Monday, September 28, 2015

A hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton? It's no joke

Yeah, that guy
Recently, I have felt guilty that I'm not doing more album reviews. After all, I have been doing a free Apple Music trial that will end in a few days and so I have had access to full albums that I probably wouldn’t otherwise hear until well after their releases. And I have listened to a lot of new albums, including Watkins Family Hour, Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Carly Rae Jepson’s Emotion, Tomorrow is My Turn by Rhiannon Giddens, and Venus by Joy Williams, to name a few. But I haven’t felt I had anything that needed to be added to the conversation—for example, I didn’t want to jump onto the Ryan Adam’s 1989 bandwagon and I feel like other people reviewed Chvrches’ new album as well as I could.

One thing that did jump out at me this week is Hamilton. If you haven’t heard of it yet, it is a hip-hop musical based on the biography of US founding father Alexander Hamilton (of the $10 bill fame) written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars as Hamilton. No, this is not a joke. Although this musical has been in the works for six years, under production and workshop since last February, and on Broadway for about two months, I just started hearing about it last week when the entirety of the cast album was streaming on NPR Music’s First Listen series. It might still be there this week, as the album doesn’t go to stores until October 16. I would suggest at least listening to at least 15–30 minutes to get the idea. The first act, by all accounts, is the better one.

In case you can’t listen to the full thing, you can catch a few samples from this short podcast from NPR about why this hip-hop musical actually works. If you can’t listen to the podcast, you can certainly read about it; there’s no shortage of opinions. Besides the New York Times review, there’s a long, pretty involved New Yorker article from when the musical opened for workshop off-Broadway, or an NPR review for when the musical opened on Broadway. Finally, a short article on why presidential candidates should see the musical, also from the New Yorker.

For my part, I listened to the first half of the musical yesterday, and I can say I was generally taken in. I was impressed at how General Washington (“a modern major general”) translates into hip-hop bravado and the context of war and at the same time it comments on today's politics and invites us to learn more about what happened 240 years ago. If you dig into the music, there’s lots of references to classical hip hop music and musicals. As the NPR podcast suggests, it is not all hip-hop, but a bonafide mix of musical and hip-hop and other styles. But it all works.

Try it out. There’s a good chance your children may be putting it on as their high school play in 5 years.

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