I have emotions for Alexander Hamilton. That’s not really a sentence I ever expected I’d have a reason to say, but actor-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda has a way of swinging the unexpected into one’s life. Miranda’s original musical Hamilton revisits the man known best for his appearance on the US $10 bill and his infamous duel with Aaron Burr, and sets that history to a hip-hop soundtrack.
The full cast recording was available to stream as of Monday, September 21 on NPR, and if my Twitter feed early that morning was any indication, I was just one of many who immediately began listening.
Miranda doesn’t bother with an overture, the usual instrumental introduction that gives the audience a taste of the musical themes that run through the entire show. Instead, we get a question posed by the characters themselves: “How does a bastard orphan—son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor—grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” It’s a question that sets the tone for the show with many of the characters questioning their own place in the world.
Self-reflection isn’t a new theme for Miranda: In the Heights took a microcosm of Washington Heights and magnified its residents’ worries and joys with irresistible music and dance. Seven years later, it’s still one of my favourite musicals, and its characters are some of the most memorable twenty-somethings I’ve found in theatre. Lin-Manuel Miranda works that same magic in Hamilton, giving staid historical figures room to be human, tell awkward jokes, experience unrequited love, and all.
Having sat through American history classes as a child, Alexander Hamilton was never made out to be as interesting as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Miranda’s show works him into a young man who’s “never satisfied,” searching for something that will settle his desire for more. He tells Aaron Burr he’d “rather be divisive than indecisive” and pursues every opportunity to raise himself above the station he was born to. Burr might seem like the easy foil, but judging by the cast recording alone, each character seems to reflect parts of Hamilton that he may or may not be aware of.
Angelica Schuyler’s “Satisfied” presents a woman caught between the duty of her own station and the freedom she longs for, the various key changes and interludes mirroring Angelica’s inner turmoil and strength. “Helpless,” as sung by Angelica’s younger sister Eliza (the future Mrs. Hamilton), is as charming as its performer, but it also kicks off one of the most gratifying character arcs in the entire musical. In “Wait for It,” Aaron Burr yearns to be recognized and respected as much as he’s decided he should be, but the song pushes back against the listener’s possible dismissiveness as well. And nowhere is Miranda’s gift for wordplay more evident than in “Cabinet Battles #1 and 2,” which shifts history and political discussion into rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson that highlights both characters’ stubbornness.
Hamilton reminds us that the textbook figures we know were people once too with all the foibles and strengths we have today. And like In the Heights, most of the Hamilton cast are people of colour, with Miranda leading the way. It’s a conscious choice meant to make American history more accessible to its people in 2015. With the cast recording now available to download off your preferred music platform, the first song alone proves that it’s a worthy purchase, and that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a composer to watch.