Hamilton: how the future of musicals respects the past
11 January 2023
The critically acclaimed musical Hamilton comes to our shores this year. Ben Kubiak shares the secrets of its success.
Hamilton, perhaps the most famous and certainly the most acclaimed musical of the past decade, is finally coming to New Zealand in 2023.
Since it opened in 2015, Hamilton, with its unique blend of a historical story and a modern, hop-hop inspired musical style, has become a cultural phenomenon, sweeping through global culture in a way that very few musicals have been able to. What makes Hamilton so unique, and how did it change the game in musical theatre?
To understand this, it will help to first meet the show’s mercurial creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote Hamilton’s music and lyrics (and, since there’s no dialogue in Hamilton, that’s the whole show).
Miranda is the child of a very unusual musical upbringing. Growing up in Washington Heights in the 80s and 90s, much of his youth was spent listening to the hip-hop artists that were the musical zeitgeist of his day. However, Miranda was also raised listening to musical theatre cast albums, via the large number of LPs of cast recordings that were present in his home.
Miranda doesn’t see a contradiction between these two genres. In fact, he finds great similarities between them. He claims, for instance, that 'Guinivere' from the classic musical Camelot has “the dopest beat you’ll ever hear in your life” and finds a great synergy between hip-hop and musical theatre in the way that both are strongly focused on lyrics and story. This blend of the old with the new is everywhere in Miranda’s masterpiece, Hamilton.
Much of what Miranda does in Hamilton, is very, very new. His use of the musical language of hip hop is unprecedented. Musical theatre has rarely used hip-hop and rap, and yet Miranda uses them effortlessly and naturally.
There’s a reason why Hamilton, to Miranda, needs to be told with hip-hop. Hamilton is the story of a revolutionary underclass.
He doesn’t just use hip-hop for hip-hop’s sake, however. There’s a reason why Hamilton, to Miranda, needs to be told with hip-hop. Hamilton is the story of a revolutionary underclass.
It is a story of a group of people oppressed and downtrodden by the system in which they live (in this case, tyrannical rule by the British crown), and who rose up against this to reclaim their lives.
To Miranda, then, there is an enormous synergy here with the themes that are inherent to all of hip hop. With its roots in the African-American community, hip hop has consistently been used as a voice for the voiceless and oppressed in society, and a means by which they advocate for a better life, free from oppression.
The musical’s particular focus is American founding father, Alexander Hamilton, who was born with nothing and by the sheer force of his verbal dexterity and skill with a pen worked his way out of poverty, only further cemented Miranda’s conviction that hip-hop, with its great lyrical focus, was the necessary language for Hamilton’s story.
It is a sign of a genius mind that ideas that would appear unthinkable to most people come naturally to them. The idea for Hamilton seems, on paper, so unlikely. But, on reading the biography of Hamilton which inspired the musical’s creation, Miranda instantly went to the internet to check if a hip-hop version of Hamilton’s life had already been made, thinking the idea so blindingly obvious. Thankfully, it hadn’t, and so Miranda set to work.
For all that’s new about Hamilton, however, there are many aspects that are deeply rooted in the traditions of musical theatre. You can see this first in the way the songs are structured within the story.
Early in the musical, we get the classic “I want” song: the song, usually near the start, where the protagonist sings of the thing that they want, but don’t currently have. (Think 'Somewhere over the Rainbow'). In Hamilton, it’s 'My Shot', where Hamilton sets out his stall as a revolutionary and expresses his desire to make a change in the world.
Then, we soon find the “conditional love song”, another classic song type where a character expresses love for another, but with some caveat applied that adds dramatic tension. (Think 'If I Loved You' from Carousel). Here, it’s 'Satisfied', where Angelica Schuyler tells of the night she met Hamilton and how they were instantly excited by each other’s intellects ... but then Hamilton went off with her sister Eliza.
The song types go on: 'Non-Stop' is what’s known as a “tentpole” (a big, complex, energetic number that ends the first act), 'You’ll Be Back' the 'comedic villain song' and “Alexander Hamilton” is an opening 'title' song that introduces the cast, and so on.
As with most hip-hop, the musical numbers are partly sung, and partly rapped, but the songs themselves usually aren’t constructed like hip-hop songs, where there’s usually a clear hook, chorus, and verses.
They’re structured like the more free-form songs of musical theatre, where the premise of a song is established, developed in a few different directions to fit the drama, and then brought back together at the end.
In “Satisfied”, a kind of hook is established at the start, as Angelica toasts the bride and groom, but Angelica then rewinds, and the hook takes a back seat; the characters develop many different musical and lyrical themes to punctuate Angelica’s account of the night. This way that Miranda uses specific themes as leitmotifs throughout the score is also very musical theatre, even operatic, as the individual leitmotifs associated with different characters return across many different songs.
You can see this most directly in Hamilton’s rap as he is shot (spoiler alert), where all his themes from throughout the show are mashed together to show his entire life flashing before his eyes. For all his innovations, Miranda doesn’t reject musical theatre’s conventions; he embraces them.
The genius of Miranda’s compositions, then, is that they have one foot in both the musical theatre and hip-hop camps. He understands musical theatre and its storytelling forms, but he’s able to articulate them with the musical language of hip-hop, to achieve effects and cultural relevance not seen before. It’s this fusion of musical worlds that is Miranda’s greatest achievement in Hamilton.
So, go and see it. Yes, you’ll be seeing musical theatre’s future, but also, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the echoes of its past.
Ben Kubiak is a pianist, vocal coach, singer and musical director who completed his PhD in 2022 at the School of Music, University of Auckland, on the history and aesthetics of rock musical theatre.
This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.
This article was first published by Newsroom on 10 January 2023.
Margo White | Research communications editor
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