Show tunes or musical theater are often isolated from other genres of music. Musicals themselves are less infused in public culture than film, TV or music. Despite its longstanding influences from popular genres and growing accessibility due to movie adaptations, local productions and YouTube clips of performances, musicals aren’t considered typical radio fare. However, music from the new musical “Hamilton” could easily be a mainstream success. The biggest factor holding back its success is its genre. Musicals tell stories that the listener potentially loses by only hearing the songs. “Hamilton” differs because it is entirely composed of musical numbers; there is no other dialogue. It also differs from most musicals because its music draws from many genres: hip-hop, R & B, reggae, pop, jazz, rock and classic Broadway.
“Hamilton” is a musical by Lin Manuel Miranda, who wrote not only the story but the music as well, about the life of founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” Miranda sought to tell Hamilton’s story, the story of a poor immigrant’s tumultuous rise to success, in a modern way. Miranda accomplishes this modernity through the hip-hop music and a racially diverse cast. People of color portray all of the white historical figures, except for King George III, to “make the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience,” according to Miranda. The show’s first production was at a workshop at the Vassar Reading Festival on July 27, 2013. The show opened on Broadway on Aug. 6, 2015 to critical acclaim, great financial success and lots of buzz thanks to celebrity fans.
Amongst those famous fans are the Roots, who produced the soundtrack. With the soundtrack, Hamilton becomes truly accessible to all. After all, Broadway theater is limited to those in New York City with dispensable income. There’s a beautiful irony in the fact that people of color communicate American history through a traditionally white medium with modern music to a primarily white, older, wealthy audience. (If you find yourself in the city, Hamilton offers a lottery for every show. It’s free to enter and you could win $10 front row tickets. Crowds for lotteries, which most Broadway shows have, can be massive. There’s frequently a fun mini-show before the draw hosted by Miranda with guest performers who sing and/or dance.) Soundtracks enable anyone to appreciate and connect to musicals. Period costumes, minimal setting, choreography, lighting and live performances emphasize and clearly express the time period, narrative and tone of Hamilton. Musicals themselves are mixtures of various art forms but the isolation of one aspect of a musical (the music) doesn’t destroy the musical; instead it creates a different experience. Technology permits an experience that reaches more people and can be enjoyed at any time at the leisure and control of the listener.
The “Hamilton” soundtrack is a great introduction to musicals for people who don’t like them. Music listeners today often listen to songs individually or on shuffle. Even if one doesn’t listen to the album straight through as a narrative, most of the music can be appreciated on its own, separate from context. “Wait for It” works perfectly on its own. This soliloquy, sung by Aaron Burr, tells a bit about Burr’s personal life and childhood. However, the structure is similar to most pop songs with a catchy repeated chorus–unlike many musical numbers with loose structures and continuous storytelling throughout.
The song with the most modern sound is “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” One could even imagine it played at a club–if it weren’t about the document written by Hamilton in which he refutes allegations of government corruption and confesses to an affair with Maria Reynolds. It’s a trap song with an industrial sound and even some auto tune. Surprisingly, this song fits well in the musical and is directly followed by a typical Broadway ballad. Eliza Hamilton, Alexander’s wife, reacts to the Reynolds Pamphlet in “Burn.” In juxtaposition with the previous song, “Burn” is an emotional, moving song.
“Burn” also addresses the absence of public records that tell people today about Elizabeth Hamilton’s reaction to her husband’s affair and the lack of women’s voices overall in the majority of American history. “Hamilton” makes a point to include women in the telling of American history, even though the primary subjects of the musical are men: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The women in Hamilton’s life are strong characters with full personalities. Angelica Schuyler, Elizabeth’s sister who has an emotional affair with Alexander, sings about women’s suffrage and a woman’s responsibility to social climb through marriage.
“Hamilton” as a musical and as a soundtrack sounds like an idea that doesn’t work: an overly ambitious mishmash with a myriad of different influences. However, it succeeds in blending the old with the new, political history with a love story, Broadway with rap. Because the music is largely rapped, the musical is quite wordy but still compelling and fun. Allusions to rap songs and Broadway show tunes alike are hidden in the lyrics. The music of “Hamilton” expands the definition of the musical genre with its modern production and incorporation of numerous genres. “Hamilton” will surely inspire future musicals with similarly modern sounds. As “Hamilton” continues to run on Broadway and eventually has TV performances next year and a film adaptation in the distant future, it will help musicals and their music grow in popularity. For fans of any genre (and anyone who wants to learn about American history), “Hamilton” is an impressive work of art and enormous fun.