“Hamilton The Revolution,” published April 12, 2016, has a long subtitle on the frontispiece in the style of 18th century literature: “Being the complete libretto of the Broadway Musical, with a true account of its Creation. And Concise remarks on Hip-Hop, The Power of Stories, and The New America.” It is a souvenir book for fans. But it is a handsome souvenir book, and — like the show and its creators — one with impressive ambition.
Indeed, it is ambitious enough so that calling it a souvenir book is as reductive and misleading as calling “Hamilton” a hip-hop musical. Neither description is inaccurate; they just don’t give the full flavor. At the most superficial level, “Hamilton the Revolution,” nearly 300 pages long and the size of a coffee table book, does not use the usual thin glossy paper stock; it was printed (in China) on a heavier, matte paper that I suspect is supposed to remind us of parchment, or at least an old-fashioned sturdy kind of newsprint — in other words, a historical document. It is one of the subtler means by which the authors encourage us to see “Hamilton” not just as a musical about history, but as a musical that is making history.
“Hamilton the Revolution” contains the complete libretto, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the book, lyrics and music for the musical, and stars as Alexander Hamilton. Most of his songs are printed against a dramatic background of a vivid photograph from a moment in the show. But Miranda has also annotated each song extensively, the annotations (written in smaller print in the margins) ranging from enlightening to boastful to arcane to entertaining. (“I know every word that rhymes with Burr. It’s a long list. I tried to use all of them in this show. The ‘Rhymes with Hamilton’ list is nonexistent, so.”)
In a song from the show that is not on the album, “Tomorrow There’ll Be More Of Us,” Eliza tells her husband Hamilton that his good friend John Laurens has died in battle. He’s silent, and then says, “I have so much work to do.” Miranda’s annotation for this line (by no means his most lengthy note) is as follows:
“Here’s the thing about Hamilton’s response: It’s more telling when he’s quiet than when he has something to say. This was true of the historical Hamilton as well. We have very little written record of the grieving for Laurens. For a man who had an opinion on everything, for him to hold back betrays genuine, life-changing grief. It is possible that Hamilton and Laurens were lovers at some point — Hamilton’s letters to Laurens are every bit as flirtatious as his letters to the opposite sex, if not more so. If this is the case, the silence betrays an even more profound loss.”
This stab at history is present in the “making of the musical” chapters as well, which alternate with the libretto and are written by Jeremy McCarter, a former theater critic for New York Magazine who joined the staff of the Public Theater. In his introduction, McCarter includes this claim:”Alexander Hamilton would have admired the unifying power of the show based on his life, and would have felt vindication…The widely acclaimed musical that draws from the breadth of America’s culture and shows its audience what we share doesn’t just dramatize Hamilton’s revolution. It continues it.”
The text is on firmer ground when it strays from such cultural, historical or political analysis and speculation — self-congratulatory or otherwise — and instead takes us through the concrete details in the development of the musical. The making-of chapters go more or less chronologically, from the spark of the idea for the musical and the debut song in front of President Obama at the White House to the show’s opening on Broadway six years later, with an epilogue about a special performance of “Hamilton” as a Democratic fundraiser, with President Obama as host. (“…six years after Lin had gotten a boost from his association with the White House, the White House was, improbably, getting a boost from Lin.”) Throughout the chronology, McCarter provides profiles of the people involved in the making of the show, from producers to creative team to cast members.
Click on any photograph by Frank Ockenfels to see it enlarged.
We learn, for example, that the show’s music director and orchestrator, Alex Lacamoire, is hard of hearing. We also learn that on hearing Miranda’s initial take on the song “You’ll Be Back,” a humorous love song by King George III towards the colonies, Lacamoire thought it sounded “Beatlesque” and so he embedded “nods” and “homages” to several Beatles songs in the orchestration. (In the annotation to the song “You’ll Be Back,” Miranda tells us that the actor Hugh Laurie suggested the title phrase to him.)
“Hamilton the Revolution” is strongest, in fact, when detailing the homages and influences embedded in “Hamilton” — and the advice that Miranda sought from theater greats like composers John Kander and Stephen Sondheim. Director Tommy Kail is quoted at one point as saying: “The four grandparents of the show are Sweeney Todd, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Gypsy” — and although it sounds as if he just said this off-the-cuff to McCarter, his reasoning is interesting and even persuasive. Elsewhere we’re told how much of the show is rooted in, or at least borrows from, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Big Pun, the Notorious B.I.G., even Harry Potter and the TV series “Parks and Recreation” and “My So-Called Life.” This abundance of parentage (or grandparentage) surely helps lead McCarter to observe that, “however innovative” the musical is, it is “in fact, traditional.” That is what struck me about the musical from the first time I saw it, Off-Broadway, and what paradoxically makes it so satisfying. More than a year ago, I wrote: “So much of what makes Hamilton groundbreaking is its return to familiar theatrical ground from the past, in a way that makes it feel freshly sown. There are not just allusions to musical greats….there is a hewing to theatrical convention.”
This is one of the reasons why I find ridiculous the current apparent backlash against the show, newly vocal critics finding it insufficiently….revolutionary. Miranda set out to make a musical out of a specific history book about a specific man, and did this exceedingly well. It’s hardly his fault that fans have elevated him to the musical messiah. On the other hand, nobody forced him to name this book “Hamilton The Revolution.” It could just as easily have been entitled “Hamilton: Tradition Renewed”– although who would have bought it then?
Click on cover above to learn more about the book and/or to purchase it.