Because I’m your one crunchy cat aunt, I love NPR. But today I love NPR more than ever, because they posted the full, streaming Hamilton cast recording. If you want to hear it head over fairly quickly, because it probably won’t stay up for too long -but the recording will be available to buy on October 16. And let me tell you, it’s even better than I was expecting.
There’s been some discussion about whether people who haven’t seen Hamilton should listen to the soundtrack. As someone who grew up listening to cast recordings of musicals I hadn’t necessarily seen yet, it’s not an issue for me. Nor am I concerned about “spoilers” since this happened over 200 years ago and I know the basics. Still, I guess if you’re super spoiler averse, want to hear the music on stage first, or aren’t familiar with Alexander Hamilton’s story, feel free to wait until you can see the show. I know that will probably not happen for me this year, so I never had any intention of waiting.
So what do I love about the Hamilton recording? First of all, Lin-Manuel Miranda provides all of the exposition modern audiences need to understand the story and the time it happens in – without ever talking down to us or underestimating the intelligence of a general audience. The different musical styles assigned to each character actually help further their character development and the plot. There are clever rhymes and allusions, but he is never clever for clever’s sake. Also it’s also just really, really good.
Here’s a brief track-by-track reaction, with the caveat that I jotted down thoughts as I was listening to it for the first time, so I probably mis-assigned the speaker a few times, and there are several tracks for which I didn’t get anything down. Fair warning: spoilers ahead.
Hamilton streaming online: how lucky we are to be alive right now.
I have listened to the White House performance of the early draft of this more than a few times, but this feels different. It’s more musical theater (in a good way) with backing vocals and orchestra. I may be imagining shades of Jay Z’s Empire State Of Mind – both here and in later tracks, like The Schuyler Sisters. Leslie Odom Jr.’s (Aaron Burr) voice is amazing – speaking, rapping, and singing alike.
2. Aaron Burr, Sir
I love the old-school, fun rap wordplay – like pairing Burr, sir with bursar. Burr’s advice: “talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for” proves that there has been little change in the practice of politics since the 1770s. I love how the rap styles tell you about characters – the more youthful, energetic American guys vs French-y Frenchman Lafayette.
3. My Shot
This has been the breakout song so far. A really brilliant use of rap wordplay because the pun or double entendre with “not throwing away my shot” lies in foreshadowing. If you’re the kind of adult who reads colonial history for funsies or remembers everything from AP American – guilty! – then you’ll remember the controversy of whether Hamilton genuinely aimed at Burr at the start of the duel, or pointedly threw away his shot to signal that he was not out to kill.
4. The Story of Tonight
The formation of a new nation: this is like the pre-revolution Red And Black of Hamilton.
5. The Schuyler Sisters
This introduces the Schuylers as the Kardashians* of the 1770s (but not vapid, just that they’re rich and well-connected). This track establishes the colonial era as an exciting, modern time to live in. The harmonies between Phillippa Soo (Eliza), Jasmine Cephas-Jones (Peggy, and later Maria Reynolds) and Renee Elise Goldsberry (Angelica) are amazing and reminiscent of old-school Destiny’s Child.
6. Farmer Refuted
This one gets real 18th century for a sec, and contains actual references to the fact that it’s a musical without busting the fourth wall: “don’t modulate the key then not debate with me.”
7. You’ll Be Back
It’s a 1960s Brit pop-style breakup song, performed by King George. Actually perfect. Jonathan Groff is magic and Lin Manuel is a genius. “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”
8. Right Hand Man
Like in the opening track, this is a great use of expository rap which I am just learning is a thing. That I am obsessed with.
9. A Winter’s Ball
Just your classic rap braggadocio that includes the claim that George Washington and Martha Washington’s feral tomcat was named after Hamilton.
Eliza and Hamilton meet, and it’s like the perfect blend of an 18th century story, a very 2015 musical, and 90s pop/ R&B styling.
Renee Elise Goldsberry is a fantastic rapper. I love how Lin-Manuel Miranda creates this tension between Eliza’s relationship with Alexander against his feelings for Angelica, but you never question the loyalty between the sisters. Also a testament to Soo and Goldsberry’s performances, though.
12. The Story Of Tonight (Reprise)
13. Wait For It
If the lyrics weren’t about 18th century politics, I would think it was something on the radio when I was in 6th grade (in 1997-1998, for reference). It’s also just a lyrically lovely song that does a lot to turn Burr from a villain into a man.
14. Stay Alive
It’s not just military strategy, but catchy military strategy.
15. 10 Duel Commandments
This track is not just a lot of fun, but actually necessary information for the Burr/Hamilton duel later on – it will be important that we know about seconds, that shots often aren’t fired in a duel, making sure there are no technical witnesses, etc.
16. Meet Me Inside
17. That Would Be Enough
They’ve been largely silent, but I’ve definitely heard some (often older, stodgier) musical theater purists bemoan a rap musical – especially one set in the 1700s. You know, as though your classic Musical Theater torch songs and 11 o’clock numbers would bear any resemblance to things people were singing in the 1780s. Well, I think numbers like That Would Be Enough should silence some of those folks. Some numbers are definitely more “musical theater” and this is one of them.
18. Guns and Ships
More expository rap, as Burr, Lafayette, and Washington strategize.
19. History Has Its Eyes On You
I don’t mean at all that Miranda’s rap is old-fashioned or boring – exactly the opposite – but I have to say it’s amazing to listen to a rap track narrated featuring George Washington (Christopher Jackson) and think to myself “my dad might like this musical.” [Background: my dad, an old white man, categorically hates rap – along with most music – and is so befuddled by musicals that he left Cats in the early 90s muttering “I just don’t get it.”]
20. Yorktown (The world turned upside down )
Consider this one sort of a My Shot reprise.
21. What Comes Next
YES. More ’60s pop from Groff. When you get excited to just hear a character again – not even see them walk on stage – you know it’s a good score.
22. Dear Theodosia
Aaron Burr sings to his baby daughter and it’s really moving (and for us history nerdos, extra sad when he says “someday you’ll blow us all away” and you know that she actually died at sea in her 20s). Alexander sings the same to his son Philip – we’ll get to why that’s sad later. Great way to humanize these historic figures. [Fun fact: Theodosia was the first person recorded to have honeymooned at Niagara Falls.]
Miranda excels where a lot of librettists bore me: incorporating earlier numbers. After listening to this I realized this was probably at the act break, so it makes sense that it’s a bigger number with a lot of throwbacks.
24. What’d I Miss
So brilliant: this is like an oldschool motown tune because Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) has been gone for years since the revolution and he’s a little behind. He “basically missed the late ’80s.”
25. Cabinet Battle #1
I could see a cool history teacher using this to help explain how the US treasury was formed, as well as state vs national taxation and currency. So good.
26. Take A Break
I LOVE how in his raps, Miranda incorporates references and allusions that would have been available to these guys during their lifetimes – like Banquo and Macduff from Macbeth. The occasional baroque riffs are awesome, too.
27. My Dearest Angelica
Again, Miranda doesn’t underestimate his audience, and it pays off. This number actually discusses how punctuation changes the meaning of a sentence in a letter Eliza sent to Angelica. Okay, we’re starting the Tony For Renee Elise Goldsberry campaign.
28. Say No To This
The orchestration is also wonderful throughout, as in the violin of romantic tension in this track. Hamilton meets Maria Reynolds, begins an affair, then gets a letter from her husband blackmailing him. Jasmine Cephas Jones really rocks her dual role of Maria Reynolds and Peggy Schuyler.
29. The Room Where It Happens
Hamilton has now adopted Burr’s advice from Act I. Yes, this is a rap musical, but to reduce it to just that ignores how great Miranda is with melody.
30. Schuyler Defeated
31. Cabinet Battle #2
32. Washington On Your Side
33. One Last Time
Christopher Jackson as Washington has such a gorgeous, smooth voice for this R&B-incluence number. American history teachers take note: this is a much better way to explain the two term custom than whatever’s in your textbook. Seamlessly incorporates Washington’s gorgeous farewell address, so well written (possibly by Hamilton, possibly not) that it fits in brilliantly with Miranda’s other lyrics.
34.I know Him
GROFF. I can’t overstate how the musical styles assigned to each character help move their characterization and the plot forward, as in this song where King George gets news that John Adams is taking over.
35. The Adams Administration
36. We Know
American political scandals have changed so little. In this song, it has broken that Hamilton gave hush money to Maria Reynolds’ husband.
Hamilton sings “I wrote my own deliverance.” Like so many politicians since, he admitted one bad act (his affair with Maria) to quiet talk of another (involvement in Reynold’s financial scheme involving back wages to Revolutionary War vets). How hasn’t there been a musical about Hamilton yet? His arc is amazing.
38. The Reynolds Pamphlet
Hamilton’s peers react to his publication. It’s so good, and very similar to the reaction today when a politician’s rival falls: “never going to be president now/ one less thing to worry about.”
Eliza burns Hamilton’s letters, a clever way to explain why we don’t know how Elizabeth reacted to Alexander’s affair and the publication of Maria’s letters. Miranda turns Eliza’s silence into an act of agency: “I’m erasing myself from the narrative/ let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.” So gorgeous. Tony for Phillipa Soo as well, please.
40. Blow Us All Away
The new generation is taking over, and Hamilton’s son Phillip (Javier Munoz) is ready to “blow us all away” as predicted in Act I. There’s a duel between Philip and Burr’s man George Eaker. Yeah, dueling was really big. They went across the river to New Jersey (“everything is legal in New Jersey”) to the same dueling ground Alexander would visit years later. This number also helpfully reinforces the rules of dueling, which will be handy later.
41. Stay Alive (Reprise)
Phillip’s death. I know I’d be crying if I saw this live, because I’m crying listening to NPR (to be fair, I probably cry listening to NPR on a fairly regular basis).
42. It’s Quiet Uptown
Alexander’s grief after Phillip’s death. Great use of the ensemble. Really beautiful and melodic, further develops Angelica/Eliza/Alexander relationship. Again: Not just a rap musical.
43. The Election Of 1800
Love the electorate’s observations of Jefferson, Madison, Addams, Burr – a wonderful glimpse into the history of campaigning in the US as we head into another year and a half long election cycle, too.
44. Your Obedient Servant
Hamilton and Burr arrange their duel. I love their relationship as cordial enemies .. not all the way to frenemies. Political rivalries were so classy back then. The duel is on.
45. Best Of Wives And Best Of Women
This was more of an interlude. Adios, Eliza.
46. The World Was Wide Enough
Miranda brings back the rules of dueling in case you had forgotten some of them (I had). He also provides evidence for whether or not Hamilton intended to shoot Burr to kill (wearing glasses, for instance) or whether he was throwing away his shot. The action pauses as we enter Hamilton’s thoughts as his last moments play out. Miranda still leaves enough ambiguity – just like the historical record – that the audience can decide for themselves what happened. You also get some tones of regret from Burr.
47. Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
Eliza is the one who recorded Hamilton’s legacy, interviewed his contemporaries, and controlled how Hamilton was represented in history — as she says, she put herself back in the narrative. I’m crying again, it’s okay.