Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton"

For New Music Connoisseur, Vol. 22, No. 2, "Letters"

by Barry Drogin

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To the Editor:

In the Spring 2016 issue of New Music Connoisseur, my esteemed colleague Mark N. Grant offered a "different look" at "the all-rap musical Hamilton," which he criticizes as "merely a trending pop/rap oratorio shoe-horned into the theater." He later writes, "There is something scandalously wrong with a community of opinion that treats Hamilton's lack of memorable melody as unworthy of commentary... How can you have a great musical without great music?"

  1. Hamilton is in no way an "all-rap musical." The opening number clearly introduces the audience to the three forms of music that will be used throughout the show: rap, melody, and a third mode in-between that could alternatively be described as pitched rap (rap sung, rather than spoken, on a single note), although many times throughout the show it resembles sung melodic recitative. The later descriptor, “pop/rap oratorio,” is much more accurate. Composer/ Librettist Lin-Manuel Miranda uses these three modes as character traits as well as for dramatic effect.
  2. Another complaint of Mr. Grant is that the words whizz by too fast for him to understand every word. I counted: in all, there are 3 instances of slow rap, 15 of medium-speed rap, and 24 of fast rap (one of which is very fast), while there are also 10 instances of medium-speed pitched recitative and 5 instances of fast pitched recitative, and 31 instances of melody. Considering how difficult it is for anyone to get tickets to Hamilton, most of the public, including myself, experience Hamilton as a "pop/rap oratorio," and as such, it works very well. I understood "most of it" the first time I sat down to listen, all the way through, to the OBC Recording I had purchased.
  3. I can't speak to the effectiveness of the sound design at the Richard Rodgers Theater. I have seen several videos of Hamilton – the most effective are the unstaged performances at the White House. The video clips from the show seem to be distractingly cluttered with busy stage business and choreography that could easily distract an audience member from hearing and understanding all of the words. I can easily imagine Mr. Grant's frustration at paying so much money to get excellent seats and then being unable to follow the characters and plot. Prior to the OBC recording's release, Hamilton started at the more intimate Public Theater, which may have fared better with its initial audiences.
  4. I disagree strongly with Mr. Grant's assertion that Hamilton is "merely a trending pop/rap oratorio" (emphasis mine). Webber and Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, released first as a record, was, similarly, an unstaged rock "opera" which, in my subjective experience and opinion, did not make the transition to staged musical very successfully. Breuer and Telson's The Gospel at Colonus is one of the rare instances of a staged oratorio working well as a piece of theater.
  5. My teenage son has memorized the entire score; I asked him how he understands all of the words in a rap song. He told me that he will listen to a rap song once and, if he likes it, he will listen to it several times, catching more words each time. He also will sing it with his friends and, on rare occasions, read the lyrics on-line. So, by going first to the show and then straight to the libretto, Mr. Grant has experienced this rap in a way that is culturally alien to others who enjoy rap. We have all seen young people on subways, quietly rapping along with whatever is playing on their headphones.
  6. Since there obviously is melody in Hamilton, some final consideration of Mr. Grant's complaint that the show didn't leave him with any that he could remember needs to be addressed. Miranda's use of melody is more similar to Wagner and to the minimalist composers than to Sir Andrew. Sir Andrew puts one big tune in each of his shows, and then sprinkles the rest of his shows with more minor melodies, repeated endlessly but with no dramatic intent. Wagner, to contrast, uses leitmotif, where a sequence of notes has a particular meaning, and Miranda does the same, reserving several melodic motifs for specific references. Most of the melodies in the songs in Hamilton are of the form AAAB – Mr. Grant may find this repetition to be boring, but for others it is propulsive and certainly memorable. It should also be noted that most of the rap numbers have repeating melodies in the accompaniment.

[Along with Hamilton, I have been listening a lot to another score, Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. That two-person musical is really a dual song cycle, with one of the characters singing her songs in reverse chronological order. It has been made into a film with a different cast, and some prefer the film soundtrack to the Off-Broadway recording. I’ve seen a few clips from the movie, and between the lip syncing and the business, I'm not sure I will enjoy the film as much, although I am still curious to see it at least once. Coincidentally, quite recently, The Last Five Years was performed as an unstaged dual song cycle, as a benefit for the Brady Center and, from clips on-line, appears to have worked fantastically.]

Is Hamilton "merely" an oratorio? [Is The Last Five Years "merely" a song cycle?] As a critic, not an adverb I would use. Is rap not music (or not "great music")? Oh, please. In New Music Connoisseur, are we to consider serial music, aleatoric music, minimalism, electronic music, and any other forms with a lack of "memorable (sic) melody" with similar disdain?

Barry Drogin

(Note: The editor insisted on cutting the paragraph and sentence in brackets for no other reason than that the editor had never heard of the other musical mentioned, despite the fact that Mr. Grant had mentioned several musicals and creators, some of whom the editor and readers of New Music Connoisseur may not have heard of, either. This is the last article I wrote for the magazine, because all "life subscriptions" were cancelled and the numerous reviews (and this letter) were published without any compensation, but with the agreement that I retained the copyright and could publish myself after each issue.)

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