I Have an Opinion on Every Song in "Hamilton"

Operetta diehards may consider it blasphemous that I parse, analyze and review the tracks of the "Hamilton" Broadway cast album individually, rather than as a whole.
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Operetta diehards may consider it blasphemous that I parse, analyze and review the tracks of the "Hamilton" Broadway cast album individually, rather than as a whole. It's an integrated and interconnected constellation of music and lyrics, but consider: which founding father was famous for picking apart documents and adding pages of commentary? Alexander Hamilton. Consider this my Federalist Papers to the album's Constitution, an early entry in what will certainly be a centuries-long series of critiques and opinions on a foundational text.

Disc One:

1. Alexander Hamilton
Before you listen to this, Google "Hamilton White House Rap 2009" and watch the first video. This song is a prime example of what musicals are faulted for: sung exposition. It sets up character and conflict, and teases musical and lyrical motifs to come. It also covers two decades in under four minutes. What elevates this opening above others of its ilk is the wordplay ("New York"/"new man") and self-awareness ("waiting in the wings for you"). It acknowledges that this is a time, a man, and a story that the audience is already familiar with. Unless this spoiled the Hamilton-Burr duel for you, in which case, may I interest you in a first-class ticket aboard the RMS Titanic?

2. Aaron Burr, Sir
It could be argued that the most important relationship in "Hamilton" is with Burr, the charming yin to Alexander's fiery yang. Both orphans, they teach each other, enrage each other, better each other, before finally destroying each other. They are two possible answers to a central question: how will America be? Brash? Patient? Strong? Slow? There are a million things he hasn't done comparisons that could be made here to, say, Clinton and Sanders, or Beyoncé and Nicki. But let's not go there. Instead, let's notice that Hamilton tells Burr he is "at your service, sir." That'll come back. Also coming back is "what will you fall for," and "talk less, smile more."

This track introduces us to Laurens, Lafayette and Mulligan, aka #squadgoals. Shoutout to anyone who has ridden the NYC subway and knows what "showtime!" really means.

3. My Shot
In another show, "My Shot" would replace "Alexander Hamilton" as the opening number, setting up what the protagonist wants before introducing the antagonist. Instead,"Aaron Burr, Sir" and "The World Was Wide Enough" form Burr-centric bookends to the central plot, while "Alexander Hamilton" and "Who Lives, Who Dies" tell the story of before and after Burr was in Hamilton's life.

The title of "My Shot" refers, perhaps ironically, to the one pistol shot we see Alexander take. This is the track where the death motif ("like a memory/when's it gonna get me?") and the "rise up" theme begin. There's a fair amount of character introduction and exposition here, but mostly it shows off Miranda's abilities as as a rapper. What he lacks in technical singing ability he more than compensates for in passionate performance.

4. The Story of Tonight
This is the "Drink With Me" of "Hamilton" (we're young, we're students, it's the end of the eighteenth century and we're drinking before we die in a revolution against our monarch). A pretty melody emphasizes the characters' naïveté; they are consumed with thoughts of glory and assume freedom can never be taken away. But enough about 2016.

5. The Schuyler Sisters
Everyone knows plots actually start when the girls show up. If you're thinking this song makes Burr seem like charming f*ckboi, you are correct. If you're thinking this song makes Peggy seem boring and like she won't matter for the rest of the show, you are correct. If you're thinking that Angelica is a smart badass who deserves her revelation and to talk smack to Jefferson, again, correct! "Work, work" gets stuck in your head after just one listen, and is there anything more relatable than Angelica wanting a man she can have an actual conversation with?

I personally found the "greatest city in the world" stuff a little pandering, but I'm not a Schuyler. Remember "how lucky we are to be alive right now" and "nothing like summer in the city".

6. Farmer Refuted
You know the scene in the beginning of "Legally Blonde" where Elle is shopping and the salesgirl tries to rip her off, so Elle leads her into a logic trap foreshadows her abilities as a lawyer? This is that scene. If you have something to say, say it quick, because Alexander Hamilton is better and smarter than you and he will rip your argument apart and make you look stupid. And throw shade at Jersey.

7. You'll Be Back
If someone absolutely HAD to make cuts to the three-hour running time of "Hamilton," King George III would probably be the first to go. He doesn't even talk to any of the other characters. Why is he there? Because!

Most of us in the U.S. of A grew up thinking of the revolution as inevitable. We know we beat the redcoats because, look, here we are in the country. And there are lots of democracies around the world to reinforce the idea that it's a workable government. But George reminds the audience that at the time, this idea was...revolutionary. Not democracy, of course (thanks, Greeks!), but independence for colonies? Consent of the governed? Not having a king? People thought the patriots were going to fail, and we have to remember the enormous pressure the founding fathers were under to put the story in context. Thankfully, it's funny context, and Jonathan Groff is a human ice cream cone.

Note that this is one of the most "traditional musical theatre" numbers in the show, sung by the only caucasian main character. He represents the Old Ways; Hamilton & Co represent the New.

8. Right Hand Man
Having met King George, we bow meet General George (Washington), who tells us he will let his guard down and talk to the audience from the pedestal the other patriots have him on. Kind of. Washington never emerges as as a flawed character. Instead, we see him as his men saw him: wise and aloof. He picks Hamilton over Burr and Burr holds this against Hamilton for...ever?

The "rise up," "Burr, sir" and "throwing away my shot" motifs reappear, along with some chanting about guns, but other than that it's more of a rhyming-on-beat track than an actual song.

9. A Winter's Ball
"A Winter's Ball," "Helpless" and "Satisfied" are essentially one long piece, but I am beholden to the track list. The opening beat reminds us of Hamilton's station in life before the song turns utterly delightful in its discussion of "the lay-deez!" It's so smooth, I don't even mind the use "deflower," an objectively gross word.

10. Helpless
Alexander's got Eliza trippin', stumblin', flippin', fumblin'... "Helpless" is equal parts Cole Porter and Ja Rule, a sweet Pop/R&B tune that manages to combine banter, storytelling, and Alexander mentioning again how smart he is. Phillipa Soo (literal angel) makes Eliza innocent, but not cloyingly so. An ingenue I can get behind. She knows her love is true after reading her beau's letters, not because she feels drawn attracted to him in the moonlight, as people in musicals often do.

If anyone is listening to the recording who hasn't seen the show and wonders which sister she is referring to (the one who is, um, especially interested in Alexander), it's Angelica. Peggy doesn't matter. Sorry, Peggy.

11. Satisfied
Renee Elise Goldsberry slays the tongue-twister lyrics ("If I tell her that I love him/ she'd be silently resigned/ he'd be mine/ she would say I'm fine/ she'd be lying"), even invoking Ben Franklin to explain electricity. Angelica's found her "mind at work," but now she has to give it away. This song shows her and Alexander's similarities on a number of levels (logical reasoning, sense of duty), but what strikes me hardest is how their upbringings have shaped them and made them different. Angelica, beloved member of a tight-knit family, puts her sister before herself. Alexander, an orphan, loves Eliza as much as Angelica does, but he won't prioritize her needs over his for years, because he was never taught how to be a family man. It's heartbreaking all around.

12. The Story of Tonight (Reprise)
This is all about how Hamilton and Burr inspire each other. Each wants what the other has (a marriage/a command post). Each gives the other a well-meaning, and necessary, piece of advice (enjoy your life with a smile/go for what you want). Though we never meet Burr's "girl on the side," she's a reminder that he, too, is a man with a family, a past, a story. Burr isn't just the guy who pulls the trigger.

13. Wait For It
Holy smokes, Leslie Odom Jr. can sing. He's restrained and understated until the key change, when he lets loose the passion that Burr keeps well hidden. This song has perhaps the most profound lyrics of the entire libretto: "love doesn't discriminate/ between the sinners and the saints/ it takes and it takes and it takes/ death doesn't discriminate..." Burr's explanation of his family legacy goes far beyond the villain-has-a-sad-backstory trope. It complicates everything that comes after because we find ourselves rooting for him.

14. Stay Alive
I find the war less interesting than the political maneuvering we're going to see after intermission, so this doesn't do much for me. There's nice rhyming and pretty female backing vocals. It's a necessary track because we need to set up the first duel, but the best reasons to listen to "Stay Alive" are to hear Hamilton say "chicka-blow," (his version of an explosion sound?) and General Lee say "wheeeeeee," because that never gets old.

15. Ten Duel Commandments
A club-worthy jam with a vital purpose: make us comfortable with duels. To the modern mind, it's ridiculous that grown men willingly stand still and shoot at one another to settle a disagreement, but the 10 Commandments (religious implications!) explain how duels were an orderly, socially acceptable practice. Duels aren't what men did instead of talking it out; they were what happened when men had already tried talking it out. This isn't the duel we care about. But coming up, we are going to see some beloved characters pick up pistols, and the audience has to be on board with the idea that the duel has to happen.

16. Meet Me Inside
Here we are: my least favorite song. As a scene, a piece of dialogue, "Meet Me Inside" is incredible. The way Hamilton toes the line of insubordination with Washington, the way Washington dismisses him without much explanation (Eliza will explain), and of course, the "son" conversation are tense, intense, riveting. But the sung part bugs me. "Meet him inside/ meet him/ meet him inside" is not a good lyric. It's an entire cast repeating, essentially, "go in the other room." Eh.

17. That Would Be Enough
The return of the "lucky to be alive" refrain, plus Eliza is pregnant and wanted her husband back, plus Alexander still feels poor and inadequate? The feelings. Another prime example of Miranda acting his way through a song, letting Soo provide the singing, and it works beautifully. This is where Eliza starts her "legacy" shtick, and it's a little confusing. Basically, she's asking to be a part of Alexander's life story, and also asking him to come home. She says that him staying will be the first chapter...but why would anyone write a book about a guy who stayed home?

Thing is, she isn't being literal. The talk of narrative works much better when we interpret it more loosely. Eliza is telling Alexander that there is as much story, as much legacy, as much pride and honor and heroism, in being a good husband and father as there is in being a founding father. In a sea of intellectual men, Eliza is the emotionally intelligent North Star.

That said, she seems darn confident that she "who she married." Huh. Huh. I wonder if maybe there will be some sort of twist involving betrayal at some point?

18. Guns and Ships
Alternate title: "Guns And Ships And My Crush On Lafayette".

19. History Has Its Eyes On You
A glimmer of Washington's inner struggle! His is the line, "who lives/ who dies/ who tells your story," and his story is, perhaps, the most-often-told of all the founding fathers'. Here, he invites Hamilton into that story, and this track is about building the barricade getting ready for a historical moment. The orchestrations underscore the growing momentum.

20. Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)
This is a rollicking remix of "My Shot" with a hint of Eminem's "Lose Yourself," and, if I'm not mistaken, rock cello, or maybe violin? More of the battling, exposition-ing and wordplay we all love, and your (new) new crush: Hercules Mulligan the badass spy.

In another (lesser) musical, "Yorktown" would be the act break, and we'd go into intermission knowing that the British were defeated and wondering what fate had in store next for our young hero. But the conflict of "Hamilton" was never the patriots versus the crown. In the next songs we meet Alexander 2.0, a member of the new political establishment with more to prove and more to do. Only once we know the new stakes in the battle for Hamilton's mind, not his country, can we go anxiously into the next act.

21. What Comes Next?
But first, let's check in with King George. He's hilariously stubborn, not only insisting that America will eventually miss him (ha, what's up, England?), but also on repeating the same tune as before. He's the king, dammit, and this is his tune that he sings to.

Come to think of it, this song is actually a tidy encapsulation of the overarching struggle the founders face going forward. Their (awesome! wow!) victory is far from an assurance of success, and the rest of the world is...not totally sold on the idea that this country is going to work. I take back what I said before; this character is necessary.

22. Dear Theodosia
And what of Burr and Hamilton? They have babies! Notice how both men named their children after a member of their family. Notice "blow us all away," that'll come up again. Notice how Burr and Hamilton are two sides of the same fatherly coin. Now go call your parents. If John Legend covered this heartbreaker, I'm sure it would hit top ten.

23. Non-Stop
This song wins Most Likely To Create Stress-Induced Productivity among ambitious listeners. After graduating college, Hamilton became a lawyer and helped shape what would become the most powerful country on Earth. Other writers, like, say, myself, are currently working on a blog post that nobody asked her to write and for which she will not be paid. Sorry, off-topic.

"Non-Stop" excellent. Without the British as a common enemy, Hamilton and Burr are nemeses even as they are coworkers, but it's not only Burr with whom Hamilton has friction. He gets testy with Washington ("treasury or state") and peaces out on Eliza. Despite his love for Philip, his career is as important to him as ever. Listen to how excited he is for the Constitutional Convention. We revisit all of the major lines and themes from the previous songs as the music swings from melodic piano to synth to record-scratch to a samba-reggae funkiness to an inspiring crescendo.

P.S. Bye Felicia Angelica, have fun in London even though we literally just broke up with England.

Disc/Act Two:

1. What'd I Miss
"You ready for more yet?" The most stylish character entrance since Galinda floated in on a bubble. Jefferson is here to match wits with Hamilton and, unlike Burr, he's got original ideas and political clout. And he wrote that thing, what was it? *Nic Cage voice* The Declaration of Independence. Jefferson drips almost enough swagger to make us forget he owned people. He asks Sally to "be a lamb" and open his letter. Tom, Sally is your slave. But the song is jazzy and I'm into it.

2. Cabinet Battle #1
The origins of partisan conflict in America! This is a sick track about slavery and debt and reminds me a little bit of "The West Wing." I'll just leave a lyric here: "so we let Congress get held hostage by the South?"

3. Take a Break
As if writing a romantic letter to your wife's sister while she teaches your son the piano in the other room isn't enough, why not mention "Macbeth" a bunch of times and see if that doesn't come back to haunt you? Hamilton, you curse yourself. And if quoting Shakespeare in said letter isn't too nerdy yet, let's get mushy over a comma.

This is a decent song. The worst part is when they sing each others' names as a greeting. The best part is wen they throw shade at John Adams.

If you haven't seen the show, you might not know the cutest detail: it's supposed to be Eliza beat-boxing for Philip.

4. Say No To This
Remember when we last heard about sexytimes during summer in the city? Alexander, why didn't you go upstate with the beautiful Schuylers, both of whom want to get with you? This is classic dude logic: I was crazy tired, so I had to cheat on my wife. But one does feel for mistreated Maria, and Jasmine Cephas-Jones somehow sounds like a colonial sex kitten, if that's a thing.

5. The Room Where It Happens
Talk of legacy, how dying is easy. This slick song is just Fosse enough, chronicling Hamilton's continuing descent into sneakiness. Yet another reminder that American politicians have always, always made secret deals. And yet another number that makes us root for Aaron Burr.

6. Schuyler Defeated
Resurrects the melody of "The Schuyler Sisters," but now the Schuyler's are on the outs. This is about how men react to loss. With grace? With anger? In Alexander's case, with a little saltiness. Burr only did what Hamilton was always advising him to do: go after what he wants. Turns out, Hamilton is less supportive when Burr's goals act against Hamilton's interests.

7. Cabinet Battle #2
Aw yiss. Here for the cabinet battles. Please appreciate Madison's greatest contribution to the show ("France"), Jefferson's charisma, and Hamilton's impression of King Louis' dead head. The genius of this song (besides the rhyme structure) is that both men make solid points. We should fight for freedom. We can't help every country. Lafayette is in France. Lafayette is fine. Washington ages with Hamilton. Washington always agrees with Hamilton.

8. Washington On Your Side
Washington always agrees with Hamilton!, grumble the other members of the cabinet. Washington and Hamilton form a "side," solidifying partisan conflict, making American see each other as enemies. The lyrics here are packed with clever alliteration (fracture, faction, fraction) and references (Newton, folktales) and an allusion to, well, shooting Hamilton. With information, but we know where it's headed.

9. One Last Time
Before you listen to this, Google "Washington Farewell Address" and read the first page that comes up. Hamilton was a damn good writer.

Washington tells Hamilton, hey, sometimes it's good to give up power and go home and be with your family. And Hamilton is like what why would anyone do that. Another reminder that he is too ambitious for his own good. What stands out here, musically, is Chris Jackson's vocals (impressive) and the fact that the drums sound kind of Garageband-y (less impressive).

10. I Know Him
Another bookend. Having said goodbye to President George, we now bid adieu to King George, back with his favorite tune and his ever-confused-about-democratic-republics disposition. Do I still wish Brian d'Arcy James hadn't left the production to star in "Something Rotten!" so I could hear him on the recording? Yes I do. Am I nonetheless delighted by Groff's interpretation of the character? Yes I am.

11. The Adams Administration
Plot stuff. The coast guard. Writing mean letters in the paper, the old-timey version of trolling.

12. We Know
When the cast starts snapping, you know something is about to go down. While most of "Hamilton" points out the ways that the political climate of now is not terribly different from then (bickering, maneuvering, mud-slinging), this song is about men who find out a member of their opposition party is involved in a sex scandal but decide that, because he didn't actually break any laws, they won't necessarily say anything. Can you imagine if, today, we asked only that our leaders follow the law, rather than imposing our own morality onto their private lives? But Hamilton knows that papers are always hungry for a scandal, which leads us to...

13. Hurricane
Miranda writes for his vocal range and abilities to near perfection, talk-rap-singing his way out of a corner and into my heart. Here we see Hamilton's need to control his circumstances and his future, perhaps to a fault. His next move is at once noble and rash, but after hearing the hurricane story, at least we understand why.

14. The Reynolds Pamphlet
The mash-up, with a dash of auto-tune, of previous tunes works well. But I find it a little ridiculous that Alexander would think that Angelica showed up to support him. Bruh, you cheated on her sister and told the entire country about it.

15. Burn
Chills. Drama teachers, get ready for this to be a hundred girls' audition song. Those minor chords, Soo's voice, I can't. The confusing bit about being "in the narrative" is back, this time with some rather on-the-nose talk of what future historians will think. I get it, we're being meta. Much more effective than Eliza's desire to keep her reaction away from people of the future is her desire to hide from people of the present. No one gets to hear my side, she says, I've done quite enough for you already, now go sleep in your office.

It's telling that Eliza refers again and again to Angelica's view on the crisis. This marriage was never just the two of them.

16. Blow Us All Away
Young men gonna be young. Hamilton steps right into his father's shoes, graduating from King's College and blowing everyone away with his wit...and love of the ladies. More shade is thrown at Jersey in this snappy number that is way too fun for the tsunami of heartache that's about to wash over the next two songs.

17. Stay Alive (Reprise)
A little fall of rain Philip Hamilton, we barely knew ye. Miranda lets a tender moment of mother and son counting in French speak for all of the pain, panic and heartbreak of this scene. And if you'd like another historical fact (again, from Wikipedia) to add to how awful this is, the Hamiltons' last child was born not too long after Philip's death. A boy they named Philip.

18. It's Quiet Uptown
This is the saddest song in the whole show, and it used to be my least favorite, but now it's my favorite, so let me explain.

When I first heard this song, I thought it was inexcusably lazy lyric writing. We are told, often, that the Hamiltons' pain is "unimaginable," but isn't it the job of a writer to imagine? Isn't that what theater is, imaginary struggle made manifest? The phrases "working through" and "going through" and "trying to do," which are repeatedly paired with that word, "unimaginable," may rhyme, but they are completely non-specific. This is one of the "moments that the words don't reach," it's something "too terrible to name," but all I wanted was for Miranda to reach it, to name it, instead of copping out with vague language. The song asks, "can you imagine?" and I wondered if Miranda was asking us to imagine it instead of doing it himself. Overdramatic schmaltz, I said, and put this song aside.

I. Was. Wrong.

I had overlooked the essence of Hamilton's character. He's a writer. Words are his fiercest weapons, his stock-and-trade, the source of his power. It's not Miranda who can't put the sadness into language, it's Hamilton; that's how depressed he is. Our guide, our word-playing, rhyming, subtle, subtextual, double-meaning beacon of logic and reason is utterly unable to comprehend the death of his son, rendered speechless. By telling us that he can't tell us about it, Miranda shows us Hamilton's despair. Brilliant.

Furthermore, the choice of "unimaginable" is no accident. Because the death of a child is, actually, quite imaginable. Young people died before their parents all the time in those days. Alexander knew Philip was going to a duel. But Hamilton, who often imagined his own death, who had seen his friends pass on the battlefield, who was obsessed with imagining every possible scenario and outcome so he could control his future ("Hurricane"), never imagined losing his son, of all things.

This song will break your heart with its callbacks to "Dear Theodosia," "That Would Be Enough" and the moment when Alexander's voice breaks as he begs Eliza to let him stay with her. They move uptown and he finally puts her first.

19. The Election Of 1800
"Can we get back to politics?" asks Jefferson, and I am torn. On the one hand, after the death of Philip, I'm ready to wrap this biz up, since nothing will come close to the emotional investment of that moment. But on the other, Hamilton gets to pick a president, which is pretty cool. Hamilton pushes the grudge-holding Burr past the tipping point in this clever bit of sung story that features the reappearance of "on your side," "talk less/ smile more," "Burr, sir" and "quiet uptown." Don't overlook that "grab a beer" line, there's commentary there.

20. Your Obedient Servant
No musical would be complete without ideologically opposed frenemies battling in duet ("The Confrontation," "What Is This Feeling," "I Have A Love," "Take Me Or Leave Me," etc). The "at your service" line comes back ironically in this cheeky number where they decide, for the last time, to do what all men with honor must eventually do: go to New Jersey.

21. Best of Wives and Best of Women
The shortest track on the album, and I only want it to last longer, which I suppose is a pretty good encapsulation of the song. The title is a reference to a line in the letter he's writing, the last letter he ever writes her. On the Fourth of July, no less (Google "From Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, 4 July 1804").

22. The World Was Wide Enough
The duel itself is as dramatic as can be hoped for with a foregone conclusion. Hamilton aims for the sky like his son did, in the spot where his son did. Burr wants to stay alive for his daughter, and can you blame him? The poignant rumination on death and legacy are made even sadder because we can't tell Burr, it's okay, man. Centuries after your death, this guy writes a musical and makes you not the villain. He makes you complex and real.

23. Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
Echoing Washington, the remaining characters come together to recap Hamilton's legacy. This song belongs to Eliza, who is "back in the narrative" to tell the audience the story of how she told Alexander's story and founded an orphanage (that still exists).

The show ends with a bang, then a whimper, then a harmony. A political comedy, a historical drama, a romance, a tragedy, "Hamilton" is much more than "that sold-out hip-hop musical." It's a new frontier in American theater. And it's catchy as hell.

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