Full disclosure: I’ve never understood the appeal of modern musicals. Generally I find them trite, overdramatic, and contrived. My musical theatre friends have constantly to broaden my horizons, begging me to listen to Next to Normal or Rent. “This one’s different,” they say to no avail. It’s especially hard for me to appreciate musical soundtracks without actually seeing the staging of the play. It’s one thing to write songs that serve particular narrative functions, but quite another for them to stand on their own.
So, as someone who doesn’t really understand musicals in general, you can imagine my skepticism when I heard about Hamilton, a rap musical that uses a multiracial cast to tell the story of the American founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Nevertheless, I wanted to give it a shot. This one might actually be different.
In working with one of the tightest pit bands on Broadway (to my ears anyway), creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has written some definitively great songs that even musical curmudgeons like me can enjoy. After all, any project that boasts the Roots’ Questlove and Black Thought as collaborators can’t be all bad. Rest assured, the rap sections of the soundtrack not only work, they shine above the singing. This is not cringe worthy, family friendly rap. Miranda and company have a definitive grasp of cadence and flow, and tracks like “My Shot” and “Right Hand Man” have ‘bars,’ if I’m allowed to use that term.
That being said, the music gets stale when Miranda takes a turn towards the conventional. If you changed a few of the lyrics to songs like that of album opener, “That Would Be Enough,” they could come from any generic musical. Let’s just say, it’s no coincidence that they leave much of the singing to the snide, stuffy British characters. Perhaps I might be able to appreciate these songs more if I was able to see them actually performed on stage in the context of the story. Nevertheless, as individual songs they fall flat.
All in all, I was presently surprised by Hamilton. Though it wasn’t the home run I hoped for, its concept generally works—especially if taken as a biting satire of the theatre industry’s ubiquitous whitewashing as others have suggested. Musically, it features a number of standout tracks and a couple duds. Hamilton is certainly the most unique musical soundtrack I have ever heard. Who knows, maybe I’ll even check it out next time I’m in New York.