframe src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/oUI8b17YGx8?rel=0" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen"></iframe>George Washington fares better; he’s remarkably affecting as a leader and surrogate father for Hamilton — dominating the album despite relatively few lines: https://open.spotify.com/track/3nJYcY9yvKP8Oi2Ml8brXt These are all just quibbles, though. Both the text and the music of this album are sensational. It will likely win all the awards over the next year, spawn a series of lesser imitators and make a huge mark when it becomes available for high school and community performances. If you like history, rap, or just artistic excellence, don’t miss this tour de force.