January 20

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The Hamilton Libretto

I’ve had some time over the festive break to really dig into the Hamilton libretto, and it’s a wonderful piece of work, easy to recommend on many levels.

Physically it’s a beautiful book. It would be a magazine if it didn’t weigh over a kilogram. It has full page photographs under lyric text, with marginalia by the original writer. I particularly love that it has feather cut pages. It’s not convincingly antique, but the clash between the old sensibility and the newer techniques of manufacture suit what the cast is trying to do (a play about the old America, told by the modern America).

If you aren’t into musicals, this book gives you other entry points into Hamilton, by interviews with the cast. It talks about costume design, set creation, choreography, racism in modern media, sexism in Western history, and spirals out from there. This lets you hook into one facet of the performance, and warm to the others from that entry point.

If you like poetry, or hip hop, or American history, then you’re right in the sights of this as core audience. Lin-Manuel Miranda talks a great deal about how he evolved his lyrics, his process for developing the flow of the complete work, and where he’s sampled from as homages. Even if you’re into these sorts of things, it can be helpful to have someone tell you where the Easter eggs are.  Literature is connected, and to enjoy the process of travelling through it, you can start anywhere, but it helps to have a piece of work that’s connected to a broader historical tradition, and a roadmap, and I was surprised at how well this book served as each.

 

Obviously, if you enjoy the musical, you’ll love this, because it has a look behind the scenes at the process of writing and staging the show. More broadly if you love musicals, it is a counter-movement to the juke-box musical, and special effects laden staging.

Lyrically, it’s relentlessly clever, and if you are a fan of musicals, you’ll see the high wire act a little better than people who aren’t. Hamilton doesn’t do scene-song-scene-song, which ups the pressure on the writer substantially, because exposition needs to be moved into the songs. The two biggest numbers are given to the villain, not the hero, and they are about the most superficially-unlikely of subjects: self-restraint to the point of inaction, and federal debt reform. Oddly, you will love them regardless. The most difficult piece, lyrically, is given to one of the female performers, and the final emotional punch, where all of the pieces click together, is handled to another female performer. (…and for the serious musical fans, some good news: Phillipa Soo is the lead in this year’s musical adaptation of Amelie.)

Hamilton : The revolution : 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 is available from City Libraries, and it’s very easy to recommend to a broad audience.