Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Hamilton soundtrack

I hoped I'd love it. Lin-Manuel Miranda is talented, and his fusion of hip-hop with Broadway is ingenious.

The trouble with Hamilton, as with most vocal music, lies in the lyrics. Here's the start to the opening number, "Alexander Hamilton" (any errors in transcription mine), with some comments.

    How does a bastard, orphan
    Son of a whore and a Scotsman
    Dropped in the middle of a forgotten
    Spot in the Caribbean by Providence

Terrific beginning (really). Then downhill.

    Impoverished, in squalor

"Impoverished" is implied by "in squalor"; one should've been cut or replaced. But "Impoverished" is a partial rhyme with "Providence," and "squalor" rhymes with soon-to-come "dollar," and Miranda tends to sacrifice precision for sound. (A good lyricist would achieve both.)

    Grow up to be a hero and a scholar
    The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
    Got a lot farther
    By working a lot harder
    By being a lot smarter

Farther, harder, smarter. Than someone else? Than he used to be? This is empty rhyming.

    By being a self-starter

Born illegitimate, raised "in squalor," and orphaned, he "work[s] a lot harder" and becomes "a hero and a scholar"; in other words, he's a self-starter. This phrase tells us nothing we didn't know. It's there for the rhyme.

    By fourteen, they placed him

Who are "they"?

    In charge of a trading charter
    And every day while slaves
    Were being slaughtered and carted away
    Across the waves

Maybe I've placed the line breaks wrong, but as sung this passage suggests that slaves were killed and then carried across the ocean, which makes no sense. Also, given that only live slaves brought profit, why were some killed? The show never explains.

    He struggled and kept his guard up

More empty rhyming, plus a cliche ("kept his guard up").

    Inside he was longing for something to be a part of

"Inside." Where else does one long?

    The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow or barter

More empty rhyming, with a cliche ("beg, borrow or steal") slightly rearranged.

    Then a hurricane came and devastation reigned
    Our man saw his future drip-dripping down the drain

Worst cliche yet ("down the drain").

    Put a pencil to his temple
    Connected it to his brain

Absurd image, and another empty rhyme.

You get the point. And that's just the start of the first song. I could go on (and on), but I'm bored.

Each flaw makes Hamilton the man less remarkable. If he and the people praising him aren't eloquent or witty, then how special can he be?

Whatever good moments the show contains, its core, the lyrics, are fatally weak. Overall they might have been written by a brilliantly precocious high-school student.

I post with two motives.

The theater community's ecstasy over Hamilton must dismay other listeners as it does me. I want to reassure those others that they aren't alone.

Composers with integrity must feel tempted to despair when flashy, flimsy work earns raves and awards. I want them to keep striving. We need good —genuinely good—shows.

Originally I ended this post, "I look forward to hearing whatever Lin-Manuel Miranda does next." But at the moment, given Miranda's ecstasy at Obama's commutation of terrorist Oscar Lopez Rivera's sentence, I'd be fine never hearing from him again.

(Revised more than once since first published.)