As the original staging of Les Miserables, the most important musical in history, ends after 30 years, it is succeeded by a musical of similar importance, proportion, and ambition. Like Les Miserables, Hamilton is crammed with story and detail, far beyond the average musical. Both are complete surveys of one person’s life, through tumultuous eras in history, requiring broad forms of storytelling and musical interpretation.
It is easy to attribute the success to hip hop. Many of the stylistic elements of Hamilton were first previewed in Miranda’s In the Heights, which was acclaimed in its own right, but compares nowhere in stature to his second blockbuster.
On one hand, Hamilton is briskly modern because of its use of hip hop in a historical drama. The use of modern music in historical drama is common in musical lore. In fact, that was a major allure for Spring Awakening in 2006, although a friend pointed out that Jesus Christ Superstar predated Spring Awakening by 35 years and used similar forms.
The success of Hamilton might be precisely the opposite of its modernity, but rather because of its return to the sung-through format that characterized some of the very best musicals in history like Les Misérables and West Side Story. A sung-through musical is the closest modern day embodiment of opera. These musicals rely on the ancient technique of recitative to tell its stories. Recitative itself lie on a spectrum from the very dry to the more ornate.
Interestingly, when listening to Hamilton, it is easy to forget that it’s rap. Most of the songs are fairly classical in nature. The rap which comes in and out is accompanied by instrumentalisation that is not particularly different than the recitatives of sung-through musicals. Both genres sound more like straight speech, in rhythm, held at around the same key.
In Hamilton, rap serves as the method to be able to tell a complicated story without losing the musical continuation. Like recitative, the pains of rhyming are less stringent, and repetition is rarer. Fewer constraints on the lyrics help move the story along.
To exemplify the power of rap-recitative, here’s an exchange that fits into a very small space, and portrays the beginning of modern presidential politics:
[Hamilton] You’ve created quite a stir, sir!
[BURR] I’m going door to door!
[Hamilton] You’re openly campaigning?
[Hamilton] That’s new
[BURR] Honestly, it’s kind of draining
Of course the funny thing is that despite the minority-focused nature of Hamilton, the American Revolution was a mostly a monetary revolt by the ultra-rich, and Miranda does not window-dress this fact. Hamilton marries into an extremely rich and influential family. In the summer, his women plead him to join them “upstate”, which, to me, be reminiscent of the modern day Hedge Fund manager.
[ELIZA] Run away with us for the summer / Let’s go upstate
[Hamilton] Eliza, I’ve got so much on my plate
[ELIZA] We can all go stay with my father / There’s a lake I know…
The French Revolution, on the other hand was a populist revolt, but the musical representations are flipped, with Les Miserables resorting to the monarchy-funded style of classical music.
I would be remiss not to mention perhaps my favorite part for the musical, which certain commentators have referred to as comma sexting:
[ANGELICA] In a letter I received from you two weeks ago / I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase / It changed the meaning. Did you intend this? / One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days / It says:
[Hamilton/ANGELICA] “My dearest Angelica”
[ANGELICA] With a comma after “dearest.” You’ve written
[Hamilton AND ANGELICA] “My dearest, Angelica.”
Sung-through musicals are rare, and even rarer in modern musical lore. The best musicals seem to more likely be sung-through than not. In many ways Hamilton might have succeeded because it returned to an old art form, transformed for a modern audience.