Where do I even start?
I got hooked on Hamilton the same way so many others do, a recommendation. Sam and I had heard from friends online that it was something that we desperately needed to listen to, but for a few weeks, we kept forgetting and not taking it too seriously.
Sure it was probably very good, but how good could that be? We already listen to musicals pretty frequently and we have our favorites. Wicked, Phantom, Les Mis, The Lion King, and a few others that aren’t as well known like Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula. We listen to a lot of musicals, and many of them follow similar conventions with some minor tweaks. That was what I expected when I was sitting bored at work and finally decided to give it a try.
I caught it like a cold, the lyrics instantly getting stuck in my head, and the only way to get them out was to keep on listening. For the past few months, I probably listen to something from Hamilton once a day at least, if I don’t decide to listen to the entire soundtrack all the way through for the millionth time.
I wanted to write something, but I wasn’t really sure how to put my thoughts down. So many other people have written their own reviews, people that have actually seen the production, which I’m sure adds even another layer to the experience. But what was bothering me was the question of why.
Why do I wake up with Hamilton already playing on the jukebox of my attention? Why is it the background music to so many of dealings day to day? What about this production makes it so infectious and enjoyable?
I’m still trying to unravel that inquiry, but I might be getting closer with a new insight I recently received. Another popular musical right now is Something Rotten, about Nicolas Bottom and his relationship with William Shakespeare. I really liked the idea, and I had heard Hard to be the Bard before and thought it was fairly catchy. Assuming that we had entered a new phase of musical creativity, I bought the whole album on a whim.
I’m not saying I regret that decision, listening to the songs more it’s finally starting to grow on me. But it’s taking a lot longer than Hamilton, and comparing the two I’m starting to realize what about Hamilton makes it so gravitational.
Lin-Manuel Miranda really sets himself apart, having wrote most of the musical himself and playing the titular role. Listening to Something Rotten is nice, the performances are good and the voices are great. But it follows a musical formula very closely. It’s campy in a fun way, comedic, and wells sung with some great voices. But something about the lyrics doesn’t stick as hard. I found lines to be a little predictable, and in some cases, maybe uninspired, something I wouldn’t have really thought about before Hamilton. I would have a dialogue with myself along the lines of, “Really? That was all you could rhyme that with? Surely there must have something better? Something that would have made this a little more complex.” In the end, it feels very simple and safe.
Lin, on the other hand, really proves his mettle when it comes to writing lyrics. With a Hip-Hop inspiration, he makes songs into poems. Songs can be wordy, with a lot different lyrics, sometimes so much it can be hard to follow. But it rewards those who will listen more than once to try and understand just what’s happening, and each rhyme and melody adds complexity to the weaving narrative of Alexander Hamilton’s life. Keep in mind, the musical is a biography, and it has to cover a lot of time in only a few hours, and there’s a lot to talk about. With fast lyrics and complex schemes, Lin really achieves a level of story-telling on stage that hasn’t really been seen yet.
How Does it Make You Feel?
Although I thought that Something Rotten had a decent premise at first, that’s all it really turned out to be. Just decent. For those who aren’t aware, like I wasn’t for a long time, Nicolas Bottom is the character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream who gets turned into an ass and falls in love with the fairy queen. Thus having the persona actually exist in Shakespeare’s life makes for an interesting joke, but that’s all it is. Its only for one self referential joke that’s cheaply spent, and that’s it. Otherwise, the character could have been any average joe who wanted to write something rivaling Shakespeare. After that, I felt like the story was predictable, I called all the highs and lows. I liked the songs, but there just wasn’t a lot of weight behind it.
But emotional punch is what Hamilton is all about, and it’s something that carries through both acts, which are vastly different from one another. The first act is a call to arms as the rebels fight the American Revolution, and the songs help the listener and audience get hype about freedom and liberty. Americans love that stuff. The second act is a bit of a 180, the narrative shifts to after the revolution and running the country afterward, which turns out to be harder than they realized. I will confess, I have never made it through the entirety of the second act without crying, and I’m not really sure who can as characters die and others are redeemed with beautiful accompanying music and lyrics. The narrative resonates with the audience, while Something Rotten might hold something special for fans of Shakespeare, people who don’t read him might not get all of the humor.
Honestly It’s Kind of Draining
Something Rotten’s brand of funny is based mostly on taking the piss out of Shakespeare. There’s some clever nods to some other musicals and how they have certain conventions they follow… While following those same conventions. It was funny the first time, but when you know the punch line, the reaction becomes neutral. On the other hand, Hamilton has a lot of subtle humor which rewards close listening. The jokes aren’t pandering, they’re intelligent and written into the songs, and you don’t have to know a lot of US History in order to understand it like you would have to know Shakespeare for Something Rotten.
Location, Location, Location
Something Rotten definitely sells in places where Shakespeare is a big deal. Moving the play overseas, the United Kingdom would probably have a different opinion than I do about both Something Rotten and Hamilton.
But there’s something quintessentially American about Hamilton. Not only does it cover American History during the Revolution, a highly mythologized time in our history that’s easy to get excited about. Not only that, but the main musical themes have their origins in Hip-Hop, a movement that owes its roots to America. If that wasn’t enough, there are a lot of lines talking about how great New York City is, so it’s easy to see how Hamilton would find an audience on Broadway.
With that comparison, we can begin to see what it is about Hamilton that makes it so appealing. The songs are catchy and well written, the performances are wonderful and make the characters deep and complex. The humor is subtle and the emotional weight of the narrative hits hard every time, even when you see it coming. Much like Wicked, Phantom, and Les Mis before that, the modern day musical will now be defined Pre or Post-Hamilton until the next big thing comes along.