Sound Advice Reviews
SPAMILTON: AN AMERICAN PARODY
Devastatingly, deliciously sharp in its satire of the rapid rap and rabid worship of the phenomenon of the stage smash Hamilton and, for observers of the scene with varying degrees of awareness and admiration of that musical, Spamilton is the ultimate hoot. That should rate a zero on the surprise scale because the writer penning the LOL lyrics and aping the beat is none other than Gerard Alessandrini, the mastermind who brought us years of skewerings of Broadway and its passing shows and stars, Forbidden Broadway. He also has his humorous stamp on the still-running (but venue-changing) production as its director.
Much of what he's messing with here is all about the specific smash and its creator/star Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose background, motivations, and personality are skillfully introduced in the exposition that the cast opens with. And you don't need to have absorbed all of its songs and backstory to get a lot of the humor. Of course, the more know going in, the more you'll appreciate the specific references and uses/twistings of Miranda material, with the ear-catchy "Look around" motif incorporated quite effectively. And Hamilton's distinctive "Aaron Burr, Sir" is neatly given an homage, the machine-gun rat-tat-tat-tat speed marathon refashioned as "Aaron Burr, Sir, Nervous-er."
Despite numerous specific purposeful parallels, however, newbie non-Hamiltonians and those expecting a number-by-number running set of companion pieces should know that there are quite a few detours and respites from such an agenda. Alessandrini has come up with plenty of related aspects to skewer: the fervor for tickets, the composer-lyricist's earlier In the Heights (reconstituted as "In the Hype"), and Broadway's temptation to play it "safe" with revivals. The expert parodist, whose target practice exercises employ arrows dipped in sweetened poison, evidences underlying affection and respect for what is merrily mocked. Alessandrini may not suffer foolishness gladly, but his craft almost always triumphs over temptation to kick a guy when he's downor, in the case of the ongoing love affair theatregoers have with Hamilton, he can maybe kick a guy a bit harder when he's up and sitting on top of the world. But, to be clear, the parodist refers to the object of his confection as "genius" in his notes, and note that good sport Miranda's endorsement quote on the sticker affixed to the physical CD: "I laughed my brains out!" Clearly, both men have plenty of brain power to work with.
The cast heard on the recording is ready, willing, and very able to deliver the goods. Dan Rosales as Miranda, in and out of the latter's characterization of the anachronistically hip-hop jiving Alexander Hamilton, is spot on and bursts with energy. Chris Anthony Giles takes on Leslie Odom Jr.'s embodiment of Aaron Burr with flair, while Nicholas Edwards deftly doubles as key historical figures of two nations: Jefferson and Lafayette. Juwan Crawley has funny appearances as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin mixed with none other thanwait for itStephen Sondheim. With much spirit, all the above male cast members often chime in as non-specific ensemble voices to notch up the enthusiasm and brashness. So does female cast member Nora Schell, who also takes on voices (singing or spoken) of some celebrities who pop in from the worlds of contemporary musical theatre, like Phillipa Soo, and popfrom Beyonce to Barbra Streisand.
But it's guest star and Forbidden Broadway alumna Christine Pedi who sets the bar and nails her impressions with more detail. (She's also billed as Creative Consultant and is among the co-producers.) Pedi brings back still-welcome exaggerations of Bernadette Peters and Liza Minnelli, upping the ante by having both also appear "incognito" as the Beggar Woman from Sweeney Todd, this time begging for scarce tickets to guess which sold-out show. The vocal switch from the soprano pleading lifted from Sweeney Todd to the concert persona of the stars makes for special and especially clever highlights. (And there are other Sondheim bits, too.) And the other guest performer, a lively and glib Glenn Bassett as King George, grabs a showcase turn to revel in "Straight Is Back," parading the return of heterosexual male characters and the surprise demise of a "trend" of Broadway shows with prominent protagonists who are gay. Bassett, by the way, is also the guy who designed the this off-Broadway production's nose-thumbing logo and is the stage manager.
The 25 tracks on the cast recording offer a bounty of frolicsome fun. In addition to the numbers inspired by Hamilton's actual score, there's plenty of variety by using other familiar melodies as cannon fodder to attempt to chip away at the Hamilton power and hoopla. With biting new words of commentary or criticism, melodies of other shows that came along since the hiatus after the last installment of Forbidden Broadway finally get their moment with the Great White Way's great attack dog, and some long runs and revivals get a sequel of sassingquite a few, actuallyfrom The Book of Mormon to the long-running Lion King (where Julie Taymor rhymes with what many do for tix to Hamilton"pay more").
Speaking of rhyme, Alessandrini's liner notes make the point that musical theatre lyricists traditionally set themselves the task of using only pure, perfect rhymes, while such is not considered de rigueur by many who work in what is the easier route of near rhymes and false rhymes much more commonly heard in the genres of rap, rock, and pop (or, as Broadway veteran Carol Lawrence once dismissively referred to them in a TV interview, "crap, schlock, and slop"). Those close-but-no-cigar syllables "passing" and passed off as similar enough are often my deal-breaking pet peeves in considering lyrics, so I find it interesting that the notes acknowledge that because so many more related sounds are needed to follow the patterns set in Manuel's writing, "I gave up and and joined in the fun of the near-rhyme ... Before I knew it I was rhyming 'try harder' with 'trend-starter.' To tell you the truth, I still feel very guilty." He also calls adapting to rap quite arduous.
Familiar musical hands return: Fred Barton is at the piano and shares musical arrangement duties with Richard Danley for sprightly and colorful sounds that never overwhelm, but only support, the devilish doings. Have I said too much? There's nothing more I can think of to say to you without being accused of being a spoiler. My hat is off to the brilliant Gerard Alessandrini and this very strong company's performances on the recording which arguably puts Hamilton in perspectiveand will keep many of us in stitches.