Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Hip Hop Hamilton

I read a story about some Broadway actor/producer who picked up the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton while on vacation. He found the story so fascinating that he created a musical around it. And he used hip hop as the musical genre because that would be the music of the revolution.

While I’m no theater connoisseur, I do love history and 1990s hip hop. But, I also owned the Milli Vanilli cassette tape, so I am well-acquainted with the idea that something that sounds too good to be true can indeed be.

Regardless, I went to go see “Hamilton” on Broadway with some friends (who heard about this play and wisely decided we should get tickets and go to it before it exploded in popularity).

If you haven’t heard of this play, The New York Times has covered it well, and CBS Sunday Morning did a profile on "Hamilton" back when it was an off-broadway show. 

Basically, it’s a musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton. But, while the costumes and storyline are true to the time, it's performed by a multiethnic cast who sing/speak in hip hop, all with the energy and excitement of the Revolution. 

The musical style changes when appropriate -- for example, when King George makes an appearance, his music has the flavor of 1970s British Pop, appropriately out of touch with the revolutionaries. And, Thomas Jefferson sings R&B more than hip hop – because, well, he did basically miss the late 1780s in America and was a little old school compared to Hamilton and crew. Other people can explain this better.

Sounds interesting? It is. The writer/director/star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has a multitude of musical influences in his life, and they merge perfectly to create the atmosphere that feels like a revolution on stage.  When Alexander Hamilton sings, "I'm young, scrappy and hungry/just like my country,” you believe it.

Miranda won one of the McArthur “genius grants” this year.  He’s the real deal. He even used Chernow as a consultant on the play.

The casting is fascinating -- as they say, it's the story of America yesterday told by the America of today. You can’t get hung up on anyone’s ethnicity – it doesn’t matter. Aaron Burr is African-American. Alexander Hamilton is Latino. The actresses playing the Schuyler Sisters definitely don’t have the same parents in real life. But none of that matters watching the play.

The actor who portrays the Marquis de Lafayette in the first act and Thomas Jefferson in the second act blew me away. In Act I, his Marquis portrayal includes rapping in a French accent. At the beginning of Act II, he brings the house down in one of my favorite moments: Thomas Jefferson singing "What did I miss?" as he returns from France. 

Did I mention there are two rap battles between Jefferson and Hamilton debating American policy? One is all about incurring states’ debts, and it ends with a refrain of Madison and Jefferson teasing Hamilton with "You don't have the votes!" What better way to encapsulate the fights and teasing on Capitol Hill? You need to read these lyrics

I learned so much about our ten dollar founding father during the play. Sure, I knew he was shot by Aaron Burr and he started the federal reserve, but he was also part of one of America’s first sex scandals and the founder of the Coast Guard. Hamilton is so much more than the duel death he is often reduced to in popular history.

What else can I say? Let me just repeat the opening line from The New York Times review of the show: Yes, it really is that good. 

Also, if you go to the play – or are just in New York City – members of the cast (and/or special guests) often do a little mini-show outside the theater before the ticket lottery. Many of them involve Lin-Manuel beatboxing for someone to rap. Just go on YouTube to search for #Ham4Ham videos. To get a flavor of the excitement of the show -- and of the Ham4Ham experience -- here's a great video couplet. There are three sisters (the Schuyler sisters) who are prominent figures in Hamilton's life (he marries one of them). They are almost like Destiny's Child on stage. Amazing. 

First, here are three of the actors who have played King George lip syncing the Schuyler sisters' big intro song at a #Ham4Ham performance outside the theater (the woman who pantomimes Aaron Burr's intro rap is one of the actresses who plays a sister):

And here’s a New York Times video of part of that song (but it doesn’t capture the energy on stage):  

Also, you should at least listen to the cast album. Questlove was a producer. What else do I need to say?

P.S. Our great blog leader, Melanie, has already given me a great list of what to read now that I’ve seen the play. But, if you have time, read the links to the Times stories in this post -- the ones on Miranda and the play are beautiful. The first one includes reflections from Sondheim, Chernow, and others.


  1. This is my favorite part of your review: "And, Thomas Jefferson sings R&B more than hip hop – because, well, he did basically miss the late 1780s in America and was a little old school compared to Hamilton and crew." The show sounds awesome!

  2. My favorite part: "Thomas Jefferson singing "What did I miss?" as he returns from France." Haha … And there are rap battles about public policy??? AND Destiny's Child??? I have to see this! And soon!

    1. Everyone needs to listen to the Jefferson "What'd I miss?" song. It starts with Aaron Burr recapping who Hamilton is and what has happened in the country....and then he introduces Jefferson. Just to hear the way the actor says "Monticello" is worth your time.