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coverpic flag US - New York - Full Moon 249 - 12/14/16

Lin-Manuel Miranda et al.
Hamilton - Original Broadway Cast Recording
Atlantic Records

In May of 2009, Barack and Michelle Obama hosted an "Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word" at the White House. It was a dignified event; Esperanza Spalding's sublime singing and bass playing, James Earl Jones reading Shakespeare in that deep, resonant voice of his. You know, capital-C Culture. And then, at the end of the evening, skinny, wild-eyed New Yorker Lin-Manuel Miranda took the stage. He'd been invited to perform music from his hit Broadway musical In the Heights, a veritable firework display of rapping and latino rhythms. Instead, Miranda, with his musical director, Alex Lacamoire, at the piano, performed a brand new rap tune about, as Miranda put it, "somebody who embodies hip-hop. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton."

This, as you might imagine, produced some mirth in the audience, but Miranda made his case: Hamilton was the archetypical self-made man. Coming from very humble beginnings, he wrote his way out of poverty, and became George Washington's right-hand man during the American Revolution. He was then tapped by Washington to become the United States' first Secretary of the Treasury, and put in place the financial systems which lay the foundation for their fledgling nation. Finally, Hamilton ended in the most tragic, clichéd, hip-hop way imaginable, shot to death by a rival.

Miranda performed an early version of what would eventually become the opening number of his next show, Hamilton, an American Musical. Over the next few years, he wrote more than 40 additional songs, and in January 2015, Hamilton opened at New York's Public Theater. Later that year, it moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, making it a proper Broadway show.

The cast recording of Hamilton, co-produced by Miranda with Questlove and Tariq of The Roots, is an astonishing collection of top-notch songwriting, superb musicianship, and sublime vocal performances. It bridges the gap between musicals, pop and hip-hop like nothing else before it. Throughout the almost three-hour show, there are references to classics of both light opera and hip-hop, while King George's number "You'll Be Back" is filled with musical references to The Beatles, giving new meaning to the term "British invasion".

In addition to writing the show, Lin-Manuel Miranda also plays the title character, spitting rhymes with unmatched intensity, a great contrast to the silky smooth voice Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Hamilton's frenemy Aaron Burr. While Odom, Jr.'s rapping is fine, it is in the ballad "Dear Theodosia" where his voice really shines, as Burr sings for his newborn daughter. Later on, Burr's frustration at having been excluded from the decision-making in "The Room Where It Happens" comes forth in spectacular, show-stopping fashion.

Daveed Diggs, in a double role as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, is phenomenal both as a rapper and singer. As Lafayette, he struggles with the English language in the beginning ("The unrest in France will lead to onarchy"), but by the end of act 1, he has one of the fastest raps in the show. Act 2 then opens with Diggs as Jefferson, just returned from France, singing a classic-style show tune called "What Did I Miss?" You'd never suspect Diggs had virtually no musical theatre experience before joining the cast of Hamilton.

At the time of the American Revolution, it was definitely a man's world, and as such, Hamilton is light on female characters. The trio of women performers (not counting the ensemble) featured in the show do make up for it by being the very best Broadway has to offer, though. As the Schuyler sisters enter the stage, Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones perform a number that might make one wonder if there was a Destiny's Child reunion. In act 2, Cephas Jones switches to the role of Maria Reynolds, who seduces Hamilton with a sultry R&B number. Yes, they did have sex scandals back then!

As the show nears its end, the relationship between Hamilton and Burr deteriorates, ending in a duel where Burr mortally wounds Hamilton. It's enough to make all but the most cold-hearted, cynical person weep, as the chorus sings softly, asking "who lives, who dies, who tells your story?" Not knowing the answer, I just want to go back to act 1 and listen to it all again just one more time.

The romanticized ideal of America is that of the melting pot, where cultures from all over the globe come together to create new things, and anything is possible. Indeed, Hamilton takes that concept and runs with it, as historical figures such as Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and Eliza Schuyler, all white, are played by people of colour. Black, asian, latino - these actors defy you to judge then not by the colour of their skin, but by the authenticity of their performances. As the beacon of hope that is the diverse America seems to have been extinguished, at least for a while, Lin-Manuel Miranda's work, and Hamilton in particular, is more important, and more relevant, than ever.

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