If you haven’t heard of “Hamilton” yet, you will, even if you decide to ignore this article and skip ahead to the Sports section. “Hamilton” is a new Broadway musical that uses a multi-ethnic group of actors to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers through a well-crafted hip-hop and rap-infused score. Tickets for the show are sold out until 2016, but this show is more than just the latest Broadway hit. The musical has attracted the attention of magazines from Time to Vogue, and its cast recording was released early through NPR’s “First Listen” series. “Hamilton” is more than a new musical; it’s a cultural phenomenon.
The original cast recording officially came out on Sept. 25, giving those of us who can’t make it to New York City the chance to experience the show that is taking over the New York theater scene. To quote Ben Brantley, the chief theater critic of “The New York Times,” “Yes, it really is that good.”
Although you can’t see the ethnically diverse cast from hearing the album, you can hear the influence of a wide variety of musical genres not commonly found on the Broadway stage, including R&B, rap and hip hop. You can also hear these genres being applied to potentially dry subjects. For example, Lin-Manuel Miranda (the creator and star of “Hamilton”) turns the historic congressional debate over how to handle the country’s debt into an invigorating rap battle. You find yourself on the edge of your seat wanting to see how history will play out (“Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky / Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whiskey”).
As you might guess, “Hamilton” relates major historical events without taking itself too seriously. King George III is depicted as an ex-lover who just can’t accept that the relationship is over and expresses his angst in “You’ll Be Back,” a pastiche of ‘60’s British pop. The show is full of references to hip hop (like the song “Ten Duel Commandments,” a play on “Ten Crack Commandments” by the Notorious B.I.G.) and musical theatre (with allusions ranging from Gilbert & Sullivan to Jason Robert Brown).
Despite the humor, wordplay (just listen to “Aaron Burr, Sir”) and gleeful anachronisms, “Hamilton” does more than entertain the
(perhaps limited) cross-section of history buffs, hip-hop lovers and Broadway nerds. What makes “Hamilton” so astonishing is the way Miranda combines these disparate interests to create a theatrical experience that explores and reaffirms the human condition in all its vibrant complexities. This epic covers three decades of people grappling with love, family life, grief, ambition, betrayal, politics, work, legacy and the power to shape history (“Look around / how lucky we are to be alive right now / history is happening”). Miranda is himself a modern day Hamilton—an adept and prolific writer making his own rules and (one can hope) setting a precedent—and changes what people expect from both innovation in American performing arts
racial representation in popular entertainment.
If you don’t listen to “Hamilton” for the novelty of hearing George Washington rap, listen to it for a compelling argument in favor of color blind casting on Broadway. In fact, “Encores!” has announced that it, too, will feature a cast of multiethnic Founding Fathers in its upcoming revival of “1776.” And, if you don’t listen to it to enjoy the countless Easter egg references to the music that inspired Miranda, listen to it for Miranda’s groundbreaking use of form and language (check out this quadruple internal rhyme: “Now for a strong central democracy / If not then I’ll be Socrates / throwing rocks at those mediocrities”). Now that the full album is on Spotify, there’s really no reason not to listen to “Hamilton.” Don’t throw away your shot to be part
of the zeitgeist.
Varga is a Take Five Scholar.