Work, Work: Repetition and Circular Songwriting in “Hamilton”

Look at where you are. Look at where you started.

Most songs, whether on the radio, on stage, on film, follow the basic “Verse-Chorus” structure. If the Chorus is the “thesis,” or point of the piece, the Verse is the “body paragraph,” providing specifics, examples, additional color to flesh out the key message of the Chorus.

The music of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton shatters this convention. Its score can be described as less like a traditional book musical, and more like an opera, set to a hip-hop, R&B, and pop score. A few numbers fit within traditional song templates (there are nearly 50 songs), while the bulk of it is more on the operatic side, with musical moments and ideas presented, then swirling to another phrase, then back again.

Hamilton is almost the anti-musical, presenting what I consider “circular” songs: presenting one single instance, frozen in time and/or inviting us in media res, flooding us with context, then snapping back to the present. They have elements of the traditional “Verse-Chorus” template, but have a unique structure all to their own.

One example of this is the terrific introduction to The Schuyler Sisters. Three high-class ladies hit the New York scene, introducing themselves by name: “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy: the Schuyler Sisters.” Led by Angelica, the trio rebuffs men’s romantic advances for more intellectual pursuits: discussing Thomas Payne’s Common Sense, politics, and gender equality. They all agree that “History is happening in Manhattan, and [they] just happen to be in the greatest city in the world.” The song expands, as a hearty ensemble joins them for another chorus before we lock back into the opening refrain: “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy: the Schuyler Sisters!”

Not only is this song immensely entertaining, but it leaves a considerable impression for essentially starting and ending at the same place – the opening “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy” introduction, rather than the song’s chorus. In the narrative proper for this show (excluding the opening number), literally the first words out of each sister’s mouth is her name – seemingly the basest level of introduction. The song turns out to be anything but, as we learn more about the different personalities, attitudes, and minds of these modern, well-rounded women. The reaffirmation at the song’s conclusion, their re-introduction, nails this home. They’re at the same place they were when the song started, but we’re not – three minutes later, we’ve been remarkably introduced to the Schuyler Sisters.

This songwriting in media res is even more profound for Angelica’s lead song Satisfied. She toasts the marriage of Eliza to Alexander Hamilton: “A toast to the groom, to the bride, from your sister who is always by your side. To your union and the hope that you provide, may you always be satisfied.” The number then literally “rewinds,” back to when Angelica first met Hamilton. She reflects (via rap) how quickly she judged him before passing him off to the instantly-smitten Eliza, regretting her choice now that the former has fallen for him herself. At the same time, however, she reminds herself that as the oldest sister, she has a responsibility to marry rich and look out for her sisters’ happiness. To have taken Hamilton for herself would have broken both 18th century codes.

The liquid piano line glides us back into the present, as she repeats her toast from the beginning – but now weighed down by the understanding and acceptance of her choice. Her tongue-twisting rap and rapid turn of phrase illustrates how quickly her mind works and all the thoughts and fears running through as she realizes, all in one instant, she will never be satisfied.

The traditional approach would have been each song concluding with the main Chorus, but instead, the songs wrap around back to their introductory phrases. The Schuyler Sisters and Satisfied are just two examples of how Hamilton turns the musical on its head, from classical “move-the-story-along” songs, to literally stopping the narrative action, working backwards to contextualize a key moment, then moving forward.

The effect of each song is less from a “message” driven home through a Chorus, and more in the reaffirmation of the opening phrase. To hinge a song on the repeating of a single phrase once, rather than multiple times (as a Chorus would have been), is an admirable exercise in restraint and creates an even greater musical impact. Hamilton is a remarkably rich score with terrific numbers, but these “circular” songs stand out among the best for their uniqueness and memorable power.

If/Then (2014)

The house lights dim, the orchestra plays a short instrumental prologue, then a blackout. “Hey, it’s me.” Spotlight on Idina Menzel as Elizabeth, above us on a catwalk, talking on her phone. She recounts a recent experience which brought back an earlier memory, and she speculates how things might have turned out if she’d made a different choice. Spotlight fades on her, as the warm light of Central Park swells below her, rich with people, movement, and color.

The Broadway masterpiece If/Then is filled with these moments of tiny intimacy, before shifting to bigger, more ambitious scenes. For a musical that covers so much ground, it never feels forced or unrealistic. Each of these characters, or vignettes, may stand alone, but their part in the aggregate context of greater New York and to each other shines through these moments.

Its ambitious story structure is one based on this initial choice – Elizabeth decides whether to stay in the park to listen to a guitar player, or to go with her friend to a protest. The narrative splits in two, with lighting cues to inform which story we are in (a pink-orange backdrop for much of the former story, blue for the latter). Even beyond lighting cues though, the story is reinforced through repetition; several scenes take place twice, each one resulting with different action and therefore different outcome.

The real brilliance of this show comes from its ability to take individualized events and shaping them into this aggregate. Almost every song of the gorgeous score, of mostly 3-5 minute rock/pop songs, is stretched out onstage to fit within various contexts, often between both stories. This choice not only illustrates the strength of these characters staying true to one idea, in any context, but also speaks to a broader emotional nature of the show. The more introspective, less action-driven songs, like the comical “What the F***?” and “You Learn to Live Without” may not sweep the story across, but seeing Menzel’s character go through the same emotional journey, regardless of the choices she makes, is a greater statement on the human experience and the pain and joy everyone endures.

Choice and destiny are two very prominent, overlapping but not conflicting, themes throughout this work. Elizabeth, of course, kicks off the story with her initial choice in the park, followed by the series of choices resulting from those two realities. A nice companion to this comes from her husband (in one life) Jason, who runs into Liz once, then cancels a trip back home to Nebraska, for the chance he may see her again – making a choice to opt for destiny.

Much of the musical’s profound beauty stems from this concept, of how fate overrides any choices we make. Without giving too much away, the very last scene is immensely satisfying through its implications that certain people are meant to be and will inevitably find their way into our lives.

This inspiring notion, paired with the brilliant flashes of human tragedy and pure joy, make If/Then one of my favorite musicals. The entire piece is bursting with passion and truth, and is truly an experience to be beheld.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (2014)

The long-awaited American premiere of Disney’s musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame is nothing short of a masterpiece. This is not a transplant of the film onto the stage, nor a forced, drawn-out adaptation of its source material. Director Scott Schwartz’s vision is an undeniably artistic one, as daring as it is ambitious, rivaling even Les Miserables in its sheer power and emotional impact.

One key element to achieving this, of course, is through its incredible score. Alan Menken’s Academy Award-nominated music is given the full treatment it demands onstage, with knockout vocalists in the lead roles and a powerful, omnipresent choir lurking in the shadows. Their constant presence seamlessly sweeps the score between the gloomy realities of medieval Paris and the glorious beauty of humanity.

Another key to the profound impact of this show is its jaw-dropping set design, a sheer marvel in itself. Deceptively simple, a grid of balconies and ladders, the show comes to spectacular life as the bells of Notre Dame descend from the ceiling, in arguably the most powerful moment in the show as Quasimodo takes his place as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

How he takes on this role is a metafictional puzzle all on its own. The story is framed as a company of players, taking on these characters through clearly visible theatrical transformation. The show’s opening number ends with a handsome young man disfiguring his face with dark makeup and tying on an artificial hump, as he becomes Quasimodo; in reverse, the show is bookended with him removing the hump and cleaning his face.

These choices are not, of course, purely narrative but wholly artistic and intellectual ones. Schwartz’s direction is masterful in its constant, but always meaningful, decisions of action and gesture. As clustered and busy as the stage may appear, every element is clearly a premeditated and important one. In one moment, atop the bell tower, Quasimodo is gripping the hands of his gargoyle companions as he limps over to Esmeralda – not only a logistical, theatrical necessity, but of course also symbolic of his reliance and support from his closest companions.

The entire piece is rich with this depth of meaning; granted, with so much swirling around, it’s easy to miss a few things (I completely missed two key characters’ appearance in the climax). In a way, though, the constant motion and sensation of getting lost in it all only enhances the musical. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an epic tale of epic ambition, not only worthy of its source material but enriching it even further.

Company (2007)

The 2007 revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Company, and likely the original as well, is a show peppered with painful truths and emotional heartbreak, but filled mostly with caricature. The serious subject matter is unfortunately often reduced to cartoonish images of marriage, which bog down the true heart and ambition of this musical.

Company explores the lives of white upper-middle class New Yorkers and their relationship problems. The dialogue is typically blunt and up-front about this subject matter, which already sets the tone for an unrealistically ambitious musical; either Sondheim or book writer George Furth must view married people as constantly discussing their marriage, and how their lives are different relative to single people. This creates a very interesting commentary on contemporary romance, but also subverts who should be very real, three-dimensional people, into individuals who speak of themselves in the broad, sweeping strokes of marital status and love in the urban world.

The excellent score, with witty lyrics and uncharacteristically catchy music (by Sondheim’s standards), is broken down by clunky, unrealistic dialogue by Furth. There is a particular sequence towards the beginning, in which a playful ditty is broken up by a facepalm-worthy series of karate moves by one of the couples. The audience in the PBS recording ofCompany was roaring with laughter, so at least somebody liked it.

Granted, this is a show about unhappy New Yorkers meant for an audience of middle-class, likely married, and probably cynical New Yorkers. Maybe I’m just the wrong demo for a musical like this, but even as a young man I recognize there is more to marriage than the caricature it is reduced to throughout most of the show.

About halfway through, however, Company takes a sudden turn for the mature, with fantastic introspective songs such as “Marry Me a Little,” revealing the protagonist Bobby’s inability both to commit and to find someone that would even have him. This, in my opinion, is the real heart of this show, of striking the balance between wanting independence and just finding somebody who’s willing to have you. This sense of loneliness is what really hits home, for me at least, certainly more so than the bickering and unrelatable couples we deal with for most of the show.

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe Bobby starts out seeing his married friends as these cartoonish buffoons and he matures and sees that there is more to marriage than this ridiculous display (though that would be weirdly postmodern?). By the end of the show, Bobby and the quality of the script have both matured, hitting this emotionally tragic theme much stronger, such as in the excellent finale “Being Alive.”

My disappointment in Company is mostly from the fact that the show does hit these wonderful strong notes, and I wish this strength pervaded throughout the entire musical. It is certainly a very good play, but it only grazes the greatness that it could and should have achieved.

The Lion King (2012)

It’s amazing that even a huge spectacular, with a cast of dozens and lavishly expensive and profitable, can tell and effectively emote the most intimate human relationships.

The Lion King is the rock-solid beautiful (visually, artistically, musically) stage musical adaptation of the modern classic Disney film. Faithfully adapted from the script of the movie, the stage version is still consistently surprising and stunning to behold. From the very opening, with the baboon Rafiki represented as a female shaman, the audience is immersed into a new and exciting world, unlike anything that has ever been done on the Broadway stage.

Director Julie Taymour makes the brilliant decision to show the actor/puppeteers rather than hide them. Both the film and the musical are ultimately about us, and how we deal with loss, love, and living up to our responsibilities. The lions’ heads are placed on top of the actors’ heads, but by the end of the show you are no longer looking at the puppets – you are looking at the raw emotion portrayed by the human actors.

Another aspect I really appreciated, as a lifelong fan of the film, is how powerful and profound moments from the film were translated to stage. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Simba steps his small cub paw into the much larger pawprint of his father Mufasa. Rather than staging this specific POV shot, Taymour instead creates a heartbreakingly intimate moment, in which Mufasa takes off his mask/crown that he wears for the rest of the play. For this moment, he stops being a king and is just Simba’s father.

Subtleties like this make The Lion King so rewarding and engaging for the entirety of the performance. This was my second time seeing it, but I am already pinching my pennies to see it a third time while it is here in San Francisco. I am very happy to say this is a show that lives up to its hype.

War Horse (2012)

Nothing short of remarkable, War Horse is the deceptively simple tale of a young man and his horse who are torn apart by World War I. At its core, however, the play is a powerful reaffirmation of human compassion and peace.

The narrative focuses on individuals, whether they be simple farmers or seasoned military officers, while speaking on behalf of the entire world regardless of stature or race. The play opens with a simple, pastoral setting that turns cold and dark when World War I breaks out. Even in the bright moments that emerge from the darkness, there is still the weight of what has happened and the characters are never the same. The innocence of the pre-war era is lost forever. The difficult transition of childhood to adulthood rings true for Joey, his owner Albert, and all across Europe.

War Horse also provides many perspectives on World War I. In one of the funnier and more touching scenes, Irish and German soldiers see Joey caught in barbed wire; both camps send soldiers to go rescue him. The two soldiers, from rival sides, do so in peace and flip a coin to decide who gets to keep Joey. Both are cordial and amicable to one another for this entire transaction. Even in times of greatest despair, the human capacity for friendship and goodwill can still shine through.

The horses themselves are masterpieces all on their own. Particularly the adult Joey (the titular War Horse), who is so strong he can carry riders on his back, the mechanics and believability of the horse puppets are truly marvels to behold.

Fortunately, even with such amazing spectacle, the play exercises a strong restraint by not over-using them. The audience is given several moments of young Joey, alone on stage, to observe the jaw-droppingly realistic movements and subtleties of the horse puppetry, so by the time the human characters show up, the audience’s attention is no longer just on the horse.

This same restraint is what makes the final scene so exceptionally powerful. The reunion of Joey and Albert is a beautiful and emotionally satisfying moment, but the show is better weighted by Albert coming home to his mother. The play’s main character may be a horse, but the core message is one of pure humanity and compassion.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

The best original musical in years. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is an unbelievably energetic and poignant tragicomedy exploring the life of one of the United States’ most celebrated and hated, admired and demonized presidents, Andrew Jackson.

Part history book, part vaudeville, and a whole lot of minstrel show, the musical plays through Jackson’s life through retrospect (a loving Tea Party-type fawning over her hero), as it is happening (the discussion of then-political issues like tariffs, a national bank), and thrust into the contemporary political scene (“I promise you transparency and open collaboration”).

The entire show is wildly entertaining and often very funny, featuring the best original score this side of Next to Normal. What is so important about this show, however, is how unbelievably daring it is. It presents the life of one of the most contentious figures in American history with unblinking honesty, but without any resentment or regret. His actions, both good and bad, are presented to us and the audience is left to draw its own conclusions.

In the stirring closing ballad “Second Nature,” the singer explores the changes in America from Jackson’s presidency through now; are we better off by what Jackson did? How do we as a country grapple with our terrible past? Are these actions justifiable, given what we have today?

The show shows a very mature restraint; it does not exist to preach at us. No entertainment should. Rather, it forces us to explore ourselves and our history. Jackson faced that with the Native American population. His decisions on that issue are certainly controversial; but he did what he felt he had to given America’s history and the existing borders and political situation he was born into. He, and every individual, deserves at least that much credit.

Cabaret (2012)

Last Saturday I impulsively went to see the John Kander and Freb Ebb musical Cabaret. What a wonderful and arbitrary decision it turned out to be! The show was staged at Fort Mason, which as you might expect is a former military base. The space was essentially a big auditorium with a few permanent seats, with a handful of tables set up to establish the cabaret nightclub atmosphere. (I tried to sit at one of these tables but to no avail, the ticket taker was a grade-A tool.)

Despite this setback, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. If you aren’t very familiar with the show Cabaret, it has been performed in many different incarnations; the original Broadway production is worlds apart from the film, as well as the well-known oversexed 1998 Broadway revival. This production brought together the best aspects of each, with songs and storylines exclusive to each previous version of the show.

What I was especially pleased with was how well this production handled the source material. Despite its immense popularity, Cabaret has always to me seemed a bit of an oddball show. As a product of 1960s Broadway tradition, it filled with lots of fun and bubbly jazz numbers, which it somehow manages to balance with the dark themes of Nazism and the inevitable tragedy facing the characters. Having never seen the original production (duh) I can’t say how well that managed it, but I am very happy to say that this independent version did so. It adds depth to seemingly carefree songs with heavy emotion and weight. When the show’s protagonist (or the closest thing to one, since the characters are practically amoral and cowardly) sings “Life is a cabaret, old chum” toward the show’s finale, her eyes are in tears; she knows what she is singing is false but she still forces herself to believe her own words.

The major fault with this production was with the orchestra; they were often overpowering the un-miked (and therefore very imrpessive) singers, making the lyrics hard to decipher if you are unfamiliar with the score. I knew the songs inside and out so for me it wasn’t a problem, but I imagine some of the clever lyrics were lost on greenhorns.

Despite this setback, I thoroughly enjoyed this production of Cabaret. A Saturday night well spent!