Even independent from all the visual elements that make up a great stage show, the soundtrack of Hamilton: An American Musical is just something special. A powerful handling of historical material and a clever toying with genre have created songs that are emotive, vibrant, and politically charged.
Characterisation is strong and remarkably nuanced, and the motivations of even more frustrating characters (like Aaron Burr) are made clear and relatable. Repeated rhythms and varied styles of music underscore characterisation: Burr addresses people largely through a fixed rhythm (e.g. “Aaron Burr, sir”), meaning that his insincere and political formality is reinforced through every interaction.
The fact that others, like Hamilton, mimic this speech pattern whilst addressing him illustrates the influence he succeeds in exerting. The revolution is played out in rap, hip-hop, and more modern, rhythmic music, while the old order, aristocracy, and especially King George, sing in a far more traditional way. It is interesting to see how Angelica, more engaged in revolutionary ideas, slips into rap, whilst her sister Eliza sings traditionally throughout.
Hamilton himself remains consistent in his ambition, convictions and work ethic, but is also shaped by own worldly experiences. He is complex and flawed, admirable but far from deified, and the depth given to his wife, Eliza, certainly encourages the audience to condemn his treatment of her, and empathise with her pain. It is certainly satisfying to see Angelica rebuke him for his infidelity. Her refrain, “I know my sister like I know my own mind, you will never find anyone as trusting or as kind”, takes on a new, firmer meaning, furious at his betrayal and his assumption that she would take his side.
Throughout the musical, this way in which repeated phrases and motifs gain different meanings and connotations in varying contexts is highly effective. The phrase, “look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now” changes many hands. First, it expresses Angelica’s excitement at the revolution, then it is mimicked by her sister whilst she tries to persuade Hamilton to stay away from the war and meet his unborn child, and finally it is thrown back in Eliza’s face by Hamilton as he leaves her again to assume a cabinet position.
Washington’s advice, “History has its eyes on you” constantly haunts Hamilton, uttered by the chorus in the background of many songs. Similarly, Eliza’s ‘That would be enough’ is at times hopeful and mournful, yet sometimes pleading and bitter, and it consistently explores her sense of neglect by Hamilton.
The treatment of the historical material is impressive. Through rap battles, musical narrative, and character songs we gain a real sense of the issues and events of the time—they are simplified enough to be entertaining, accessible and workable in musical form.
Focusing through one figure naturally trims the material, and enables more personal story-lines to be interwoven. This facilitates some intimately moving moments such as in the heartbreaking ‘Stay Alive (Reprise)’ and ‘It’s Quiet Uptown.’
Historical causes often have to be simplified. For example, the catalyst of the Burr and Hamilton duel is compressed to his support of Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800, while in reality there were a string of later grievances. However, the degree of specificity achieved is impressive: the musical addresses specific pivotal battles and policy disputes, such as Hamilton’s economic plan for the federal government to assume state debts.
Although the musical invokes a strong sense of triumph at winning the War of Independence, and celebrates Enlightenment ideals, it doesn’t fully neglect the darker sides of American History. Slavery is referred to right from the opening number: “Slaves were being slaughtered and carted across the waves”. In ‘Cabinet Battle #1,’ Hamilton doesn’t let Jefferson forget that the prosperity of the south largely relies on slavery, highlighting the seeds of the disputes that would culminate in the Civil War, and the fundamental hypocrisy with which the constitution was drafted.
I personally have my fingers crossed that Lin Manuel Miranda may choose to write a musical about the Civil War itself, where we could see these issues explored in detail. Perhaps he could call it Lincoln.