Alex Woolf


Hamilton as Art Music

I've grown up worshipping the twin gods of classical music and musical theatre. Both fascinate and obsess me, constantly jostling for position in my head. Slapping a big Sondheim dissertation in the middle of my otherwise classical-based Cambridge finals was one way of writing myself out of this cerebral juggling act. Occasionally, though, someone's music grabs hold of me and won't let go, eclipsing all else; most recently, that someone was Lin-Manuel Miranda, and that music was Hamilton.

Hamilton surely needs little introduction – a revolutionary (pun intended) account of the founding of the USA, it is simply a phenomenon. Its cultural reach already surpasses that of (perhaps) any Broadway show in history, and it has garnered unprecedented critical acclaim (the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a record-breaking 16 Tony nominations, a Grammy, etc. etc.) to boot. Its impact is so overwhelming, and the dramatic plaudits so great, that it's actually easy to overlook just how ingenious the music itself is. I'd like to take a moment to strip back everything else and look solely at this music, the way we get to do when delving into a classical piece. Miranda, together with his orchestrater/MD Alex Lacamoire, has created an incredibly rich score, and I'm keen to peek under the hood.

Unity is something that's particularly prized in classical works. Though the surface of the music may be varied and unpredictable, the musical glue that binds everything together is crucial to how great pieces operate. This might be easily perceptible (recurring themes/motifs), or it might be buried deep down (a harmonic scheme or formal plan). A good example of such glue is the opening of Beethoven's 5th Symphony – maybe the 8 most famous notes ever. Those notes are truly the seed from which the symphony grows, and they're peppered all over the score in all manner of ways. Rather like the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, this opening doesn't merely set the scene for the rest of the work, it provides something of a summary of its content.

Now, a musical is a quite different beast to a symphony, but in many ways we can regard them similarly. Surface-level variety is particularly apparent in Hamilton, as it's a stylistic cauldron of hip-hop, jazz, pop and more traditional theatre music. Even more striking, then, is how unified it seems as a piece. Dramatic motifs play a huge role in this, to be sure, but the music alone is powerful here. There is much audible glue: every time Hamilton introduces himself throughout the show, it's in the manner of his opening refrain, his very first utterance ('[my name is] Alexander Hamilton'). Angelica, his sister-in-law, is clothed throughout in the minor pentatonic scale figure which accompanies her first major song, 'Satisfied'; the figure coincides with her presence even in the dense sonic tapestries of 'Non-Stop', 'The Reynolds Pamphlet', and 'Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story'. But there are more unifying threads to be found below the surface...

In Act II, Hamilton's wife, Eliza, sings 'Burn', in which she charts the rise and fall of their relationship. This song is reached by means of metric modulation: its opening ostinato figure appears in the previous number ('The Reynolds Pamphlet'), where in the environment of a different tempo it is heard as triplet crotchets – at the new tempo, the same pattern, moving at the same speed, is heard as quavers. In 'The Reynolds Pamphlet' Hamilton publishes details of his extramarital affair in order to clear his name from other charges; in 'Burn' we see Eliza's response. Hamilton and Eliza are at their most distant at this moment in the show, and yet are still bound by marriage: it is apt, then, that these adjacent songs' tempi are distinct yet related through this ostinato pattern. Additionally, the initial chord sequence of 'Burn' is almost precisely that of the show's opening number, 'Alexander Hamilton'. Eliza's version is cast in a 6/8 metre, a stark contrast with the assured 4/4 of Hamilton's life story: as Eliza's world crumbles around her, Hamilton's once-unstoppable ambition is a distant memory. The chorus of this song is the single word 'burn', luxuriously, melismatically set to another 'borrowed' chord sequence. Here the effect is devastating: this sequence comes from 'That Would Be Enough', specifically Eliza's lines (to Hamilton) 'Look at where you are / Look at where you started'. In 'Burn' she's effectively posing the same question again, but this time heartbroken and angry; the returning chords, obscured though they are by the changed metre and melody, really make her point hit home. 

Like all great music, Hamilton is not only aware of the tradition it finds itself in, but brings a fresh perspective to it. Of course, the lyrics achieve much of this. Miranda makes (in my opinion) a huge improvement on a famous line from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, when George Washington raps 'Now I'm the model of a modern major general / The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all / Lining up, to put me up on a pedestal'. When Aaron Burr tells Hamilton 'I'm with you, but the situation is fraught / You've got to be carefully taught', Miranda is referencing South Pacific's song of the same name. In South Pacific, it speaks to the fact that racism isn't a matter of instinct, but rather learned through considerable social indoctrination. For Burr, this is how politics works: despite purporting to share Hamilton's revolutionary zeal, Burr is unwilling to take a firm stance on any issue, preferring to 'talk less, smile more'. More immediately, the number in which Hamilton conducts his extramarital affair ('Say No To This') ends with the line 'Nobody needs to know'; this also happens to be the title of the male infidelity song in Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years

The music is no less active in its embrace and use of tradition. One of the main reasons Hamilton is so effective is because the language of hip-hop is never used gratuitously; rather, Miranda explores a striking parallel between the hot-tempered, word-spinning Founding Fathers and the rap / hip-hop artists he grew up with, and uses this as the language of revolution. King George III's pleas for the colonists to be content with / return to British rule are playfully cast as break-up songs, most closely resembling Britpop (of course). A particularly pleasing stylistic touch is the use of jazz for Thomas Jefferson, who appears for the first time at the start of Act II. He's been in France for vast swathes of Act I's revolution, and urgently needs to catch up on events (his song is called 'What'd I Miss'). Similarly, jazz is used as an outmoded style to contrast with the others' hip-hop – no rapping here. The chorus takes place over the archetypal 12-bar blues progression and walking bass – in full boogie-woogie mode, Jefferson could not be any more obviously an outsider in the post-revolutionary environment. Of course, he learns quickly and takes on Hamilton at two Cabinet meeting rap battles officiated by Washington... The musical hook in these confrontations is directly derived from on the show's count-to-nine motif, used elsewhere during real duels; this highlights the magnitude and even danger of these battles of ideas. Jefferson's jazz has lasting effects, though... In 'The Room Where It Happens', Aaron Burr's style becomes palpably corrupted by Jefferson, prefiguring his defection to Jefferson's Democratic Republican party soon after. This song is unlike anything Burr has sung before, strikingly fusing his hip-hop aesthetic with New Orleans-style, Dixieland jazz. Again, musical traditions are utilised to powerful dramatic ends.

There are a million ways to obsess over Hamilton, to peel away at its layers of meaning and marvel at its subtlety. Lin-Manuel Miranda has given us a true gift of a work of art, a show that will be 'constantly confusin', confoundin'' us (to paraphrase Burr) for years to come, yet one that is also powerfully immediate in its impact. Engaging with Hamilton's music is just one way to get deeper into it, but (I think) a fun and fruitful one! Now, what'd I miss?