Over the last six months I’ve heard a steady bubbling of excitement about a musical called Hamilton. At this point I should probably come clean as a general loather of musical theatre. My favourite musical movie is South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, and I have seen Matilda twice, but overall it’s a genre that leaves me a little chilly.
Anyway, there’s this Hamilton thing, which on paper sounds utterly awful: it’s a hip-hop musical about the life of former Treasury Secretary and founding father of the United States, Alexander Hamilton. I think that description is what kept me from delving deeper, despite hearing that it had become a massive sensation on Broadway.
But as much as I don’t like musicals, I am a big fan of unlikely success stories (see the recent Mad Max reboot, directed by the septuagenarian guy who made the not-particularly-lucrative earlier versions of MM and has spent the time since making crap like Babe and Happy Feet; or Deadpool, which spent several years in development hell, attached to a star who could barely get arrested, before entirely reinventing the superhero movie genre). So this situation interested me because it contains two such stories. The first is Hamilton’s: a man from humble beginnings who ended up making a great contribution to the birth of America. The second is that of the musical’s writer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Sure, he had a pedigree (he created another award-winning musical called In The Heights, which I believe is playing in London), but for one guy to take on this complex musical biography in rap, with actors from various ethnic backgrounds (despite the whiteness of the real characters they are playing) is pretty inspiring. And I think it’s fair to say that the idea just seemed kind of funny to a lot of people, including Barack Obama, who invited Lin-Manuel to the first ever spoken word and poetry evening at the White House in 2009:
And despite the laughs that this concept gets, particularly when the words ‘Alexander Hamilton’ are said, he seemed undeterred in believing that this would work as a deadly serious play. I think others might have felt concerned that this would come across in the way it was intended, but hats off to Mr Miranda: he stuck to his guns and created his vision.
By the way, for some people the success of others can be tempered by the knowledge that the person is question is a bit of an arsehole. Well, in this case you have nothing to fear:
So he took a chance and produced a musical which, unusually, is almost entirely sung-through (very little dialogue). That means that those of you who can’t get to New York and afford the $1100 resale seats can instead buy the album or download it from a streaming site and find out why it won a Grammy and makes a good case for being the best album of last year and a better rap album than last year’s efforts by Kendrick, Dre or Drake, as this Billboard review suggests:
“But digesting every nuance in these mostly rapped renditions of the infamously verbose title character’s oratorial jousts is almost impossible without a rewind button; every listen finds a new sanguine historical detail, slick interpolation of a hip-hop classic or dizzying rhyme pattern delivered with Eminem-level intricacy
And as a writer and huge fan of hip-hop I like to think that when it comes to this kind of thing I’m quite hard to please. But I just listen open-mouthed to this combination of 18th Century vocabulary, hip-hop vernacular and references to everyone from Gilbert and Sullivan to Jay-Z. I mean, the balls on anyone who writes this and expects to be brilliant when rapped with a straight face by a man dressed as an American politician from the 1770s:
What are the odds the gods would put us all in one spot
Poppin’ a squat on conventional wisdom, like it or not.
A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists
Give me a position show me where the ammunition is.
Miranda’s take on how good the music and lyrics are?
“And then everyone goes, ‘Oh, my God, he’s a genius! Hamilton’s a genius!’ They conflate the two. I’m not a fucking genius. I work my ass off. Hamilton could have written what I wrote in about three weeks. That’s genius. It took me a very long time to wrestle this onto the stage, to even be able to understand the worldviews of the characters that inhabit my show, and then be able to distill that.”
So work hard, don’t be discouraged by how outlandish your idea might be, and bring something amazing into the world.
Let me leave you with the cast’s Grammy performance of the musical’s opening number. It is fucking brilliant.