A little over a year ago, I wrote an article called “Rap In Musicals, And How We‘ve Been Getting It Wrong.“ In it, I made two major arguments: one, that rap was as well-suited to musicals as pen to page, and two, that most uses of rap in the musical theatre thus far had largely failed to realize the extraordinary synergistic potential of these two forms. I then went on to list techniques in the musical theatre that rap would complement perfectly.
I could reiterate all of my points here, but I no longer have to. I can now just point to Hamilton and say, “yeah, basically that.“ Nonetheless, let‘s briefly run through these ideas and examine them in the context of Broadway‘s latest runaway smash.
The main thesis of my earlier article was that most attempts at using rap in musicals had conceived of rap as monologue, whereas I felt it was instead stronger when it was used as dialogue. Now look at the defining number of Hamilton, “My Shot,“ a more or less archetypal “I want“ song for its protagonist.
Unlike most sung “I want“ songs, however, “My Shot“ sees Hamilton spending a large portion of his time talking to his new comrades and soliciting their points of view, and in the middle the song even crashes straight into a rapped argument between Hamilton and Burr. This is precisely what a rapped “I want“ song should look like, and exactly where it should be placing its emphasis – that is, on exchange rather than display.
I pointed out one major exception to my rule on using rap for dialogue over monologue – when the monologue was confessional rather than presentational. And now, looking at Hamilton, what can we call the recurring “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory“ passages if not deeply confessional monologues taking after the introspective style of rappers like Big KRIT?
My final suggestion was to use rap to enliven the stale tropes of musical theatre recitative, and really need I add anything? Hamilton, for better and worse, is a very exposition-heavy show, and it could not have survived its massive self-imposed infodumps with audience interest intact had it not taken full advantage of the rap medium‘s uncanny ability to nimbly zip through information with grace and clarity.
I could easily hold forth at nauseating length on the myriad ways in which Hamilton uses rap in clever and fitting ways. I could praise the brilliance of re-conceiving political debates in the idiom of rap battles, I could note the consistent use of different rhyme schemes to signify disparate levels of eloquence in different characters, I could point out the ways in which the lyrical and musical motifs bump up against each other as the show progresses, climaxing with Hamilton‘s dying monologue in “The World Was Wide Enough,“ I could discuss the integration of rap in musical extended sequences or how fun it is to sing DA DA DA DA DAA, DA DA DA DA DAIA DA. If I made a Discerning Lyricist Guide video on Hamilton, it might very well run a half-hour or longer.
For today, I can rest both contented and vindicated in my earlier thoughts on rap in musicals, but I cannot imagine that I am finished discussing this show, any more than I was finished discussing rap in musical theatre after my earlier article. Or, to put it another way: I‘ll be back, like before…