I’m sorry to add to the sorrows of anyone who didn’t wangle a ticket, but I’m very excited: we are going to see Hamilton in July! Around the time we got tickets, my mom asked what she should give us for Hanukah, so I said the cast recording, and I’ve been listening to it virtually non-stop since then. And when I listen and think about something a lot, I want to write about it. Ergo, this song-by-song analysis.
It’s tempting to start with my favorite song (if I could choose!), or the first one I heard, but I’m determined to take them in order. “Alexander Hamilton” is an opening song that does what an opening song should: sets the stage, the scope, and the tone; tells you, “This is what to expect,” even if some of those expectations are being set up deliberately to be tumbled down later. It leaps onto the stage with the fanfare-like seven-note motif that will be repeated whenever it’s time to set the scene. (Elizabeth Ayme points out that this motif’s rhythm is that of the key words, “Not throwing away my shot.” I’m getting ahead of myself; that’s song 3. But isn’t that brilliant?) All of the main characters are onstage, except as made impossible by the doubling of roles (much more on that later).
The rest of the play is going to cover almost 30 years of Hamilton’s life, from age 19 to his death at 47, so this song tells his life story up until that point, establishing several expectations right away. First, Aaron Burr is the narrator of this biography, and we’re going to get a sympathetic portrait of him as well as of Hamilton: “Me? I’m the damn fool that shot him.” Spoiler alert? Which brings us to the second point: false suspense about commonly-known facts will be cleared away from the start. In case you walked into the theater not knowing even the few things I knew about Alexander Hamilton—one of the founding fathers of the country, the guy on the ten-dollar bill, from somewhere in the Caribbean, died in a duel with Aaron Burr—you know them now. This lets us get right into the story that will unfold, of how two fine men came to point pistols at one another, an act of folly that would doom one to death and the other to ruin. (That’s my editorializing. Lin-Manuel Miranda himself is never so heavy-handed, telling the story with attention to the psychology of the duel, and letting us draw our own conclusions about the ethics.) The bullet sound that will be repeated frequently is introduced right here.
Third, we’re introduced to the mix of musical genres we should expect: in “Alexander Hamilton,” mostly rap and musical theater; British pop circa the 1960s, R&B, and jazz will be added further along the way. The rapping (which morphs into singing) is slow and steady here, easing us in, but we can already see that Miranda and the medium he’s chosen have a great capacity for condensing a lot of information into a few lines, artfully. Four years of Hamilton’s life are encapsulated in ten lines that move so effortlessly between casual lingo of our time (“woulda,” “scammin'”) and vocabulary befitting an 18th century genius (“astute,” “restitution”) that we can already tell this whole rap-about-the-first-Treasury-Secretary idea is actually, improbably, going to work:
There would have been nothin’ left to do
For someone less astute
He woulda been dead or destitute
Without a cent of restitution
Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and all the things he can’t afford
Scammin’ for every book he can get his hands on
Plannin’ for the future, see him now as he stands on
The bow of a ship headed for a new land
In New York you can be a new man
Other commenters have noted more resonances with musical theater and rap than I can do; I enjoy both, but don’t have enough breadth of knowledge to pick up on all the allusions. I hear similarities to some of my favorite songwriters, like the rhyme-by-enjambment of Tom Lehrer or Roy Zimmerman, the reveling in cleverness of wordplay of Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter, and the richness of rhyme of Bob Dylan, but I don’t know which of these Miranda would name as influences (except for Dylan, whose albums he buys the day they’re released). I just know this: if I want to hear wordcraft like “It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s delectable, it’s delirious, it’s dilemma, it’s de limit, it’s deluxe, it’s de-lovely,” or “I love all the many charms about you, / Above all, I want my arms about you,” Hamilton will oblige.
Although, again, the tempo has not yet ramped up to the rapid-fire pace it will reach in later songs, their richness of rhyme and internal rhyme are already here. Never mind ABCB or even ABAB rhymes; Miranda writes AAAAAAAA, and even then he doesn’t stop:
This ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.
He’s not done!
And every day, while slaves were being slaughtered and carted
Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up
Inside he was longing for something to be a part of
The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow or barter.
Twelve, count ’em, twelve rhymes. A lot of popular music composers use ABCB because it’s so much easier; they also try to “rhyme” a word with itself, a cringe-inducing dodge Miranda never employs except, for emphasis, once (tell you about it when we get to Act II). Even in a long string like this, each rhyming word is a new one; when he uses a word twice, it’s for a purpose, such as the irony expressed by “Founding Father without a father.”
And fourth, since rhyme, assonance, meter, and other technical brilliance are all hollow unless pressed into the service of a grand vision, “Alexander Hamilton” gives us the grand vision: the themes of time, of who tells the stories of our lives, of the way history is written and re-written and forgotten, of the immigrant making good and making the country to which they’ve come, of the turning point that one life and one moment in history can be: “The world will never be the same,” the company sings. We’ll hear that again. And we’ll know it, gut-deep, by the end of the play.
As Hamilton himself might say, “One more thing.” The play informs us from the very first sentence that it is going to celebrate his being “a hero and a scholar.” American history celebrates military heroes, athletic heroes, heroes of love, and occasionally scientific heroes whether born here (Edison) or immigrants (Einstein), but “scholar” is not a word that is usually uttered with patriotic pride. But Hamilton was a thinker and political theorist who, as a mere child, orphaned and broke, started “readin’ every treatise on the shelf” in his cousin’s house. He was a writer, who “put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain / And . . . wrote his first refrain” of a voluminous, erudite and influential oeuvre. He was a self-educated finance wonk. In short, Alexander Hamilton was a highly pragmatic and creative intellectual. And his intellect, even more than his considerable military accomplishments or his way with women, is what this story celebrates.