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Hamilton is winning its loudest accolades as a “game changer” for bringing rap to Broadway. But that’s not really the primary source of the show’s success, nor of its importance.
Miranda (who also plays the title role) is a clever and daring rhymester, cramming lots of information into most of Hamilton’s 34 numbers. (Most musicals have a little more than half as many songs.) He expects you to lean forward and really listen to Hamilton (it’s heartening that he does so), and rewards you amply for the effort. Playing with internal and near rhymes as well as perfect ones, Miranda is never just showing off or resting on his assonance; you can glean the story’s narrative range from the line endings alone. Here are just a few of the innumerable examples: “stay in it…bayonet”; “disgust me…discussed me…can trust me”; “however he wants…pièce de résistance”; “war vet…more debt”; “courted me…escorted me…extorted me for a sordid fee”; “resistance…existence…indifference…deliverance.”
Still, it’s not as if hip-hop has never seen the light of the Broadway stage before. Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam enjoyed a six-month run as many as a dozen years ago. Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk joined rap to the tradition of tap even earlier. Miranda’s own In the Heights (with the book by Quiaria Alegría Hudes) fused plenty of rap with the show’s Latin rhythms. Beyond Broadway, works like Will Power’s Flow and Rennie Harris’s Rome and Jewels go back more than a decade, and a hip-hop theater festival with national scope has been thriving since 2000.
Besides, for all the “check it” “what?” “yo” “unh” “work, work” “uh-huh” “woof woof” “whoa, whoa, yeah” assigned to the chorus in the script, it does not suffice to label Hamilton a rap musical because it features a mixture of popular musical styles. Thanks to the arrangements by musical director Alex Lacamoire, the score includes tinkling harpsichords, schmaltzy strings, and lush choral harmonies. The Schuyler sisters—Angelica (Hamilton’s close, perhaps romantic, friend, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry), Eliza (his wife, Phillipa Soo), and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones)—trade fast-talking verses and harmonize on choruses in an R&B groove that sounds like Destiny’s Child; Burr (a smashing, properly smarmy Leslie Odom Jr.) busts out with a fit of envy in the form of a razzmatazz show-tune, “The Room Where It Happens” (commenting on the secret meeting among Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison at which American government’s first quid pro quo was bargained). Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) opens the second act returning from Paris and asking, in a boogie-woogie number, “What’d I Miss?” And there are several (maybe one too many in the second act) beltable ballads. England’s King George (a hilarious Jonathan Groff) pouts about the loss of the colonies in the mode of a bouncy British breakup tune: “What comes next? / You’ve been freed. / Do you know how hard it is to lead? / You’re on your own. / Awesome. Wow. / Do you have a clue what happens now?”
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More than the rap element alone, what’s actually exciting the multitudes (or at least the reviewers) is the way rap has been so smoothly incorporated into an old, beloved form. Like any great innovator, Miranda has grafted fresh branches onto a stable trunk, not hacked down the tree. Hamilton makes deft use of standard Broadway elements: The opening song is a classic establishing number; Hamilton and his comrades beguile the audience with a charm song; several major characters take a turn at an I want–I am song; romances and their love ballads intertwine with a big-canvas plot. Central themes are reprised (Hamilton’s assertion that “I am not throwing away my shot” is repeated several times, eventually turning from a vow to make the most of every opportunity to an ironic comment on his final gesture in the duel with Burr.) Action moves through the songs—most wittily in the rap battles through which Jefferson and Hamilton debate monetary policy and intervention in the French Revolution. Here’s a sample:
If New York’s in debt—
Why should Virginia bear it?
Huh! Our debts are paid, I’m afraid.
Don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade.
In Virginia, we plant seeds in the ground.
We create. You just wanna move our money around.
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor.
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor.
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.” Yeah, keep ranting.
We know who’s really doing the planting.
And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment
Don’t lecture me about the war; you didn’t fight in it.
From late-20th-century musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, Miranda borrows the device of using the title character’s nemesis as the narrator. And he doesn’t shy away from the blatant tear-jerking of Les Misérables magnitude in a couple of moments, such as the death scene of Hamilton’s oldest son in 1801, shot in a duel defending his father from calumny, and wife Eliza’s forgiveness of his philandering as they mourn their son together—arguably an 11 o’clock number. (This scene is one of several in which Miranda necessarily collapses time, adapting historical events for the sake of dramatic efficiency.) Even the looser uncoiling in Act II of a tightly wound Act I follows form: That’s an age-old bête noire of the musical theater.
What’s actually exciting the multitudes (or at least the reviewers) is the way rap has been so smoothly incorporated into an old, beloved form.
Most of all, Miranda harks back to the golden-age musical and its sense of good cheer. (“Look around look around at how / Lucky we are to be alive right now” is one of Eliza’s motifs.) Hamilton recalls the spirit of shows staged before edginess and angst were brought into the genre by the likes of Stephen Sondheim or Kander and Ebb—back, that is, to the day when, like American politics, Broadway musicals also followed a commandment to be optimistic and uplifting. The shows may have had dark, even tragic, elements (Jud in Oklahoma! or the eviction in Fiddler on the Roof, for example), but in the end they left audiences with a good feeling as they celebrated a community that cohered and looked to the future (and even to the rainbow). And often that sense of community and sense of promise came from a wistful idea of America.