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Seeing a Show By Listening to the Album

By: Linda Buchwald
Date: Oct 01, 2015

Welcome to On the Record, where we celebrate original cast recordings. Today's title: the just-released Hamilton.


In my last column, I examined the advent of cast albums enlisting pop artists in order to reach a broader audience. But what happens when a show is already a pop-culture phenomenon? That's the case with Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical Hamilton, which chronicles the life of "the ten-dollar Founding Father" from bastard child to ambitious teenage orphan to George Washington's right-hand man to his tragic and untimely death. Seemingly every accolade in the dictionary has been used to describe this groundbreaking box-office smash. At the $10 first-row tickets lottery, where Miranda and celebrity guests frequently reward the long line of hopefuls with brief #Ham4Ham sidewalk performances, he is greeted like a rock star. Oscar, Tony and Grammy winners, and even the President of the United States have all been to see the show. So, does Hamilton mania set the bar too high for its just- released cast recording? Does the ability to listen to the songs over and over reveal imperfections we missed when watching the show onstage?

Nope. Just as the musical is worthy of multiple viewings (if you're so lucky), the cast recording demands multiple listens. The lyrics are so dense and the music so intricate that it's challenging to absorb in one sitting. Since the show is sung through, the album begs to be experienced from beginning to end as opposed to picking a favorite number and putting it on repeat. With each play, new rhymes and references are heard -- and there are a lot of them from the worlds of theatre, history, and hip-hop.

I saw Hamilton once at the Public Theater and then again on Broadway and loved it enough both times to leap to my feet at curtain call. However, before the cast recording came out, I admit I was starting to suffer from Hamilton fatigue -- and I suspect I wasn't alone. It just seemed to be everywhere. But the album has reignited my passion for the show and made me even more aware of what Miranda accomplished.

Although he incorporates many different musical styles (hip-hop, rap, R&B, Britpop), sometimes in the same song, the score is cohesive and distinctly Miranda. Of course he didn't do it alone: the contributions of orchestrator Alex Lacamoire and executive producers Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, founding members of The Roots, are incalculable. (I hope they'll be involved with the upcoming Hamilton Mixtape album Miranda tweeted about earlier this week that will feature remixes, covers and even new songs inspired by the show.)


While those of us who've seen Hamilton onstage will gain  insight by listening to the album, newbies may get even more out of it. I can't think of another cast recording that so closely matches the experience of watching the show. (Only one short scene is missing but Miranda wrote it out on Tumblr.) Although you can't see Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography or director Thomas Kail's staging, the acting comes through in the voices. "Satisfied," Angelica Schuyler's account of the night she fell for and lost Hamilton, is remarkable, not just because of Renée Elise Goldsberry's verbal dexterity but also her ability to convey longing and regret in every inflection. I could give more examples, but we'd be here all day. Each individual performance shines, and so does the ensemble.


Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci

Top photo by Joan Marcus

tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.