Thursday, October 29, 2015

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story? (In Which Randi Reviews the Hamilton Soundtrack)

If you had told me about two years ago that the hottest Broadway musical would be a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton, I definitely would have laughed at you. But alas, here we are.

Hamilton is like nothing you've ever heard before. A game changing musical that combines contemporary musical styles and a racially diverse cast to tell the story of the birth of a nation and a legend the history books tend to downplay. 

The man behind all this, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has done an incredible job of breathing life into the stuffy old history of America. We see people like Hamilton, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, heck even King George III, as young vivacious human beings, not old dudes in wigs.

The cast of this show is positively astounding. Lin-Manuel stars as Hamilton, capturing his frantic non-stop style. Daveed Diggs is a true standout, playing Marquis de Lafayette in the first act and Thomas Jefferson in the second. His motormouth work on Guns and Ships is particularly impressive. Leslie Odom Jr. is a revelation as Aaron Burr, creating a full bodied portrayal of a full bodied character, that both Miranda and Odom could have simply played off as the villain. Renee Elise Goldsberry is strong and commanding as Angelica Schuyler, her Act I showstopper Satisfied is one of the very best moments of the show. And shout out to Jonathon Groff for his hilarious turn as King George, for real the funniest part of the show.

If you don't have a lot of time, feel free to stop here. If you do, here's a track by track.

Alexander Hamilton- it's so interesting to see how this song has grown. It started out as a piece at the White House poetry jam a few years back when Lin was still writing Hamilton. This piece perfectly sets up the show and has some pretty awesome moments highlighting what is to come of the brilliant cast.

Aaron Burr, Sir- This is our introduction to Aaron Burr, a central foil to Hamilton. Seeing how the character grows from this point onward is a treat, thanks to the genius writing and the equally amazing work from Leslie Odom Jr. Seriously, this dude is awesome. It also serves as our introduction to Lafayette, John Laurens, and Hercules Mulligan, the latter of which gets some excellent lines.

My Shot- Is it weird to have a showstopper this early in the show? Nope. This is the I Want song for the show, and it is awesome. The section where Hamilton raps "I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory/when's it gonna get me/in my sleep/seven feet ahead of me/" with the snare drum motif that repeats at some key moments later is pretty awesome. What a jam.

The Story of Tonight- This one took a little longer to grow on me, but now it is definitely neck and neck with my other favorite revolutionaries drinking song from Les Miserables. This one really sets up the "forget the stuffy old white dudes" thing for me. Hamilton and co. were young revolutionaries, literally and metaphorically. It is so easy to forget that.

The Schuyler Sisters- The jam to end all jams. In a show like Hamilton, it can be easy to neglect the ladies (God knows how many people have done it before), but instead, Lin brings them to the forefront as an integral part of Hamilton's story. Here we see Peggy, Angelica, and Eliza brought startlingly to life. These were ladies who were taking charge of their own fate and minds in colonial Manhattan. How lucky we are to be alive right now, indeed. 

Farmer Refuted- A song that more easily fits into preconceptions of musical theater, Farmer Refuted could be in a show like Les Miserables, or that other musical about revolutionaries, 1776. However, it does not feel jarring, a testament to the prefect blend created by Miranda. There are some excellent zingers and clever lyrics, and great character insights.

You'll Be Back- A comedy tour de force, this is King George's breakup song to the colonies. Literally. How could you resist lyrics like You cry/in your tea/which your hurl in the sea/when you see me go by. Groff delivers this song perfectly on the cast recording, his timing and inflections are so funny. This role gets all of ten minutes on stage, but don't be surprised come Tony time if King George gets a little love.

Right Hand Man- Wondering where George Washington is? Here he is. This song is  a jaaaaam. It creates the Washington as a man not to be messed with, a little older and wiser than the younguns like Hamilton and Hercules Mulligan, but still a force to be reckoned with. Chris Jackson is both an excellent singer and rapper, and his booming voice fits perfectly with the part. 

A Winter's Ball- This one doesn't do a whole lot for the story, except reveal that Hamilton and Co. were ladies men. If you're short on cash and going for the Hamilton sampler, you can skip this one. It's pretty funny though.

Helpless- Eliza's big Act I song. A doo-wop jam, this really demonstrates Philippa Soo's awesome range of style. It's a bit mushy, but in the best possible way, documenting Hamilton's courtship of Eliza. Super romantic and fluffy.

Satisfied- Arguably the best song in the show. Renee Elise Goldsberry knocks it out of the park. This woman can switch from rapping to singing in a matter of two seconds, and does both extremely well. The wordplay and lyricism in this piece are also some of the best in the show, and advance the story and Angelica's character at the same time. It's an insane song that serves so many different functions, but also is just fun to listen to. This is a HUGE moment, and should be recognized as such.

The Story of Tonight (Reprise)- Is there anything better than tipsy revolutionaries? Answer: no. Not even a sober Aaron Burr can ruin this party.

Wait for It- Thus far in the story, there really haven't been many redeeming qualities for Burr. He's been this annoying guy constantly ten feet behind Hamilton and just a little too late to get in on the spotlight. Non-Stop is his first of a few big moments and creates this perfect foil to Hamilton. "I am not falling short or running late/I am not standing still/I am lying in wait" is the complete antithesis of Hamilton's non-stop philosophy.  And it frustrates Burr to no end. An excellent character number. I tend to feel this one gets a little overshadowed by Satisfied, and while I have to give the edge to the former, Wait For It is a really awesome jam.

Stay Alive- In case you forgot, there's a war going on. This song is intense, but not without it's comedic moments. Not a standout track, but certainly essential to the story.

Ten Duel Commandments- Not only is this one a banger, it also serves as great foreshadowing for a later event in Act II. Also, now you know how to duel someone. I don't recommend trying that out or anything, but hey, the more you know! Also, a fun fact: All the pistol sound effects on this album are from real flint lock pistols, so what actual duelists of the time would have used.

Meet Me Inside- A brilliant insight into the relationship between Hamilton and Washington throughout the story. It's interesting to see how Washington and Hamilton are so similar and yet so different. 

That Would Be Enough- This is the first interaction we see of Hamilton and Eliza once they are married, and it's heartbreaking and perfect. Angelica says in Satisfied that "You will never find/anyone as trusting/or as kind" and this song really brings that side of Eliza out. Their interactions are very sweet and sincere, a contrast to the driving intensity of the last few numbers.

Guns and Ships- a banger to end all bangers, this is a standout moment for Daveed Diggs in his portrayal of Lafayette. He raps like lightning in this song, but every emotion is clear. This brings in the strength of the relationship between Lafayette and Hamilton as well, that will become a part of the narrative later.

History Has Its Eyes on You- A contemplative moment in the middle of the storm, this Washington led number took a few listens for me, but has now become one of my favorite moments. It's also a great tie in to the finale of the show.

Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)-  HOT RESERVOIR THIS IS MY JELLY! Seriously, what a cool, awesome, epic song, for the battle of Yorktown. Hercules Mulligan steals the song, props to Okieriete Onadoowan . Another fun fact: The World Turned Upside Down was actual drinking song for the Battle of Yorktown. Neat stuff.

What Comes Next?- Another great King George moment, although this is weakest of the three. Worth it simply for the way Groff sings "Awesome, WOW." So sassy.

Dear Theodosia- checking back in with Burr and Hamilton as they contemplate their newborn kids, this song is the best Hey There Deililah homage ever. It's very expressive and sweet, and an interesting change of pace.

Non-Stop- the finale of Act I, encompassing all of the motifs from Act I and setting up the shift from war heroism to political intrigue in Act II. Everyone gets their moment, it's everything an Act I finale should be.

What'd I Miss?- Our segue back into  the show is by way of Thomas Jefferson, who was in France during the revolution. A very fitting introduction into the very self-centered portrayal of Jefferson by the ever fantastic Daveed Diggs.

Cabinet Battle #1- FOUNDING FATHER SMACK DOWN. This is the perfect example of Hamilton's mix of history and hip-hop. Also, it's hella funny.

Take A Break- A look at the home life of the Hamilton family, and how Alexander's work ethic can get in the way of things. Also, anytime we can get more Renee Elise Goldsberry makes for a good time.

Say No To This- You know you're making poor life decisions when the entire ensemble of the show is just shouting NO. Spoilers, but Alexander Hamilton had an affair, and this song is all about that. Jasmine Cephas-Jones, criminally underused in Act I, really gets her moment in the spotlight here. This isan awesome take off on an R&B slow jam. As morally dubious as this song is, what a jam.

The Room Where It Happens- You know how I said Satisfied was arguably the best song in the show? This is where the argument happens. Leslie Odom Jr. pulls off this amazing shift of character with his song. The arc of Burr within the show is incredibly intricate and this song is where he finally breaks out of the shell. But if you're just looking for a catchy song, it works there too. That is the genius of Hamilton: catchy jamz and incredible character work.

Schuyler Defeated- the after effects of Room Where It Happens. If you have to, skip this one.


Washington On Your Side- I think this is another big narrative shift in Hamilton, where it goes from Hamilton being on top to his descent. His enemies are finally catching up with him, and Washington on Your Side is the strongest example of that. 

One Last Time- Washington's last jam as president. This is such a sweet song and a fitting farewell to Chris Jackson's excellent Washington. A chill moment in the emotional intensity of act II.

I Know Him- King George's last number in the show is hilarious, as are all of his pieces. Seriously, these are highlights in an already amazing piece.

The Adams Administration- SIT DOWN JOHN.

We Know- IF you thought things were going to hell in a handbasket earlier, you clearly haven't hit We Know.

Hurricane- This is such an interesting variation on both History Has Its Eyes on You and parts of My Shot. An interesting check in with the emotional state of Hamilton.

The Reynolds Pamphlet- The greatest self drag of all time. Also, I can't get over that weird low voice. And "he ain't never gonn be President now" is pretty great too. Also, Renee is cold as ice in this song and it is amazing.
Burn- Oh my God, get your tissues out because the crying starts now. Philippa Soo delivers a shattering performance all around, but this is where she really blows it away. Her emotion that she pours into this song are heartbreaking. Eliza has gone from wanting to 'be a part of the narrative' to 'erasing herself from the narrative'. There's another part yet to come, but this song is such a beautiful piece.

Blow Us All Away- In case you forgot, Hamilton has a son. And just when you remember, you'll wish you had forgotten. Spoilers, but Phillip dies in a duel. It's a lot to deal with on top of the emotional bomb of Burn.

Stay Alive (Reprise)- How about no.

It's Quiet Uptown- A reflective piece on the slowing down of the Hamilton household. This really paints Alexander in a new light, and also reveals more about Eliza's through her forgiveness of Hamilton. I don't think I've made it through this song without crying, and I am not a weepy person.

The Election of 1800- Hamilton is basically a turd.

Your Obedient Servant- This chronicles letters back and forth between Burr and Hamilton leading up to their duel. A bit of humor in the darkest parts of Act II. How passive aggressive can these guys get?

Best of Wives and Best of Women- Get your tissues back out.

The World Was Wide Enough- That fateful duel that some of you may be familiar with. Hamilton and Burr historically duke it out in a shattering fashion. Hamilton's a capella rapping confronting all his fears about death and what he sees on the other side doesn't feel cheesy lie other people might make it.

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story- The finale of Hamilton is really the perfect end to the show. And oddly broad. Eliza tells us how she worked non-stop after Alexander's death, keeping his legacy alive, and her greatest accomplishment was the orphanage in New York. You have no control over who lives, who dies, who tells your story. Luckily, Alexander's story is told by Eliza. And thank God for that.

It's a wild ride, and one worth taking. Whether you like hip hop or not, whether you like musicals or not, whether or not you consider  yourself a history buff or not, Hamilton is absolutely knockout. Yay Hamlet!