Sound Advice Reviews
Next week comes my delayed Top Ten list of favorite musical theatre albums, delayed in part because of the late receipts of some of the year's recordings. I won't pretend it's a burden to binge-listen in December, but it does thus take some extra time to get all the reviews in. And it seemed wrong to close the door on 2015 without discussing at some length a certain show, the most talked-about musical of the year.
Even if you've been living in a cave or under a rock for the last few months, I'm not willing to bet you missed out on hearing about Hamilton. No one has received more recent eyebrow-raised attention for unlikely and irreverent enactments of what we think politicians act like and sound like, except perhaps that Trump fellow. But, current American politics aside, and for those who prefer turning to the Arts section of the newspaper (or electronic equivalent thereof), the buzz goes to this non-traditional musical re-telling of tales of Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries. Contemporary music styles and their inherent attitudes provide the gateway to making sure all dust is removed from the history books and museum exhibitswith a blowtorch.
It might seem at first that the proceedings are merely a mockery of history or an attempt to knock anything revered as rarefied off its pedestal or just having fun with oh-so-"now" styles lobbed onto ye days of yore, giving those we most often see as statues and formally posed portraits some fresh flesh and throbbing-vein blood. The juxtapositions here startle like any imagined side trip to an alternate universe. Beyond a cast album's limited aural-only limitation, those who see the show get the additional impact of viewing many non-white actors play the Caucasian founding fathers and their respective followers, in the days when owning slaves was still part of the accepted way of life in the neophyte so-called Land of the Free. So, add in the inherent irony and the power of the reverse casting choices which make their own strong commentary by just being.
Now mix in the tone. The sharp bite of satire, evident from the early tracks of the double-disc original cast album, and taking no prisoners in its battles of wills and politics and schemes, are set largely to the machine gun tempoed beats of hip-hop, rap, and R&B forms of music. While it is not true that these modern styles are all we hear, they do dominate, with almost relentlessly detonated explosions of tough rhythm precisely fired in quick succession the norm, occasionally relieved with the respite of something with at least snatches of more melodic fabric. (In life, even a patient dog gets thrown a bone now and then to sink his teeth into.)
In the title role of the musical for which he provided voluminous whirlwinds of some very athletically spun and pointed lyrics and less impressive music, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a powerhouse anchor. His performance on disc is forceful, sly, slick, knowing, and often commanding with precision and polish. His deft shifts of attitude, depending on whom he is addressing, speak volumes for what's going on and what sides are being taken and what ground under whose feet may be shifting. The sniggering power plays, struts, and knocking others down a peg (or a half-dozen pegs) are key to his performance and those portraying Hamilton's likewise self-satisfied friends and foes and observers. The crisp awareness of the impact of illustrating these prioritized points seems implicit in how they deliver the goods and spark off each other.
I find that I admire this score more than I actually enjoy listening to it. Its creativity, goals, and achievements I respect, especially because it results in making us look again at history and politics (including, by extension and comparison, modern history in this American presidential election year) with sharper eyes and minds. Bravissimo for that. For some, the hip-hop-ish razzle-dazzle is the tasty "spoonful of sugar [that] helps the medicine go down." But, for me, the hip-hop layered liberally on top of the message that is the medicine I take, to be able to join in the joy of getting the message and seeing how it can be spread.
Yes, my musical doctors will diagnose me as generally allergic to hip-hop, and exposure to rap has, in the past, proved nearly fatal. But I do get the very different context that becomes an asset when used in this show about historical figures from America of many years ago. I can't deny that it works. But I don't find myself to be a full member of the praise-spouting devotees on the Hamilton bandwagon. When satire and wordplay are used most prominently is when my ears perk up and I find the lyrics most effective and the more teasing attitudes adopted by cast members most successful. Miranda's less compelling rapid-fire harsher music (and some preferring matriculation in "old school" musical theatre will still use this word loosely) resulted in diminishing returns for me as I listened in longer stretches. But I am grateful for some old-school tidbits, such as the nod referencing an army general as "the model of a modern major general." There are a few more such winks.
Though I am not the target audience for the music styles most heavily employed here, and I haven't been converted by this exposure, I can certainly see how it can be quite effective here. I often found myself smiling and tickled by the skillful work with words and the cast's dashing and confidently glib performances and their teamwork. Plus, though I felt less than fully engaged as I listened on, I found myself surprisingly moved and involved by the surefire dramatic ending and cumulative impact.
For little ol' melody-craving me, the more sung sections are more satisfying. This often means more cheering for the rich, warm tones of female voices Renee Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo. The latter's cathartic vow to "Burn" souvenirs and memories, looking back on the festering, still-inflamed wounds of the past, is heartbreaking. They both also imbue their work with a kind of dignity and understated power that contrasts with the in-your-face approach of other numbers. In retrospect, though, sometimes their appearances are truly all too brief and the material they are given is not especially rangy, with the refreshing breeze of aural change descending into repetition.
Lin-Manuel Miranda's preening and formidable Alexander Hamilton can't be denied its charismatic impact. Other figures from history come alive in surprising and sometimes sparkling ways. Christopher Jackson is an always welcome talent with each appearance, a more subtle and smoother-voiced, but also dynamic, performer. Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs also have strong opportunities, well-realized, such as the gripe informed by jealousy about how it "must be nice to have" America's first President George "Washington on Your Side." The jaded phrase "Follow the money" may be of much more recent coinage, but nothing is all that new under the glare of the political sun. While this accusatory song invokes an analogy to the famed story of the emperor who has no clothes, that's not the case with Hamilton. It works. It clicks. There is talent here. Its clever devices and bravura performances carry the day.
In a campy and showy role, the irresistibly playful Jonathan Groff as England's King George observing what's happening in the struggling former British colonies is a character adorably pleased as punch with himself. Groff is off and running. And, hooray, he really sings. Each of his few appearances (oh, I so wish there were more) is a giggle-getting smugfest. Rather than be bored by the repeat of his sung "nyah-nyah" taunting choruses, we anticipate its prancing return. Joyfully, this talented actor-singer put the "ham" in Hamilton.
My other most-preferred tracks include spiffy things like the cute "Aaron Burr, Sir" where they begin the bit of featuring many rhymes for the surname of Hamilton's more-than-adversary, the mocked Aaron Burr (as you might guess from the song's title). The little pause between the two rhymed words creates an anticipation for each crisply enunciated succeeding rhyme. My favorite is the one that sets up the mention of the job of someone accepting financial payments, as the lyric pays off "You mean the bursar?" In the multi-part, vibrant and very varied selection titled "The Schuyler Sisters" (Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler), the cast has spunk and captivating rhythms and chemistry evident. They also benefit from delectable use of language like the pick-up boast "I'm a trust fund baby. You can trust me" and "You want a revolution. I want a revelation." A scene delineating Hamilton's work ethic/obsession devolving into the temptation of adultery is both disturbing and chillingly vulgar, yet powerful and ultimately sad and infuriating.
I was sent mp3 files for the albums' tracks, so I don't know if more is included in the CD's booklet, but the lyrics can be found online. Although there are torrents of words on some numbers, it's a testament to the cast's fine and careful diction and the sound balance (between performers and orchestra) effected by the album producers that almost all those wordsdelivered at super-speed can be caught on a first hearing.
As with Hamilton the man, it will be interesting to see how Hamilton the musical will be remembered and viewed after years pass and more perspective is gained. The rest, as they say, is (will be) history. And who won't cheer for something that speaks to today's young people in their language if it ignites their interest in our country's history and awareness of politics? And if it also sparks their interest in exploring other works of great musical theatre ... stranger things have happened (some in Mr. Hamilton's life).