“You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” So goes the cry of dismay in a commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that was popular when I was growing up. Two great tastes that taste great together, the tag line runs; the skeptics just have to try it and see. All well and good, as long as you like both peanut butter and chocolate. But what it you adore chocolate but don’t care for peanut butter?
I have loved Broadway musicals nearly all my life, but I’ve never had much fondness for hip-hop, so the idea of their fusion didn’t exactly thrill me. My issues with hip-hop aren’t that the lyrics are spoken rather than sung, since that’s not unknown even in “classic” Broadway musicals (e.g. The opening “Rock Island” number and Harold Hill’s patter songs from The Music Man and all of Henry Higgins’ songs from My Fair Lady). Rather, I dislike the practice of “sampling” melodic licks from previously existing songs rather than composing original tunes to undergird the rap, and the misogyny in the lyrics of some of hip-hop’s most popular stars, Eminem being one of the worst offenders. When Dr. Dre declares that “bitches be nothin’ but tricks and hoes,” it’s pretty clear I’m not the target audience he has in mind. (A friend of mine recently pointed out to me that rap’s reputation for misogyny is unfair because similar anti-woman messages turn up just as frequently in other musical genres, particularly country. I agree with her to a certain extent, but I can’t accept “hey, those other guys are doing it too” as a reason why I should be okay with lyrics like the previous quote. Misogyny should not be given a pass in any genre of music.)
With these blocks against hip-hop, the last thing I expected when curiosity drove me to listen to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton on YouTube was that I would end up liking it. I’d get through two numbers at most, I figured. Yet to my surprise, I kept listening, and I found that with sampling kept to a bare minimum and misogyny altogether absent, hip-hop and the Broadway musical, joined to tell the story of the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury, could indeed be two great tastes that taste great together. So, just what won me over about Hamilton? (Spoilers will follow, but then again, the opening number pretty much lets us know the fate that awaits our protagonist, just in case we’ve forgotten hearing about it in history class.)
First, Hamilton continues the tradition established by Oklahoma in 1943, of using songs to establish character and further the plot. It gets off to a strong start with the second song, “Aaron Burr, Sir,” in which the story’s central figures meet for the first time and begin a tenuous friendship. The seed of the conflict that will lead to the climactic duel is planted here, as we hear the contrast between the intense, impetuous Hamilton and the laid-back, charming Burr, who advises the brash Alexander to “talk less, smile more.” (Hamilton’s reaction to this advice is also telling: “You can’t be serious.”) This early number engages our interest in the two men. We want to see how their relationship will progress, even though we already know how it ends. Darn good character development.
Second, history interests me. It was my second favorite school subject behind English, as well it might have been when my father taught history at a junior college for many years. Accordingly, historical subject matter catches my attention. Miranda has his Hamilton engage in raucous rap battles with Thomas Jefferson, with George Washington, one of the musical’s sanest characters, doing his best to referee, but while the real life Hamilton and Jefferson almost certainly never talked like this, the substance of their disputes — strong central government vs. states’ rights — rings true to what I remember from history class. One of the show’s best known numbers and a favorite of mine, “The Room Where It Happens,” tells the story of how the nation’s capital came to be on Virginia’s northern border, a story I recall distinctly from my dad’s American History class. Such things make me smile.
Third, Alexander Hamilton himself makes an interesting, charismatic Broadway musical protagonist. He’s too complicated for us to feel one way about. On the one hand, we can’t help but root for him, a rootless young man with no money but boundless potential, determined not to throw away “his shot” even though he has internalized the idea that he will die young. Yet when he behaves badly, the musical does not excuse him. We’re made, for instance, to feel the wrongness of his betrayal of Eliza, his “best of wives, best of women” (more on her in a moment). Adultery is not “just something men do,” it is not “okay,” and in the end Alexander pays dearly for it. An equally complex figure is his antagonist (or is he a co-protagonist?) Aaron Burr. If “My Shot” and the rousing first-act closer “Non-Stop” help define Hamilton, Burr’s dilemma, the tension between his desire to succeed and his instinct for self-preservation, is laid out in the catchy “Wait for It.” (I may never have been a hip-hop fan, but I have a taste for classic 1980s R&B, and Leslie Odom Jr., who originated the role of Burr, reminds me at times of Luther Vandross, in a good way.) This is no simple “good vs. evil” conflict, but the story of two flawed men whom history put at odds. It’s interesting to note that in Hamilton‘s clean-up at last year’s Tony Awards, while Miranda was awarded as the show’s creator, he lost Best Actor in a Musical to Odom. Aaron Burr wins the duel again.
Finally, this story of the Revolutionary War and the evolution of America’s two-party system may seem like a very dudely musical, but it presents us with an admirable heroine in Elizabeth Schulyer Hamilton. On paper Eliza doesn’t seem a character I would like it all, since I’ve never had much patience with the trope of the little woman who begs her husband to pay attention to her when he has his hands full with history-shaping events. But I have to reckon with Philippa Soo, who brings grace and intelligence and a heartbreakingly beautiful singing voice to the role. She’s the story’s emotional core. The most heartfelt moments belong to her — “That Would Be Enough,” in which she tells Alexander she’s expecting their first child; “Burn,” in which she acts to preserve her dignity in the face of her husband’s public confession of infidelity; and the closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” in which we learn of the life she led after her husband’s death and her ongoing efforts to preserve the legacy he was so desperate to protect. Even when she has one line in a song, she makes her powerful presence felt, as in “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which deals with the aftermath of the death of her and Alexander’s oldest son Philip. (The narrator here is Eliza’s sister Angelica, another impressive female figure. This song will make almost any listener teary-eyed.)
When it comes to describing a musical, the written word can only do so much, which is why I’ve included links to the songs I’ve mentioned here. Two great tastes that taste great together. Take a listen and see what you think.