‘Hamilton’ soundtrack serenades with history

Hamilton soundtrack serenades with history

Evan Sawires, co-opinions editor

Rap and musical theatre naturally parallel each other as narratives, but it took until this year’s Hamilton for a rap musical to make a real impact. Written by Lin Manuel Miranda, In the Heights composer/lyricist/genius, it tells the story of U.S. history class key figure Alexander Hamilton, going from his “young, scrappy and hungry” life in the Caribbean all the way up through his fatal duel with his rival: respectability politician and vice president, Aaron Burr.

I know it sounds cringe-worthy to combine hip-hop, musical theatre and U.S. history, but Miranda’s incredible proficiency in all three genres, as well as his performance as the title character, make this a non-issue. They’re musical theatre songs first and foremost, but songs written to fit into the language of 90’s hip-hop by someone who grew up in and around it as the son of Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City.

The songs are surprisingly great vessels for Miranda’s message. One highlight comes in “Satisfied”, featuring the prominent voice of Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s future sister-in-law with whom he will develop a questionably affectionate penpalship. Her performance is heartbreaking: “I’m a girl in a world in which / my only job is to marry rich … And Alexander is penniless / Ha! That doesn’t mean I want him any less.”

Another brilliant group of songs are the two  “Cabinet Battles,” in which we listen to federalist Hamilton and the democratic-republican Thomas Jefferson rap-battling their policies with incredible levels of sass and heavy historical undertones. In response to Jefferson’s trash-talking of his plan on how to handle rising state debt, Hamilton confronts Jefferson by singing: “Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor / ‘We plant seeds in the South. We create’ / Yeah, keep ranting / We know who’s really doing the planting / And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment / Don’t lecture me about the war; you didn’t fight in it / You think I’m frightened of you, man? / We almost died in a trench / While you were off getting high with the French.”

However, it’s worth mentioning that there’s a lot going on within the lyrics. Many songs lack context because the show is too complex to follow through the soundtrack alone. The rhythm also occasionally becomes too similar to a poem for my taste.

But, for the most part, Miranda’s creative interpretation of a historic conflict we’ve been told a dozen times makes it genuinely interesting. The men whose faces we’ve seen in textbook after textbook are suddenly real people with real feelings.

In the show, the characters are all portrayed by black or Latino actors (“our cast looks like America now”, according to Miranda), and their lines and lyrics strike a noteworthy balance between modern vernacular and ambitious declarations and the eloquent quotes they’re so famous for. Most of all, they’re young, excited and rebellious, and these portrayals are probably closer to the real people than we remember to be.

In addition to just being a really good musical, Hamilton bridges an almost unbridgeable gap: it brings to life long-dead characters. A common refrain throughout the entire soundtrack is “who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”, and the characters have gotten lucky in getting Miranda to tell theirs.