Overall, I found the melodies present in Hamilton to be poorly formed and bereft of the excitement that they were trying to portray. Too often did I feel the melodic line played slave to the words and provided nothing more than a stylish way to speak. It is difficult for me to call this a work of hip-hop/rap since there was little manipulation from the rhythm and pace of something like a slam poetry reader, or perhaps a Shakespearean actor fully accenting the iambic pentameter. Right at the start, the songs “Alexander Hamilton” and “Aaron Burr, Sir” exemplified this. Songs that were more plot-driven in nature, such as “A Winter’s Ball”, Meet Me Inside”, and “The Reynolds Pamphlet” had hardly any semblance of melodic organization at all; it was basically just speaking to a beat, which provides nothing of musical substance to the listener. Miranda did find better melodic shapes and gravity in the more character-driven songs, such as “My Shot”, “Dear Theodosia”, and “The World Was Wide Enough”. “Burn” was the exception – that was quite a lame line given the dramatic situation. There were two definitively positive aspects I saw from the melody. One was the King George motive, which comes in at the end of “You’ll Be Back”, “What Comes Next?” and “I Know Him”. Simply put, it’s a well-crafted line that expounds on the harmonies well and provides a good amount of energy, even if it just sounds like a simple little doodle. If there had been more melodies like this that worked so playfully well with the harmony, this work as a whole would have been leaps and bounds more delightful. The second positive aspect was the timely placement of repeated motives throughout the work. The motives themselves were not very engaging, such as the ones found in “My Shot” or “The Room Where It Happens”, but the way Miranda used them to unify the work was both intriguing and necessary. I’ll get into this later, but the musical unification in Hamilton was the most positive – if not the only positive – musical aspect of the whole work. Melodically, much more needed to be done with rhythmic manipulation, form, and shape. It would be the easiest musical element to improve upon (see: The Hamilton Mixtape), and is the main culprit to this work not achieving the level of musical greatness it seemed to deserve.
Comparatively speaking, the work started off quite harmonically strong, with some unique and surprising chord progressions that gave the music a much-needed jolt of energy and importance. Although the harmonic structure was never as coherent or supportive as it should have been, its vigor and restless qualities give the listener something of value to latch onto. Some creative harmonic peaks in the first act included “Farmer Refuted”, “Helpless”, and “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”. In-between those peaks, though, the harmony really seemed to take the backseat and not only become less involved, but become dull and un-polished. This was rather surprising given that Miranda seemed to have an endless supply of harmonic ideas in the beginning, but the cool structures slowly became small and safe, which doesn’t give off good appeal. For example, in “Ten Duel Commandments” what’s so great about a i-N-i progression for two minutes? Unless the song is deeply rooted in the Spanish flamenco tradition, or if you’re the best Backyard Baseball player in history, then it doesn’t really do any good. In “Non-Stop”, why did a seemingly powerful point in the work revert to a dreaded iv-V-I-IV progression without any unique rhythm? In the second act, basically every song aside from “Hurricane”, “The Election of 1800”, and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” had a lackluster harmonic structure that was either too slow, too static, or simply too weak to bring the music to a higher level. The songs “Say No To This”, “Washington On Your Side”, and “Your Obedient Servant” had especially lame harmony. It was never completely detrimental, but the number of songs with toothless harmonies began to pile up before I knew it, and in the end there were too many gaps in its quality to be considered successful.
I have a theory as to why this particular work caught on extremely well with so many people – aside from the plot and the historical importance, the reason why people are drawn to Hamilton so much is that they aren’t used to having such an effective sound for a musical theater show. Indeed, I believe this one of the more timbrally effective scores in the history of musical theater. It’s still not great, and it’s nothing to be overly amazed about. There was so much space in the music as a whole that was never used. There was never a lot of growth, build, or communication between background and foreground instruments. I would try and give you a specific example, but this was really true throughout the entirety of the work. “Cabinet Battle #1” and “Cabinet Battle #2” were the only two songs that provided a good amount of feeling and substance in its timbre. However, that rather large negative also leads into the rather large positive, which is the unity. The work shared its timbral downfalls as a whole, but it was also very well connected along with a dash of uniqueness that gives Hamilton a true identity. This doesn’t mean that everything sounds the same, but rather that the uses of the instrumentation are used enough in a distinct way to create a sound that is hard to forget. Nothing has really sounded like this in the past, and to try and replicate it for the future would be foolish and unnecessary. Perhaps there are simple ways to improve it (see: The Hamilton Mixtape), but the fact that a work of this length and magnitude found such a consistent sound to tell the story is quite remarkable. I don’t particularly think this sound fits well with the story being told, but that doesn’t really play a part in how I perceive this as a work of music. This sound, led by swift synthesizer entrances, dancing pianos, backing rappers, and small strings, exist fully within the story and truly make Hamilton what it is. Then again, works such as the soundtrack for the T.V. show “Full House”, or music for the video game “Super Mario Bros.” have this exact same quality of unification, so it’s not like this is anything new or award-worthy. It gives Hamilton some worth and respectability, but beyond that the sound didn’t fill the spaces it needed in order to be the overwhelmingly powerful work it set out to be.
The fact that you care about this review is case and point to how important this work is. Every couple of years, some piece of music hits the world so hard that it leaves us in a daze. From High School Musical to Glee to Frozen, the mass hysteria that works like these cause are simply astonishing. The difference here is that this work tells a true story and put together in such a fashion that isn’t at all about money or popularity; it’s a legitimate message through music. So yes, this is perhaps the most influential and important work in years, whether I like it or not. Nothing I say beyond this will change that fact, but I still have a couple of overall thoughts to share. There is something magical about Hamilton. I felt it even though I was simply listening to the soundtrack. Sadly, apart from a unified timbre, that magic doesn’t come from anything precisely musical. It has a great story arch and can keep engagement for a full 2 1/2 hour show. To me, that is truly why this work is so captivating to others. I got too many “School House Rock” vibes from the music and overall presentation to be captivated, but this work may not be as far from greatness as my score might suggest. From what I gathered, the story itself was told very well but a little too plain to me to be so revered. The music didn’t set the scene very well, either, and just missed out on being as fun as it should have been. Everyone drools over it, though, and its effect will perhaps be felt forever.
Final Score: 96/180