I’ve been trying to find a way to properly review Hamilton after finally watching it when the show debuted on Disney+ back in July, but I’ve been coming up short. […]
I’ve been trying to find a way to properly review Hamilton after finally watching it when the show debuted on Disney+ back in July, but I’ve been coming up short. I’m not versed enough on the technical aspects of stage production to review it the same way I’d review a movie, so I’m not going to try that approach. However, I certainly have general impressions that don’t require expertise. Put simply: it’s every bit as good as the hype; one of the few pieces of modern entertainment that is. It is a masterpiece of storytelling, and I believe Lin-Manuel Miranda and his magnificent collaborators have created the most effective history lesson ever taught. For that alone he deserves the praise and myriad awards he’s won for the show and its cast album. Hamilton is the best thing I’ve watched on my TV this year, better than any new movie or TV show or video game. I’ve watched it 3 times since it was released over the Fourth of July weekend.
I’ll go farther. If I had been 10-15 years old when I first saw this, it may have become my career goal to get into theater or become a historian. It is a life-altering experience. I’m jealous of all those New York/New Jersey school kids who got to go see the play live back in 2016 at the height of its popularity as part of the #EduHam program. How incredible that must have been for them.
My obsession with the show now extends far beyond rewatching it and listening to the soundtrack. I’ve gone back and started reading all the longform articles about it and interviews with and profiles of Lin-Manuel Miranda from 2016-2017 when the show was at its peak on Broadway. I watch any behind-the-scenes videos, “vocal coach reacts!” videos, or historical accuracy videos I can find on YouTube, probably 50 or so in total by now. All of the things I was purposefully avoiding the last 4 years because I hadn’t seen the play I now want to chug into my brain in the most gluttonous manner possible. Give me an IV and feed it to me whist I sleep! I even bought the audiobook of the 700+ page Ron Chernow historical biography that inspired the play. It’s 35 hours long. And I will damn well listen to it. I’m fascinated not just by the show, but by the history depicted in it.
So I guess my “in” to talking about Hamilton is my desire to share which of its songs have impacted me the most now that I’ve listened to all 46 of them at least a dozen times. There are plenty of lists like this online, including several thatrank every single song in the show, but these are my personal favorites.Of course, there isn’t a mediocre song in the lot. Many of these seem to be the songs that everyone loves, but I think I have a couple outside the general consensus.
1. “Non-Stop” (Act 1)
The closing song of the show’s first act is the one that hits me like an arrow to the chest, because it’s about the accomplishments and determination of a great writer. Not that I believe I’m a great writer, but I certainly want to be. And to have people talk about my words the way the characters marvel at Hamilton’s in this song hit me right in the feels.
“How do you write like you’re running out of time?”
“How do you write like it’s going out of style?”
“How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive? How do you write like you need it to survive?”
“How do you write every second you’re alive?”
Not only is it a masterpiece lyrically, but I fucking love this beat. I also love the structure of it, where we stop two-thirds of the way through as Aaron Burr explains how the Federalist Papers came to be and how prolific Hamilton was in writing them (“Hamilton wrote…THE OTHER 51!”) before we explode into the final chorus, which throws in clever nods to several of the other songs from the first act. This is hands down my favorite song in the show.
2. “Dear Theodosia” (Act 1)
Fun fact: this is the only song from the show that I was familiar with prior to finally watching it. It’s the only one I’d ever heard in its entirety. I’d been determined not to listen to the soundtrack or look up any of the songs until I finally saw them in context with the show. And let me tell you, that was a hard promise to keep. But I did it, and I’m glad I did. But someone played “Dear Theodosia” as an outro to a podcast I was listening to a year or so ago, and I fell in love with it, not even knowing it was from Hamilton until after the fact. There was no taking back that I’d heard it, so I listened to it again. And again. And again. This ballad of fathers to their children is a heart-melter to be sure, and is so beautifully performed by Odom and Miranda.
“And when you smile / You knock me out, I fall apart / And I thought I was so smart”
3. “The Room Where It Happens” (Act 2)
This is one of the most universally loved songs in the show, and for good reason. It cements Burr as the antagonist by revealing his immense jealously and anger at being left out of so many important meetings where other men are granted power and influence. Who knew a song about backroom dealings could be so catchy? You can’t listen to this and not tap your feet and/or bob your head. Leslie Odom Jr. knocks this one out of the park with his physicality and vocal performance. Then it ends with this moment, maybe the best use of light for dramatic effect in the show. Click, boom:
4. “Your Obedient Servant” (Act 2)
Burr’s frustration finally boils over. I almost wish Odom had played this even angrier in the show, but you can still hear the “enough is enough” in his voice during the performance. I love the structure here as Hamilton and Burr write polite correspondences tearing each other apart, eventually causing Burr to challenge Hamilton to their fateful duel. I wonder how close this is to how the challenge was presented in real life.
5. “Wait For It” (Act 1)
A lot of people consider this the best song in the show from a writing standpoint, and it would be hard to argue with them. It’s such a beautiful contrast to Hamilton’s go go go, take-it-now attitude. Hamilton, the man with nothing to lose vs. Burr, the man who weighs his options carefully. It’s basically the opposite side of the coin of “Non-Stop”, just one more piece of the story’s genius. Notice later in “The Room Where It Happens” when Hamilton mocks Burr by saying “you get nothin if you wait for it wait for it” in the lyrics. OMG so amazing.
6. “You’ll Be Back” (Act 1)
I’m ashamed to say the first time I’d ever seen Jonathan Groff in a significant role was on Netflix’s serial killer show Mindhunter. I had no clue he’d already given a performance of legend in Hamilton as King George III just a year earlier. Groff does 3 solo songs as the King of England, but the biggest is this, his first one, where he strolls out in full regalia and literally drools on himself as he spits fiery rage at the perceived petulance of his American colonies. Groff’s performance of this song in the film version is one of the finest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.
If I were drunk enough, I would totally do this song at karaoke.
7. “Say No To This” (Act 2)
It was such a brilliant idea to portray Hamilton’s infidelity as an R&B song. This is a straight up JAM. It’s also the only time in the show where Jasmine Cephas Jones gets to really take center stage and shine, and does she ever. They really did hit homeruns with every member of the cast, several of whom had never appeared in a Broadway show prior to this. (*insert “mind blown” emoji here*)
8. “Helpless” (Act 1)
I have to include one of the songs that prominently features the Schuyler sisters (Renée Elise Goldberry, Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones), because they are enchanting on stage together. This is probably the most blatant love song in the show. It has a fun melody with some sweet strings backing it. Also, if you pay attention to Hamilton’s flow, this is a perfect tribute to Ja Rule & Ashanti. It’s no surprise the two of them team up for a cover of the track on the awesome Hamilton Mixtape album.
Starting at 2:40 in “Helpless”, try and tell me it isn’t a direct tribute to 1:25 into this:
9. “I Know Him” (Act 2)
Only 1:38 long, but it’s probably the funniest song in the show. It’s the final of Jonathan Groff’s 3 appearances as King George and he goes out in delightful fashion. It seems accurate that a European monarch in the 18th century would truly be baffled at the concept of a head of state who doesn’t have a lifelong reign. It’s also got double meaning in how he views America throughout the show as a sort of jilted lover, and in this song he’s taking petty delight at the thought that her future relationships are going to be FUBAR.
“They will TEAR each other into pieces / Jesus Christ, this will be fun”
10. “One Last Time” (Act 2)
Because I adore Christopher Jackson‘s commanding, dignified performance as George Washington, and he absolutely brings the fucking house down while singing Washington’s farewell song. I’m a big fan of moments in a story where the hero has simply had enough and expresses that they want a break or they want to be done altogether. Think of Russell Crowe in Gladiator after the opening battle as he speaks to Marcus Aurelius about going home, before the Caesar tells him he wants him to govern Rome after he dies. This song is Hamilton‘s version of that.
“I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree / A moment alone in the shade / At home, in this nation we’ve made”
“My Shot” (Act 1) – Miranda claims it took him close to a year to write this song in its entirety because character introduction/statement songs are so important to plays. That’s something I wouldn’t have thought of since I’m unfamiliar with the accepted structure of Broadway storytelling. Let’s just say the end result was worth the effort.
“Satisfied” (Act 1) – This is the big showcase for Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica where she swaps from singing to rapping to singing. It is a marvel of vocal mastery. Even more interesting is that it’s sort of a musical Rashomon, where the love story from the song just before it (“Helpless”) is told again from the perspective of the other sister who was in love with Hamilton.
“Cabinet Battle #1” & “Cabinet Battle #2” (Act 2) – Presenting the cabinet meeting scenes as modern day rap battles, complete with Jefferson & Hamilton holding mics (the only time in the play anyone uses a modern prop) was a master stroke. I keep reading in interviews where Miranda says these are the scenes that make people who aren’t otherwise exposed to musicals “get it” if they didn’t already. Daveed Diggs (who was a rapper before becoming an actor) and Miranda are worthy verbal combatants while making period-accurate observations.
“Burn” (Act 2) – You will want to stand up out of your chair in your living room and applaud every time Phillipa Soo finishes her amazing, soulful solo. It’s also one of the strongest songs lyrically and makes me extremely jealous as a writer. Here we have another double entendre as well, where the song title represents Eliza literally burning Alexander’s letters, and the fact that it represents a portion of the story where Hamilton figuratively lights himself on fire via his self-destructive actions.
“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” (Act 2) – The show’s grand finale is a wonderful, emotional and efficient wrapping up of the story we’ve just experienced. I’ve almost always got the single tear down the cheek going by the end of listening to it, and my eyes turn to liquid mush 100% of the time if I’m watching it.
The early release of Hamilton on Disney+ may be the only good thing COVID-19 has done for the world. Disney’s original plan was to release it in theaters, then later on streaming. And that would have been great, but they weren’t going to do it until October, 2021! F that. So we got it 15 months early, which is far sooner than we could’ve hoped. Someone wisely decided that with most of America in quarantine, this show could be an even bigger hit if they released it early to drive subscribers to the service while people were in desperate need of quality entertainment at home. I’m willing to bet that turned out to be a good business move (Disney paid $75 million for the distribution rights). I know millions of people who hadn’t seen the play in person are thankful for the decision, including me. I do wish I’d been able to see it on the big screen with a crowd, but I’m happy with the result we got.
More importantly, my desire to see the show live on Broadway has not waned. It won’t be with the original cast, but now that I’ve seen the original cast and heard the cast album repeatedly, I’m actually looking forward to seeing how other actors inhabit these roles.
In all likelihood, Lin-Manuel Miranda will never create something this good again for the rest of his life, and he’s just 40 this year. I wonder if he thinks about that and how the pressure to be this great again will impact his work going forward. He’s only an Oscar away from joining the EGOT ranks, and if there’s any person alive I would go all-in on winning an Oscar in the next 10 years, it would be him. That’s just inevitable.
Personally, I don’t think Hamilton will turn me into a theater geek at this point in my life. If I’d seen it 20 years ago, it might be a different story. I couldn’t even tell you what other current Broadway hits I’d want to see filmed like this in the future. Knowing that I’ve now seen the best of the best of the best that Broadway can offer kinda ruins me for other shows. My ignorance to this world is more than a little embarrassing, but I’m definitely a lot more interested in the stage now than I was just 4 months ago. I’m also 20 times more excited about seeing next year’s movie adaptation of In the Heights, Miranda’s first big show (which hit Broadway when he was all of 28).
If you haven’t watched Hamilton yet on Disney+, what in the hell are you waiting for?
To close, I have to throw in a shoutout to Miranda’s amazing primary creative collaborators on Hamilton: director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and musical orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, without whom this thing isn’t as great as it is.