It was June of 2016. I was the dad to a 8-month old, almost certainly not sleeping much, when I first heard an album that would come to dominate my music-listening for, well, a while. It was a fun, clever, emotional cast recording from the genius mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda. It was Hamilton.
I first heard of Hamilton the way I hear of all things: Twitter, probably. First with vague, casual mentions that a "hip-hop" retelling of the founding father's life story existed, and then with more excitement - a "have you heard how good the album is?" vibe. Of course I'd heard about Alexander Hamilton; the original Got Milk commercial was a staple of pop culture for a minute or two, and my history-loving self had always thought the idea of a founding father being killed by a sitting Vice President was a historical curiosity. The world being as it is, with every song at one's fingertips, I fired up Apple Music and gave it a listen.
The album starts off with a catchy intro that immediately got me hooked. From there, the music changes styles a bit, but every song is as good as or better than the last. When I started listening, I didn't have time for a full listen-through, so I caught the first 3 or 4 songs a few times before continuing. When I did continue, I was somewhat amazed that I could follow the plot (I didn't know at the time that every spoken word except one small scene is part of the cast album). Once I realized this, I had a musical audiobook in my ears. I had started listening for the music. I kept listening for the plot. And, despite what I thought I knew about Alexander and friends, every piece kept me turning the rhetorical pages of the story.
It wasn't long before I was hooked. If you've somehow avoided listening to the album, I'm not going to spoil it, but the show goes much deeper than "Burr shoots Hamilton". It's about legacy and family and prioritizing what's important and professional stress and ambition and biding your time versus just going for it. It's got incredible songs in every flavor: inspirational (My Shot), clever (Farmer Refuted), funny (the King George songs), powerful (Satisfied), lullaby (Dear Theodosia), jazzy (What'd I Miss), rap battles, tear-jerking (It's Quiet Uptown), plus many, many more. I've never been able to name a favorite song, and I almost always just listen chronologically. The lyrics are genius with layers upon layers of meaning and pop culture homages and recursive references. Every new listen for months yielded some new discovery, and then I came across Lin's comments on Genius lyrics and the Hamiltome and the Pod4Ham podcast and discovered even more. (I also read Chernow's biography that inspired the show. It's a well-written book, as you'd expect.)
I've never considered myself a "musical" kind of person. I hadn't ever seen a real Broadway show (excepting The Lion King in London in 2014) and didn't know anything at all about Les Miserables before seeing the movie a few years ago. I performed in one play in high school, Annie, just because it was a thing people did in my small town. I didn't speak the jargon or get the references. I'd never listed to a cast album. But, looking back on it: I'd often watch The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, or The Music Man when visiting my grandparents' house. I did have a class in college that introduced me to Hair and Into The Woods. And of course I grew up right in the middle of the Disney renaissance, practically memorizing The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. So I guess there was a foundation there. Still, the way Hamilton took over my listening habits caught me by surprise. (I've since followed Lin to Moana and jumped to Pasek and Paul's The Greatest Showman and Dear Evan Hansen, all great.)
After fully immersing myself in the album, the next logical step was to see the show. I spent more time than I'd like to admit searching Stubhub for tickets and Kayak for flights to New York. With a young daughter (and then a new baby), I knew it likely wouldn't happen for a while. But then the stars aligned. We'd discussed a trip to Chicago, discovered my parents were doing the same, and lined up our schedules. We had babysitters and a trip booked for the nearest Hamilton-showing city.
Let me pause to mention one of the best pieces of writing I've ever read. It was early in my album-listening era that I also read Joe Posnanski's story about taking his daughter to see Hamilton. Joe is a brilliant sportswriter, but this story is about his family, his daughter, her love of Hamilton, and their special occasion seeing the show on Broadway. Maybe it's the sappy new-father in me, maybe it's because I can relate with both Joe and Elizabeth in parts, or maybe because it's just great writing, but I still can't make it through without smiling and tearing up a bit.
Last summer, we set off on a train for Chicago. The trip was great and included a side trip to Milwaukee for a Royals/Brewers game, but on our last night in Chicago - a year ago today - Lori and I went to the theater, took our seats just before curtain, and watched as Hamilton took the stage in front of us. I'd been listening to the songs for two years, but it's a whole different experience to see it in front of you. The subtle things - King George's fourth-wall-breaking, Burr's sarcastic tone after "you're a better lawyer than me", the incredible use of the turntable on stage, how (a now dead) Hamilton appears during the finale song, a million more - were incredibly well executed and provided even more layers on the lyrics and music I'd become accustomed to. The choreography and staging - what you see - are so well matched with what you hear, that it's just another layer on the cake. Had I not been introduced to the music previously, I'm sure I would've felt overwhelmed by the sum of the experience. Watching the audience, as Posnanski describes, was amazing too: everyone wanted to be there more than anything.
My immediate reaction after seeing the show was "wow, I can't wait to see it again". As I mentioned, the lyrics have layers you don't recognize the first time around, and I've heard the same about seeing the show. Fortunately, it had been announced that one of the tours was coming to Kansas City. It seems like it took forever, but it's here and we have tickets for a show next week. I can't wait to be in the room where it happens once again.