The first musical soundtrack I ever heard was for A Chorus Line, at age seven or eight, long before I even knew what Broadway was, or meant. My mom had the original cast recording, from 1975, and apparently I spent enough time unsupervised to have nabbed it from her cassette collection, because that shit was dirty, but I listened to it constantly.
In particular, I loved Diana Morales’s solo “Nothing,” which was essentially a knock on her high school acting teacher, who negated her one too many times with acute racial undertones. “Carp kept saying, Morales, I think you should transfer to Girl’s High,” went a spoken part of the monologue. “‘You’ll never be an actress, never.’” Jesus Christ!” She prayed to Santa Maria, something I understood, but based on the soundtrack I couldn’t glean where the song fit in the context of the play or, really, what the play was about at all. (I just knew the lyrics were excellent for interpretive dancing, because I was a very small dork.) When I finally saw A Chorus Line, the movie, it all fell into place and made the music much, much better because hey what do you know, there was an actual plot!
The original cast recording for Hamilton, the musical that in the ‘70s they may have called a “Broadway sensation,” is out next week and currently streaming on NPR. Unlike many Broadway soundtracks, it is feasible to listen to Hamilton’s soundtrack and absorb the majority of its plot, because Hamilton, as a hip-hop musical, is exceptionally verbal—barely any of its lines are delivered outside the context of a rap, whether scored or a cappella. The big question here, though, is: should you?
Hamilton is officially sold out until 2016, owing to its brilliance and not hurt by its star power. (The Obama family, for instance, saw it before it even hit Broadway’s Richard Rodgers, at the comparatively small Public Theatre downtown.) That means those of you who have had to suffer through endlessly gushing reviews and your friends’ protestations that NO REALLY, THIS HIP-HOP MUSICAL ABOUT ALEXANDER HAMILTON IS ACTUALLY AMAZING (sorry) now have the dilemma of waiting until later next year when the tickets aren’t a trillion dollars on Stubhub, or spoiling it for yourself by jamming to the soundtrack right now.
I’ve seen it twice and I’ve become a proselytizer to the point of, I know, being intensely annoying; it has inspired me to both read the Ron Chernow tome on which it is based and also visit Hamilton’s grave at Trinity Church, marveling at the new and ponderous sense of history I feel whenever I go down to Wall or Chambers. Yes, Hamilton has made me feel great about the fucking Financial District. Each and every one of you should see it, particularly if you are an immigrant or come from an immigrant family, and particularly if you like rap music and/or are a person of color. That said: I don’t think you should listen to Hamilton, the soundtrack, until you’ve seen the musical.
I was on the fence about it until this tweet was brought to my attention:
I don’t know who this Jay Caspian Kang guy is (just kidding, I totally do, but he is now dead to me), but IF Hamilton sounds like “old Macklemore” it is because it is rooted in the tradition of backpacker hip-hop; Hamilton sounds like “old Macklemore” in the same way that, say, Talib Kweli sounds like old Macklemore. I understand the impulse to feel as though putting hip-hop qua hip-hop on a stage so usually white and sterile as the Broadway stage is likely inherently corny. But this invocation is the opposite: creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, a brilliant motherfucker if there ever was one, actually made Broadway earn hip-hop, putting out a work so rich and evocative with rap history as well as the language of musicals that the establishment was forced to climb up to our level.
So while I’m tempted to tell you to revel in the feminist allusions of the R&B trio “The Schyuler Sisters,” or to the DMX-meets-jouvert war cry on “Right Hand Man,” or “Say No to This” just for the chilling, low vibrations of Jasmine Cephas Jones’s bananas alto—you gotta not do it. Unless you do not live in New York and/or have no prospects for seeing this musical but absolutely need to engage in this important cultural discussion (you do), don’t spoil it for yourself, don’t try to Cliff Notes the experience before you can absorb the full, mesmerizing spectrum. And if you do, do not tweet basic shit about how it sounds like Macklemore because then I will have to kill you.
If you need a taste, absolutely need a taste, though, here’s one song that, I think, is stand-alone enough outside the narrative that it contains no real spoilers, and is also so rich that I’ve listened to it several times today. It’s called “Wait For It,” and in the play it’s a post-Gyptian meditation by Aaron Burr, played by the very talented Leslie Odom Jr., who I have vehement confidence is a shoo-in for the Tony. (He also sounds great on his solo album.)
“I’M WILLING TO WAIT FOR IT! I’M WILLING TO WAIT FOR IT!” SO SHOULD YOU!
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Image via Getty. L-R: Leslie Odom Jr (Aaron Burr); Phillipa Soo (Eliza Schuyler); Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton); Christopher Jackson (George Washington); Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Philip Schuyler)