If there’s one thing I miss about high school, it’s the fantastically magical, heart-wrenchingly intense and borderline corny world of musicals.
Back then, I was a performer of sorts, an actress who lived more for the backstage gossip than the horrifying (and ridiculously hot) spotlight. My love for words is what drew me to theatre. As a writer, I was mesmerized by the seamless marriage of story and music, the careful dialogue and calculated chords that contributed to the complete musical experience.
But in all my time, I never saw nor heard nor read anything as captivating, as ingenious and as timelessly relevant as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” a hip-hop, pop and rap musical with profound historical themes that first made its appearance in 2015.
One gold-status album, countless awards, multiple White House performances, numerous sold-out shows ($1.5 million in weekly sales, according to Business Insider) and one awkward encounter with Vice President Mike Pence later, Hamilton is still capturing hearts and converting all manner of people into history buffs with new releases and additions to the original show and soundtrack.
The latest of these additions, in true hip-hop form, is a mixtape – covers and remixes of several of the more popular songs from the show. With features from popular artists like Chance the Rapper and John Legend, vocal powerhouses like Kelly Clarkson and Alicia Keys and surprisingly un-musical entertainers like Jimmy Fallon, it’s a truly diverse tour- de-force sure to please many. For the purpose of this review, I’ve selected some songs at random.
“Wait For It” – Usher
This deeply remorseful track from Aaron Burr’s viewpoint examines the famous assassin’s less than glamorous and highly unfortunate life (involving a dark affair and darker legacy), with a few digs at Hamilton to boot (“he takes and he takes and he takes and he keeps winning anyway.”) Usher’s soulful vocals depict the heart-wrenching desperation perfectly.
“Helpless” – Ashanti feat. Ja Rule
This sweet love song is Eliza Schluyler’s introduction to Hamilton at the Winter Ball. The original is just short of sickening, but I adore this version – if for nothing more than that its smooth, soulful melodies remind me of listening to Ashanti in my childhood. Also, it’s not quite as nuanced and dialogue- ready as the other songs and is extremely radio-friendly. This is one that I can see Hamilton and Ashanti fans alike listening to for a long, long time.
“Satisfied” – Sia feat. Miguel & Queen Latifah
As a huge Sia fan, I appreciate this collaboration so, so much. Sia brings all the power and personality demanded by the character Angelica Schluyler, Eliza’s older sister, as she meets Hamilton for the first time. This track is “Helpless” revisited from a different viewpoint, but it begins with Angelica’s toast to Alexander and Eliza at their wedding. As she raises her glass, Angelica finds herself thinking back to the night she met Alexander. The whole set then “rewinds” to that night, and the listener learns that Angelica met Alexander before Eliza at the Winter Ball, where she was faced with “three fundamental truths” that ultimately resulted in her essentially giving Alexander to her younger sister, whom she then introduced to him. Much of the same dialogue from the ball in “Helpless” is included. Super, super cool and Queen Latifah’s raps and Miguel’s warm verses make it even cooler.
“It’s Quiet Uptown” – Kelly Clarkson
Arguably the most depressing song in the show, “It’s Quiet Uptown” is Alexander and Eliza’s lamentation following Alexander’s affair and their son Phillip’s death. The song largely consists of expressions of grief, regret and apologies.
“If I could spare his life, if I could trade his life for mine, he’d be standing here right now – and you would smile, and that would be enough,” Alexander sings to his wife.
This track is particularly affective because it samples earlier tracks like “That Would Be Enough,” earlier songs from Eliza’s point of view that were chiefly concerned with her love for Hamilton that he now regurgitates in shame and remorse. And of course, Kelly Clarkson’s soulful vocals provide exactly the power and emotion necessary to really drive the message home.
Immigrants – K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC & Residente
This one is an original track released just days after Trump’s election. It’s chock full of haunting references to regrettable historical events like the Atlantic Slave Trade: “I was brave sailing on graves; don’t think I didn’t notice these tombstones disguised as waves” and features a Spanish verse from “Snow the Product.” K’naan, Riz MC and Residente are also on the track, and each holds their weight as they loudly proclaim the song’s refrain: “Immigrants, we get the job done.” Also, there are some pretty clever and hilarious lines. My favorite: “Peter Piper claimed he picked them, he just underpaid Pablo.”