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6 December 2017, 15:10
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical opens in London this month. It’s famous for its hip-hop score and nods to classic rap and R&B. But did you know it also references classical music?
Photo: Joan Marcus
‘You’ll be Back’ opens as a traditional piano-accompanied ballad. But then at 45 secs another instrument comes in. It’s only a flipping harpsichord, as loved by Bach and his fellow Baroque composers.
So what’s it doing here? This song is sung by King George of England. He stands for everything Hamilton is against – monarchy, American being ruled by the Kind of England and generally the old way of doing things. So it makes sense that his songs are from a completely different soundworld.
But it’s also a pretty neat little nod to the music that would have been around during Hamilton’s time – he was born in 1757, just 7 years after Bach died.
Lin-Manuel Miranda himself said he wanted the song to sound like a Beatles song. And that insistent accompaniment certainly has something of the 'Eleanor Rigby' about it.
Gilbert and Sullivan knew a thing or two about putting on blockbuster shows. So although their music couldn’t sound more different from Miranda’s Hamilton score, perhaps it’s only right that there’s a nod to G&S in the lyrics.
In Right Hand Man, when George Washington is first introduced he says
The model of a modern major general
The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are
Lining up, to put me on a pedestal.
Which is an explicit reference to this from The Pirates of Penzance:
I am the very model of a modern Major General
I’ve information vegetable animal and mineral
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical.
The intricate rhymes in W.S. Gilbert’s original lyrics are elevated to a new level of word wizardry in Miranda’s rap version. And Miranda said “I always felt like ‘mineral’ wasn’t the best possible rhyme.”
This is the one time Miranda quotes a piece of classical music directly. It comes in at the end of 'Helpless', when Alexander Hamilton has just proposed to Eliza Schuyler.
You might know this tune as 'Here Comes the Bride' – but it actually comes from Wagner's opera Lohengrin. In Wagner's story the music accompanies the wedding of Elsa and Lohengrin. It won't come as any surprise to anyone who's seen any Wagner that their story doesn't end happily…
But don't read too much into that. Miranda is probably just using this musical reference as a way of helping us identify with these characters from the 18th century.
Miranda got his Wagner on when he was writing Hamilton. There are themes linked to the characters in the show. They reveal things about their personalities and signpost important plot moments for different characters.
For example, one of the main characters – Aaron Burr – has a chord progression that’s attached to him and his story. (It’s I, VI, III if you want to get technical).
This is something Miranda has acknowledged, telling The New Yorker: “I really got my ‘Les Mis’ on in this score, like being really smart about where to reintroduce a theme. In terms of how it accesses your tear ducts, nothing does it better than that who.”
Ok, so opera doesn’t have the monopoly on a couple of hours of uninterrupted music. But most musicals tend to intersperse dialogue between the songs.
The fact that Miranda chooses not to do that means he’s making a claim for his musical as an epic piece of theatre, in the manner of the operas of Wagner, Puccini and Verdi.
Ok, there’s not an opera called Hamilton. But there are operas called Tosca, Aida, Manon, Carmen, Falstaff, Otello and Turandot.
By giving Hamilton a one-word title Miranda is laying claim to the monumental scope of opera. He’s saying that Hamilton’s life is just as deserving of the stage as any of those operatic heroes and heroines.
As Angelica Schuyler sings at the end of the musical:
Every other founding father’s story gets told
Every other founding father gets to grow old.
Hamilton deserves that too.