Lin-Manuel Miranda is an American composer, singer, playwright and actor. He was born in 1980 in a Latino neighborhood in New York City to two parents originally from Puerto Rico. He always sang as a kid, and in college he started a hip hop comedy singing group called “Freestyle Love Supreme.” It was clear that he loved free-thinking and exciting lyrics that he could improv with his friends. After his first musical “In the Heights” became a success, Miranda needed a break. In 2008, he grabbed Ron Chernow’s 800 page biography of “Alexander Hamilton” to read on vacation. Hamilton being born out of wedlock, growing up poor on the streets as a smart, scrappy fighter, abandoned by his father and orphaned by his mother all added up for Miranda. Immediately, Miranda recognized Hamilton’s hard luck story and rise to the top as a classic hip hop story and immigrant story.
Released in 2015, Hamilton is a uniquely American work which combines many different musical genres, like Rap, Hip Hop, and Classical all in a broadway musical setting. The songs appear chronologically in two acts and range in tempo from lightning fast speed with full and even digital orchestration to the saddest acapella vocal and piano duet. A great range of emotion is projected to the audience through Miranda’s instrumentation. He uses Hip Hop sampling in most of the fast tempo songs and a range of instruments to back up his exciting lyrics. This combination makes for an exciting musical that feels revolutionary in its own right. On this album Miranda puts great moments of American History back on the streets and into the voices of men and women who fearlessly fight with every lyric. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a groundbreaking masterpiece in any genre.
The song “Cabinet Battle #1” begins Act Two with George Washington directly addressing the audience. Washington welcomes the audience to a “cabinet meeting” which is really a rap battle between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Using a piano and drums background, Miranda borrows lyrics from Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” as Washington states, “Ladies and Gentlemen...you could’ve been anywhere in the world tonight but you’re here with us in New York City.” Jay-Z sings “You could’ve been anywhere in the world but you’re here with me.” Miranda also samples Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five when he has Secretary Jefferson say “sometimes I wonder why I even bring the thunder.” In 1982 Grandmaster Flash sang “Sometimes I wonder how I keep from going under.” Miranda keeps the instrumentation low in the background to showcase the amazing vocal exchange between these two enemies. A fast percussive beat keeps time with the rapping politicians, and the piano uses high notes to reflect the anxiety brewing between them. The vocals use a fast tempo and are percussive themselves. The beat is syncopated, and the audience feels off-balance as though anything could happen as they witness these two go at it. The way the piano climbs to reach higher pitched notes adds a sense of anxiety and excitement that is building. This is a masterful song at drawing the audience into the content and getting them excited about what they’re hearing. As the second song in Act II the audience gets the sense that more conflict is coming.
The song “Guns and Ships” is the 18th song in Act I. It starts with an overture of chords, a soaring solo Violin, then continuous snaps from the company that keep Aaron Burr on the beat as he recaps how the revolutionary army is falling apart. He asks the audience directly, “How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower somehow defeat a global superpower? How do we emerge victorious from the quagmire, leave the battlefield waving Betsy Ross’ flag higher?” He’s saying this, genuinely wondering out loud, how the rebel army can possibly win when they are outmatched in men, weapons, ships, and money. The rest of the song answers his question in the form of what is quite possibly the fastest song in musical theater history. According to the site MentalFloss.com, “Guns and Ships” averages 6.3 words per second. Fivethirtyeight.com argues that “Guns and Ships” is the “fastest Broadway song of all time” because “19 words are sung in one 3 second span.” The singer Daveed Diggs plays the Marquis de Lafayette, and he manages to sing these lightning fast lyrics in a convincing french accent. In history, Lafayette with Rochambeau is truly the “secret weapon” and does really save the revolution. Miranda increases the dynamics of this scene as Burr shouts to the audience “Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!” Lafayette bursts onto the scene with a percussive rap. He leaves no doubt about what it’s going to take to win the war with these lyrics: “I’m takin’ this horse by the reigns makin’ redcoats redder with bloodstains. And I’m never gonna stop until I make ‘em drop and burn ‘em up and scatter their remains.” With these lyrics, Miranda does a good job in my opinion of showing how committed soldiers were during this time in the revolution. The song conveys this do or die dedication with the fast rhythm and percussive melody of the lyrics. You can feel the adrenaline rush as the listener. After this insanely-fast-paced song, peace is in sight. This song feels to me like having a front row seat to history.
In “Burn” which appears as the 15th song in Act II, a haunting harp solo foreshadows the impending pain and suffering we are about to hear from Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Eliza. She appears alone, with no backup vocals, which reinforces the sense that she’s feeling abandoned. The whole world has found out that her husband has been having an affair with another woman. The song also stands out as having the slowest tempo on the whole album. The accompaniment in this song switches from the harp to single piano notes once she starts to sing. The pace builds and you really feel the repetitive, swirling 1-2-3 waltz structure that Eliza can’t escape from. Eliza explains her situation figuratively to Alexander. A solo violin and drum top hat cymbal joins the piano as she reminisces about their early happy days together. But as she describes his betrayal, she burns his letters and sings, “I’m erasing myself from the narrative. Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart. You have torn it all apart. I’m watching it burn.” The melody when she draws out the word “burn” is like a multi-pitched wail, which really shows how destroyed she is. I think this song stands out as one of the best on the album because of how stark and simple the message is. In a fast-paced tightly-packed musical, Burn is a surprising change of pace that breaks your heart in sympathy with Eliza.
Hamilton, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, tells history through music. It tells the history of rap and hip hop through the samples and styles it incorporates, and it tells the history of this revolutionary young country in 1776. Hamilton is able to fit more than 20,000 words into two and a half action-packed hours. I highly recommend this album for fans of history, broadway shows, musicals, rap, hip hop, and anyone who just wants to be transported through time via music. In 2016, it was nominated for 16 Tony awards. It won 11, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. Hamilton also won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I think the most special thing that this album has to offer is that these 46 songs are each catchy, memorable, and unique in their own right. Together, they are a powerhouse experience of music, education, and overall fun. I give Hamilton a perfect 10 out of 10.