Musicals are my favourite history lesson. When they’re done well, they resurrect fascinating people and moments in time, and make them relevant to now. After watching Parade, I read everything I could find on the trial of Leo Frank, and post-Civil War unrest in the American South; the little-known musical Nevermore made me go in search of everything penned by the poet Edgar Allan Poe; Sondheim’s Assassins had me obsessed with a series of US presidencies and their critics. But they’ve got nothing on my current addiction. If you’re even a bit plugged into theatre or the arts on general, you’ve probably read at least two articles on the hip-hop political musical Hamilton, currently tearing up Broadway and pulling in punters from Obama to J-Lo. If you’d rather ride 10k on a seatless bicycle than sit through a musical, maybe you haven’t.
But everyone should give this one a shot. It’s the story of one of America’s less venerated founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, set to a glorious score of rap, jazz, soul, pop and classic Broadway. Originally planned as a Jesus Christ Superstar-style concept album by composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s fiery, funny, sharp as a rapier and smokin’ as a duelling pistol – I defy anyone with an appreciation for contemporary music and storytelling in general not to enjoy it. Today’s teen students of American history are so lucky to have this to bring their country’s roots to life for them. I wish there was a musical score this thoroughly researched and executed for every time period I’m interested in.
I do not exaggerate when I say I have been listening to the Hamilton original cast recording for a solid week now – every time I hear a track the second or third time I hear something new, something clever in it. It’s like Miranda read the letters, biographies and personal dramas of every single historical figure, and gives a little nod to everything about them in his sharp, witty rap battles and Destiny’s Child-feel girls’ numbers. He based the style of each founding father, men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, on different rappers – Busta Rhymes, Notorious BIG, Eminem. I’m sure bigger rap fans than me will be able to spot the nuances. But it also directly quotes South Pacific and The Pirates of Penzance – it’s really the product of Miranda being anything but a music snob; soaking in everything and anything from Beyoncé to Beethoven.
The music itself is also striking, sinister, beautiful and with so many little themes and motifs woven in. There are important threads that comment on the US political system today: party politics, government process, all-talk, image-led politicians (Hamilton’s frenemy Aaron Burr’s mantra is ‘Talk less. Smile more,’ while one voter chirps that ‘He seems approachable, like you could have a beer with him!’) I think I could listen to it for another 51 weeks straight and see something fresh in it each week.
I love projects like this because they nudge you to wake up, sit up, and up your game. ‘Why haven’t I created anything this fantastic?’, you think. I genuinely felt energised and excited about the arts after one listen. And the more you read into Miranda’s life and career (and, indeed, Hamilton’s), the more fascinated you’ll be by how this show came about, and what it might be the beginning of.
Just one question: how soon can I get out to NY and snap up one a rare and expensive ticket? Something tells me seeing this original cast is a must…
Listen on Spotify. Buy on iTunes. Tickets and show info here.
(This really needs listening to all the way through, it’s such a cohesive story, but -)
Wait for it
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