Jul 8, 2020

The Moment 'Hamilton' Slips Off Track

Cross-posted from Train My Ear.
For a blessed few years I was among the New York Times's freelance theater correspondents most likely to be assigned features about new rock or pop musicals. Perhaps this cover story on "band musicals" for American Theatre was my calling card; in any case I feel fortunate to have written for the paper of record about Dave MalloyStew, the Shaggs, Michael Friedman, Sting, and more recently, Conor McPherson's Bob Dylan musical.

That must also be the reason I got the call, in early 2015, to write a preview feature on a new hip-hop musical at the Public Theater by the guy who'd given the world In the Heights, and that's how I ended up at maybe the show's third preview there. I'd like to say I knew from the start that Hamilton would hit the world like a hurricane; I knew that it bowled me over with its ambition, heart, and sheer lyrical brilliance, but I too joined in debates about whether it would "play" for a wider audience on Broadway. At the time I compared the buzz created by Lin-Manuel Miranda's intricate, word-drunk lyrics to that of Sweeney Todd; and I think, as is too often the case Sondheim, the lyrical onslaught can lead some to overlook or take for granted the sophistication and tunefulness of the score that supports them. Hamilton contains multitudes: both dense, agile raps and big-tuned pop songs, as well as a battery of recitative, all woven together with consummate compositional artistry. And I think it's no coincidence that the show's best songs, "Satisfied" and "Wait for It," employ a full arsenal of both hip-hop flow and rich pop melody.

All that said, I confess that I haven't gone deep on the score or replayed it frequently since my first few hearings of it onstage. For one thing, as with most Broadway cast albums, it's too rich a meal to snack on, and it's not actually very enjoyable to listen to without giving it my full and sustained attention, something that is hard for me to come by without planning. Hamilton also happens to be one of those pop culture staples, like Seinfeld or the Beatles, that you almost don't need to immerse yourself in deeply to feel soaked in; it's somehow everywhere all the time, as if it were always there.

Still, my tween son's fervent embrace, and incessant replaying, of the cast album in recent years has imprinted much of it on me afresh. And there's one part of it that has always brought me up short in the best way. It's early in the show, in the midst of the bravura, dick-swinging expository song "My Shot," when Hamilton is holding forth over beers with a new crew of New York tavern buddies—and he very suddenly pauses (at 2:40 in the clip above). The music drops out to a snap click, and brash young Alexander has one of his rare moments of dubious introspection. It is worded as if addressed to his comrades, but it seems clearly to be an internal monologue:
Oh, am I talkin' too loud?
Sometimes I get over-excited, shoot off at the mouth
I never had a group of friends before
I promise that I'll make y'all proud
The whole section feels out of time, despite the click, like the downbeats are suddenly missing, with the song only snapping back into focus with Laurens's enthusiastic reply: "Let's get this guy in front of a crowd!"

There are plenty of other instances in this long, through-composed score in which Miranda steps out of or plays with the rigid clockwork of the 4/4 beat, and layers in complex phrasing and ambitious meters. But this section has always sounded almost free-tempo, or otherwise trickily metered. Counting it out, though, I can see that it's just four standard bars, and I've learned to hear the crucial 1 and 3 beats in each measure. But look at how oddly they're distributed:
(beat, two) Oh, am I talkin' too loud?
Sometimes I get over-excited, shoot off at the mouth
I never had a group of friends before, I promise that I'll make y'all
Proud...Let's get this guy in front of a crowd
The phrase that feels especially unmoored, and where until I took the trouble of counting I would always lose the meter, is—not coincidentally—perhaps the show's most nakedly vulnerable, certainly up to this point: "I never had a group of friends before." The plaintiveness and plainness of that statement, spoken more than rapped, stands out so sorely in the midst of the song's crackling bravado and rat-a-tat rhythms that Laurens's confidence in Hamilton's eloquence almost registers as a punchline. You want to put this sad, needy guy in front of a crowd?

But this private moment of doubt, as definitive Hamilton deconstructer Howard Ho points out in a new video, is linked throughout the show to an earlier trauma—the devastation that rained on St. Croix and put young Alexander on intimate terms with death, so much so that "it's like a memory" to him. This is the eye of the hurricane he's never really left behind, and through which he fundamentally sees the world. More than all the Revolutionary history lessons and poptimism of the Hamilton phenomenon, it is the character Hamilton's intense, brutally foreshortened view of life, scarcity, and striving that gives the show its unique gravity.