The Music of Hamilton: WWAC Shares the Songs That Blew Us All Away

The Music of Hamilton: WWAC Shares the Songs That Blew Us All Away

It's safe to say that if you haven't heard about the hit musical Hamilton by now, you will soon. Grammy performance aside, the show has been capturing attention outside of theatre circles since it premiered on Broadway last summer. The core of Hamilton's story is told through forty-six evocative and creative tracks, all written by Lin-Manuel

It’s safe to say that if you haven’t heard about the hit musical Hamilton by now, you will soon. Grammy performance aside, the show has been capturing attention outside of theatre circles since it premiered on Broadway last summer. The core of Hamilton’s story is told through forty-six evocative and creative tracks, all written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Take a break with the WWAC ladies, and find out which songs make us feel All the Things, and which ones we find ourselves rocking out to in public.

How did you discover the show, and how familiar were you with the historical figures and events mentioned before Hamilton came out?

Angel Cruz: I grew up in the States, so I had a pretty good background from my history classes, and I definitely knew who Hamilton and Burr were (hey, rhyming like Lin, I win) before I heard about the musical. That said, I didn’t remember much beyond “Burr shot Hamilton in a duel, and now Hamilton’s on the $10 bill.” I discovered the show because I’ve been following Miranda’s work since In the Heights in 2008.

Ray Sonne: I saw it before it went on Broadway with my parents. To be honest, I wasn’t very impressed with it. (Also, maybe don’t ever see a three-hour play on a Monday night after a full day of working at your awful job, no matter how good it might be.) However, the soundtrack is perfect regardless of writing issues, so I eventually came around. It helped that I was absolutely stunned with Renee Elise Goldberry’s rendition of “Satisfied” and wanted to hear it again as soon as I could.

Melissa Brinks: I heard everyone and their mother raving about it, but I’ll be honest: I don’t love early American history, and listening to a musical about Alexander Hamilton, someone I knew next to nothing about, was not at the top of my priority list. I gave it a couple of shots, but kept getting distracted by work when I was trying to listen. I finally sat down one night while I was editing photos, which was the perfect amount of activity to let me listen without getting bored or without distracting me, and fell totally in love with it by “You’ll Be Back.” Something about those catchy “da da dat da daaa” cemented my interest. My familiarity with the subject matter was pretty close to none, and, shamefully, what was most familiar to me was constantly having to look up Aaron Burr because of the Cards Against Humanity card with his name on it.

Jess Pryde: One of my BFF’s is a total Lin-Manuel fangirl (she started at Wesleyan just as he was leaving) and saw Hamilton in several renditions before it hit Broadway. She raved about it, and I got curious. Obviously, I couldn’t do much about it until the cast recording came out, but I downloaded it blindly immediately and found myself listening to it non-stop for the next several weeks. Honestly, I don’t remember learning much about anyone besides Washington in school. And I probably learned about Aaron Burr from that old “Got Milk” commercial. Revolutionary America has always interested me, but somehow that particular part evaded me before.

Christa Seeley: I knew next to nothing. I only grew up thirty minutes north of the Canadian-American border, but they did not teach American history in school (unless it’s that time we/the British burned down the White House). I, of course, knew who George Washington was and Thomas Jefferson. But if you handed me an American $10 before Hamilton and asked me who that pointy-nosed man was I couldn’t have told you. If you told me it was Alexander Hamilton, I still couldn’t have told you anything about him. The only reason I know when the revolution took place is because that’s the title of another musical. But everywhere I turned someone was talking about Hamilton, so I gave it a shot and fell in love.

Hamilton - Schuyler Sisters (Joan Marcus, Broadway.com)

Photo by Joan Marcus, Broadway.com

“Satisfied”

Ray: This is the performance that blew me away despite all my other grumblings when I saw the play. The beginning of “Satisfied” (or at least the moment it noticeably becomes its own track if you’re seeing it live for the first time) starts with sound effects and and callbacks to the prior song “Helpless” that brings a cool, club-like ambiance to the musical absolutely unlike anything else the audience has heard up until (and after) that point. I think the association of Angelica as one of the voices that sets your beat as you dance with your friends on a Saturday enhances its authority.

In traditional feminist analysis terms, one must take into account that the song is about a man. And yes, it is about Angelica meeting Alexander, but she’s in control during the whole interaction. She strips him down to the bare parts she needs to know—he’s without family and “penniless, he’s flying by the seat of his pants”—and deems him intelligent, handsome, and probably her soulmate. Ultimately, she chooses to turn him down, not just because of her own social expectations as the oldest daughter, but because she gives him as a gift to Eliza. In this, Alexander works as the object in the relationship instead of the more common patriarchal angle of a female character wanting to become a male character’s object. In the end, although Angelica doesn’t get all of what she wants, she has managed the situation so that she doesn’t entirely lose out—“at least my dear Eliza’s his wife/at least I keep his eyes in my life.”

Melissa: This song was the first one I absolutely had to learn to sing along with. There are so many great lines in “Satisfied” that I find it near impossible to pick a favorite—everything is packed with meaning, showing you so much about each character in such an economical fashion. I have to say that “Intelligent eyes in a hunger-pang frame,” always stands to me as being such a perfect descriptor, speaking to Hamilton’s smarts, looks, ambition, and poverty so succinctly that I’m pretty sure Lin-Manuel is an actual language wizard.

What I love about this one is that we already know Angelica is a total badass. She’s unapologetic for who she is—will I ever get sick of hearing “And when I meet Thomas Jefferson/I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel?”—but here we get an internal dialog from her that shows a completely different aspect of her personality: Namely, that this woman is a dang saint. There’s so much about her and Hamilton that’s similar, like their ambition, their intelligence, their wit, but one crucial difference—Angelica’s love for Elizabeth outweighs her own desires. Yes, she talks about her duty to her family and her purpose as a woman in the time period, but it’s not those things that come to mind at first; it’s Eliza’s expression of helplessness. Her ambition and own desires never outweigh her compassion.

Like Ray said, Angelica is in control through this entire dialog. Alexander starts the conversation, but she quickly gains control—she won’t let him get away with the “You strike me as a woman who has never been satisfied” innuendo. Despite the fact that he’s attractive and she’s instantly smitten, she never lets him forget that she is intelligent and independent. While she and Alexander might have made the world’s greatest power couple, Angelica does what’s right for her sister even though it hurts her, the complete opposite of his later actions.

Jess: There is so much to this song, and I think Ray and Melissa really get to the heart of what it tells us about Angelica. She is a dang saint. And while her brilliance and street sense usually get her what she wants, she will let the loyal part of her heart take over when it comes to Eliza. The part of “Satisfied” that always gets to me when I’m listening to the cast recording (which I’ll bet is even more heartbreaking in person) is the extra second after “At least I’ll have his eyes in my life.” You can feel the emotion, and the strength it takes Angelica to swallow, suck it up, breathe, wipe away her tears, turn around, put her shoulders back, and return to the refrain of “To the bride!”

Christa: I actually don’t care for this song all that much. I recognize that it is well written and well performed. Renée Elise Goldsberry is a powerhouse, and I could listen to “The Schuyler Sisters” over and over and over again. Angelica is a great character. She’s strong, she knows who she is, and she loves her sisters. All of these are qualities that make her one of my favourite characters. But I just don’t care about the love stories in this play. It might be different if I saw it, but I tend to skip this and most of Eliza’s songs when listening. I think it’s partially because as interesting as A. Ham is, he doesn’t feel like a romantic lead to me. He’s not that invested in his own relationships, so why should I be? Give me the battles! Give me the politics!

Angel: “Satisfied” is the song I most want to see performed live in the entire musical. I remember hearing it for the first time on the NPR stream the week that the cast recording was released, and I don’t think I understood what I was listening to at first. “Helpless” had charmed me almost immediately, but I was unsure about Angelica. As soon as I heard her say “Rewind—I remember that night,” my body tensed, and I was thrown into one of the most painful Broadway songs I’d ever heard.

There’s a power in how Miranda lays out Angelica’s intelligence, passion, and pragmatism in her couplets. The lines come fast and furious, matching the speed of her wit, and it leaves the listener about as muddled and hurting as Angelica as she realizes that Hamilton and Eliza are the pairing that makes sense. She’s aware of her identity, more than anyone else in the whole show, and the song reflects the bitterness of that knowledge. Angelica wishes them well, and means it, but her decision will weigh on her for the rest of her life, and this song is where she begins to carry that burden.

“Wait For It”

Melissa: I didn’t really get Burr until this song. If I’m going to compare myself to any character, it’s Hamilton—I come from a poor background and have too much ambition—so until I gave this song a good, intensive listen, I spent most of Hamilton annoyed with Burr for refusing to go after what he wants. If you want something, you have to fight for it, in my mind. But Burr doesn’t have that mindset, because he comes from a background where his name carries weight—he doesn’t have to prove himself in the same way that Hamilton does.

They’re two sides of the same coin, in this sense. Both are obsessed with their legacies, but Hamilton thinks forward while Burr thinks back. Burr is carrying the expectations of others, Hamilton is carrying nothing. Both are different kinds of burdens, and while I find it difficult to identify with his reasoning (bro, if you’re so individual maybe you ought to, I don’t know, do something once in awhile), this song is so key in understanding him three dimensionally. Rather than seeing him as a wet blanket, as many of his compatriots paint him as up until this point (you are the worst, Burr), this is what made me feel for him as a character. Leslie Odom’s gorgeous vocals certainly don’t hurt, either!

Jess: Honestly, while this song is amazing and LO sings it amazingly, the pause between “I’m willing to…” and “wait for it” always make me look around, waiting for Barney Stinson. I’m amazed that NPH hasn’t yet made a parody of this song, but considering how much he loves, admires, and respects LMM, that probably won’t ever happen. Unless LMM writes it himself.

Christa: I just double checked my iTunes play counts and this is my second most played song from the soundtrack. I love it. I’ve listened to it twice more while writing this paragraph. Leslie Odom’s voice is so perfect here, and I hang on to every word. Like Melissa mentioned, Burr is carrying the weight of other people’s expectations, and that’s no easy thing to shake off. Listening to just this song, outside of the greater context of Hamilton and Burr’s actions, I always feel motivated to keep going, keep working. It reminds me that I’m working towards something and that sometimes those goals take time. But the line that really gets me every time is “I am the one thing in life I can control.” Because of my anxiety I often feel like the world is spinning out from under my feet, and it can really help to remind myself that no matter what I am in control of me.

Angel: “Wait For It” was not one of my favourite songs during the first few weeks of listening to the musical, but in the months since, it’s leapt to settle into my top five. It’s hard for me to articulate exactly the range of emotions I feel when I hear it now, but the best word might be “empowering.” LMM and Leslie Odom, Jr. have both referenced this leashed ambition in Aaron Burr that powers the song and his character arc, and while I’m no Burr, I can identify with his internal conflicts regarding that ambition.

Burr is tied very deeply to his reputation:

My grandfather was a fire-and-brimstone preacher
But there are things that the homilies and hymns won’t teach ya
My mother was a genius, my father commanded respect
When they died, they left no instructions—just a legacy to protect

Immigrant kids aren’t strangers to this quality, especially since so much of who we are involves careful negotiation with both the culture of the place we live in and the cultures and heritage of our parents. We have to navigate the trapdoors and bridges of that life, and sometimes all we can do is wait for our time. Christa referenced Burr’s affirmation of his individuality and capacity for action, and sometimes that’s all we have.

“The Room Where It Happens”

Ray: Hamilton exacts an interpretation of Alexander Hamilton the historical figure in a fair way, considering his flaws and all. But in terms of its representation of American history, it follows the very patriotic (see: conservative) narrative of “the Founding Fathers wanted freedom from an oppressive ruler and in the process created a nation wherein all could participate in its process.” And that’s not really true. Read A People’s History of the United States for further details.

“The Room Where It Happens” is perhaps the only track that comes near to questioning that narrative.

The art of the compromise/hold your nose and close your eyes
We want our leaders to save the day/but we don’t get a say in what they trade away
We dream of a brand new start/but we dream in the dark for the most part
Dark as a tomb where it happens/I’ve got to be in the room where it happens

Burr was called by his contemporaries moral-less and without a stance. Lin-Manuel Miranda took the nicest possible interpretation of that and wrote a version of the man who lived in perpetual uncertainty, not willing to show allegiance to any idea lest its group fail. However, “Room Where It Happens” is the point where Burr is absolutely correct on how American history went. A bunch of rich white guys got together, pushed everyone but other rich white guys out of having a say about how to form the land’s new government, and set up a bunch of laws and complications that solely benefited them.

Burr voices the frustration of the American people. Politicians have no interest in what the people care about and work around a system of compromise based on their concerns alone. When the people want change, it doesn’t come because we don’t see, hear, or have input on what negotiations take place. We just get to bear the brunt of the consequences.

Although Burr’s angle to be in the room where it happens is more out of wanting an important legacy, his words are relatable. They do convey a real stance. That stance is: Politicians need to open that door where compromises take place and let the citizens have an opinion.

Melissa: I honestly don’t know enough about the history here to add anything meaningful in that regard—I had to do some Googling after listening to understand what exactly went on here. Ray’s perspective is really valuable in that regard; I’m inclined to be suspicious of anybody one group being in charge of the rules and laws, but with Hamilton being our flawed but earnest main character, it’s important to remember that he was just as complicit in creating a country run by and for wealthy white men as everyone else. His roots don’t make him immune to that, especially as a Federalist who mistrusted the common people.

From a story standpoint, this song is the last straw for Burr. He’s watched Hamilton keep snatching up power and wealth and status, and now he’s willing to make sacrifices to secure his own plan and, by association, his own importance in America’s history. It’s hard to say what Burr would have done had he been in the room where it happened, but it’s clear the affect is has on him as the next song concerns him changing parties to secure a Senate seat and grab some power for himself. I can’t blame him for that; watching your frenemy be so willing to sell out for power and status is as good a catalyst for getting into politics as any.

Hamilton - Leslie Odom Jr. (Joan Marcus, Broadway.com)

Photo by Joan Marcus, Broadway.com

Jess: In Hamilton: The Revolution, essayist Jeremy McCarter talks about “My Shot” being Hamilton’s “I Want” song, about the goals of the main character and what he’s going to do to get there. I always heard this song, more so than even “Wait For It,” as Burr’s twisted version of an “I Want” song. This is where we really see into his need to be that person, those people, even though he never out and says “I’m going to do something about the fact that I want this.” Beyond the externally-positioned political standpoint of Burr-as-the-People that Ray so eloquently described, this is the song where Burr admits to both the audience and himself that that seat at the table is his final goal. The coda—during which Leslie Odom, Jr. can express all of Burr’s anger, frustration, and ambition with the same nine words over and over again—is the real kicker of this song for me. It just builds and builds until it explodes in a “click, boom” and you’re just ready to pass out from the intensity.

Christa: I don’t know enough about this period of history to make any sort of comment of these events (plus Ray did a great job already). But this is kind of my impression of politics in general.

“We want our leaders to save the day.
But we don’t get a say in what they trade away” → Pretty much sums it all up doesn’t it?

I do think that this song tells us as much about Hamilton and his own ambition, as it does about Burr. It’s the point where my feelings towards him start to shift from “wow this guy was amazing!” to “oh this guy is actually just as human as everyone else.” And if nothing else this is a fun one to dance to while cooking.

Angel: Ray talked about the political and historical significance of the moments described in the song, and all I have to add is that this song is actually ridiculously amazing, fin.

“Hurricane”

Hamilton Cast at the White House March 15 2016

The cast of Hamilton perform at the White House, March 15, 2016

Ray: Okay, my feelings on this song are polar opposite to those for “Wait for It.” I don’t listen to “Hurricane” often, but when I do it’s because I need motivation to work. This is the crux of the entire musical—”I wrote my way out.”

Alexander went through a life of horror. He survived a hurricane that destroyed his home, woke up in his dead mother’s arms after they were both horrendously ill, endured his new guardian’s suicide, labored for years in order to not starve to death, and finally preached at enough people on the streets and wrote a poem so good that enough paid attention to boot him over to New York. And he didn’t starve to death there either!

Whereas Burr in “Wait for It” is doing exactly that, waiting around in his despair hoping that the chance for glory will come to him, while Alexander claws out of his rut by working toward success. The message there is about as capitalist American and arguably as toxic as the self-indulgent reassurance in “Wait for It:” “I am inimitable/I am an original,” but hey, if you don’t move no one’s gonna do it for you.

Melissa: For me, this song is equal parts “I get it” and “God, Hamilton, can you not?” Writing has always been his salvation, and he’s hoping that he can pull it off again, but in true Hamilton fashion he’s centered firmly on himself. It is his affair that he’s trying to write his way out of, certainly, but this song is all about “I” and “me” and “my legacy,” not taking into account Eliza and his children.

It really reveals his lack of consideration for anybody but himself. It’s at once a great piece of inspiration—he believes his talent can get him out of anything—and an incredible demonstration of hubris. How are you going to write your way out of an affair? Does writing your affair in great detail (did everyone need to know that it took place in your wife’s bed?) do anything beyond humiliating your family?

There’s so much character in this song. While it’s not my favorite, it really shows how deep Hamilton’s ambition goes and how detrimental that ambition can be.

Jess: This song has been my least favorite since my first listen, but I didn’t really realize why until I read Hamilton: The Revolution, and got a glimpse into what was in Lin-Manuel’s head when he wrote such a twisted (?) song. I had subconsciously been able to tell that something was off, but didn’t realize that the whole assessing the situation and coming to the wrong conclusion bit made me so horribly uncomfortable. It’s just as skillfully developed and expertly crafted as the rest of the show, but if it comes on my shuffle, I tend to skip it.

Christa: I skip this one a lot too. I like the theme of “I wrote my way out of it,” but I find it really slow, and I just can’t get into it. Also, by this point in the soundtrack, I’ve listened to “Say No to This,” “The Room Where it Happens,” and “Cabinet Battle #2,” and I start to get really sour towards Hamilton, so while he’s praising himself, I’m thinking about how I want to push him in a lake.

“Burn”

Ray: “I’m erasing myself from the narrative/let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.” These lyrics are only empowered further by the later refrain in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”—“I put myself back in the narrative.”

Melissa: This song is so powerful. You know that part in “Take a Break” where Hamilton sings, “The Schuyler Sisters” with this air of absolute awe in his voice? That’s how I feel constantly, and especially in this song. I think there’s this tendency to focus on Angelica as being this amazing, powerful, strong woman, and in doing so forget that Eliza has her own way of being powerful.

Because we don’t have Eliza’s letters, it would be easy to just leave her perspective out. Obviously she was angry that her husband cheated on her and then made intimate details public to clear his name, but this song shows that she wasn’t passive. She removed herself from the narrative, as she says—she wasn’t interested in letting the world see what should have been private between them, and she takes control of the situation her own way.

What I love about this song (aside from everything) is how different it is from “Hurricane.” Where Hamilton uses personal pronouns, she doesn’t shy away from pointing the blame back at him with “obsessed with your legacy” and “you forfeit all rights to my heart.” But more importantly, she re-centers what they share—“our bed” and “our lives.” It’s a reminder to Hamilton that while he might be clawing his way to the top, he’s no longer representative of just himself; his name, the name that he’s been trying to make since the very beginning, is also her name, and their children’s name, and the name that’s attached to his precious legacy. He hasn’t cleared his name so much as he has muddied it differently—he’s not guilty of treason, but he is most certainly guilty of adultery and a lack of interest in how his actions affect his family.

Jess: I will admit it: After I managed a full listen-through of the cast recording, I listened to this song at least four times. In a row. Not just because I wanted to know it, in and out, word by word, line by line, but because the intensity, power, and emotion of this song were something that was so specific to this song. It was every ounce a modern “you’ve scorned me” song, but it was also Eliza as we hadn’t seen her before. The light-voiced girl in “That Would Be Enough” is no place to be found in this number. This song is a triple entendre: it has that complicated combination of references about Eliza burning her letters and hoping that her husband burned (either in hell or at the political stake or both), and it is also the ultimate burn itself.

Christa: The first time I heard this song I cried my eyes out. To be fair I cry really easily, but it’s also just so emotional. In this song, we see Eliza fall apart, but also rise up. She feels hurt, betrayed, and angry. And she is owning all of those emotions. There is so much power in this song, and it just continues to grow as she keeps singing. When she sings “the world has no right to my heart” I want to cheer. #TeamElizaForever

Angel: Here’s the thing: I’m afraid of fire. Always have been, because of how completely it can destroy things. Nothing but ashes are left, and what can ashes do? So this song, with its talk of burning and erasing Eliza from the narrative, does terrify me. It scares me, because it is a decision that Eliza can’t reverse, should she want to, and that alone speaks volumes to her pain.

The funny thing is, it’s precisely the kind of thing I would do, fear of fire notwithstanding. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m Eliza, but I understand her desire to take the thing that has hurt her and forcibly remove it from her life. She declares her independence from the decisions her husband has made, her identity separate and still whole despite the pain he’s inflicted on her heart, and it’s a powerful, glorious choice.

Hamilton - Philippa Soo Lin Manuel Miranda (Joan Marcus, Broadway.com)

Photo by Joan Marcus, Broadway.com

“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”

Jess: *Wordless, indecipherable sobbing* (Dat strings cadence, tho.)

Melissa: There’s not a whole lot I can say about this song that isn’t perfectly expressed in the song itself or by Jess’ reaction, which is fairly accurate to my own.

Hamilton is our main character, and there are a lot of admirable things about him. But, in my humble opinion, he’s far from our—or at least my—hero. Eliza is the hero of the story; without her, we wouldn’t have a story at all. The repeated question of “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is finally answered: Burr lives, Hamilton dies, and Eliza tells the story after his death. Without her putting herself back in the narrative and taking control of ensuring it gets remembered, it would be lost to history. He didn’t secure his legacy by clawing his way to the top, but rather by marrying a woman who has to be the kindest being to ever walk the earth, because there’s no way my petty self would be singing his praises if he treated me like that.

As a sort of side note, I read an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda where he talked about how after Eliza sings about Washington (”I raise funds for the Washington Monument”), she switches to the topic of slavery (“I speak out against slavery”), and Washington bows his head in shame and steps back. As much as I love listening to the soundtrack, I always wondered how it was that Washington came out looking the best of the politicians. While this doesn’t entirely address that, I never would have known that it happened from the recording. These moments are things you don’t get from the cast recording, which is just more incentive to sell my house and travel to New York to see it, right?

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