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A Primer for Hamilton: The 15 Best Songs It Has to Offer (Part 1)

Hamilton Musical

This exclusive feature is written by contributing writer Jacob Marrocco.

Image via Hamilton

This was originally going to be a top 10 list, but that was impossible. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway musical Hamilton has become the hottest ticket out there and for good reason.

Miranda blends the tale of Founding Father and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton with Hip-hop. It’s a combination that is very difficult to explain, so I strongly recommend you take a listen. The whole cast album is 46 songs, so here is a primer of the 15 best.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Let’s start with a couple of honorable mentions:

“Hurricane”
What happens in the song: Alexander realizes that he has written his way out of every situation in life. This foolishly leads him believe that writing to the public about his affair with Maria Reynolds will preserve his legacy.

This song is the literal eye of the hurricane–for the second act at least. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Aaron Burr just accosted Hamilton for some suspicious payments to James Reynolds, and he tells them about his affair. They promise to keep quiet, but as Burr says, “Rumors only grow.” Hamilton considers his options, and he has a revelation that throughout his entire life he has used his skills as a writer to rise up–“I wrote my way out,” as he repeats. He wrote his way off of his Caribbean island home, defended the Constitution and established the National Bank, among other accomplishments. However, this time, his decision backfires. It is beautiful to hear the chorus in the background tell Hamilton that history is watching him as he makes a career-ruining choice. The music sets the stage for the storm ahead.

“The World Was Wide Enough”
What happens in the song: Burr kills Hamilton in a duel and reflects on his decision.

Burr once helped stop a duel between Hamilton and James Monroe, ironically enough. Not so much in 1804, though. The song’s first couple of minutes borrow from “Ten Duel Commandments,” which lists the most basic rules of a duel. Burr narrates for the most part, reiterating that the Weehawken, N.J., duel site was where Hamilton’s son was killed in a duel, and, of course, that “most disputes die and no one shoots.” I have always enjoyed cryptic song titles, and Miranda does that to perfection here too, and in perfect Burr style. He makes you “wait for it” until the end of the song. The long-and-short of it? Burr was too young to see “the world was wide enough” for Hamilton and himself to coexist. Now, he’s the “villain in [our] history.” You actually feel sympathy for the sitting-vice-president-turned-murderer. Go figure. Now, on to the top 15.

15.) “The Election of 1800”

What happens in the song: Jefferson and Burr end up tied for the presidency, leaving the decision up to the delegates. However, Hamilton, grieving over his son’s death, is consulted by many Federalists left without a candidate since incumbent John Adams cannot win. Enter Hamilton, the tiebreaker.

This tune comes in at the perfect time. The previous song, “It’s Quiet Uptown,” is the saddest one in the entire musical. Hamilton and his wife, Eliza, move uptown after their 19-year-old son, Phillip, is murdered in a duel. However, the show doesn’t take long to get back to business. Hamilton despises everything in which Jefferson believes, but he knows Burr stands for nothing. It’s a lose-lose, as the company sings. However, it is the diss Hamilton serves up here (When all is said and all is done/Jefferson has beliefs/Burr has none), that leads to a duel challenge from Burr. The melody comes from “Washington on Your Side,” but since he has passed away by election time, it’s Hamilton they need on their side. Hamilton made the right choice, but it cost him his life. The song is well-paced and you can feel the sense of urgency.

14.) “Burn”

What happens in the song: Eliza, after reading about Hamilton’s transgressions, decides to burn her correspondence with him and “erase [herself] from the narrative.

Poor Eliza. Instead of Hamilton telling her directly of his adultery, she had to read about it in the Reynolds Pamphlet. The beginning of the song sounds as though we are entering the Twilight Zone and rightfully so. He had professed his deep and profound love for her in Act One, and it never seemed as though he’d break their bond. Most of the emotion we hear out of Eliza in the second act is of pleading, sadness or despair–until the finale. Here, though, she finally breaks. She calls out her husband for caring too much for his legacy, even putting it ahead of his family and life at home. She breaks down, asserting “The world has no right to my heart, the world has no right to our bed,” which is the reverse of Hamilton’s thought process. He needs the world to know what he did so it can forgive him, never mind his loving wife. It builds throughout the song, until Eliza in no uncertain terms wishes Hamilton burns in Hell. She forgives him eventually, but she has put up with enough from her husband and this piece displays that perfectly.

13.) “You’ll Be Back”

What happens in the song: King George III tells the colonies that it won’t be long until they are under his control again.

For a show with so much serious material, focusing on revolution and governing, it’s nice to have a break for something out of left field. Enter King George III, who briefly appears at three points in the show to interject his opinion on proceedings across the pond. This is by far his longest and best song. The music is bubbly and bouncy as George tells the colonists about how he will “kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.” It borders on psychotic, and it is great foreshadowing for his eventual insanity. Miranda intended this song to be a sort of breakup letter from George to the colonies, and it hits home perfectly. A silly tune from a silly character.

12.) “Right Hand Man”

What happens in this song: Enter George Washington, who brings on Hamilton as his “Right Hand Man.”

There is no song more fitting for the entrance of perhaps the most important figure in United States history. The melody in this one is unlike any song before and after, with the exception of the trap-inspired “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” The bass is heavy, the tone is frantic and it reflects the situation of the colonies well. They are outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered and outplanned, and they need their general to guide them. This song is pivotal to the musical, too, because it introduces Hamilton’s friends, John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan and the Marquis de Lafayette, to the revolution. The British are in the lead by a wide margin during this song, but Washington brings on Hamilton as his “right hand man” as the colonies attempt to turn the tide. I can’t do this song justice by explaining it, it warrants a listen even out of context.

11.) “The Room Where It Happens”

What happens in this song: Burr wants a place in “the room where it happens,” inspiring him to begin his political career. Also, we see the Compromise of 1790, which helped Hamilton establish the National Bank and move the nation’s capital closer to the Potomac River.

One of the reasons this song works so well is because it sticks to the theme that Burr, well, has no theme. His musical style shifts all over the place, and in this song, the jazzy rhythm–all credits to Miranda for showing the shift over the song–suggests he is ready to make a leap to the political party occupied by Jefferson and Madison, the Democratic-Republicans (though its use in the play is a minor anachronism at this point in history.) The sound in this tune is similar to the one used in Jefferson’s introduction, “What’d I Miss,” when he returns from France in 1789. All Burr wants is to be in “the room where it happens,” no matter what he has to do to get there. It ends up fracturing his relationship with Hamilton (which wasn’t helped when Burr beat Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, for a New York Senate seat). Burr is desperate, and the build-up shows it. It’s irresistible to groove even just a little bit when it comes on.

10.) “One Last Time”

What happens in the song: We say goodbye to George Washington as Hamilton helps him prepare his resignation speech.

In one of the most R&B songs of the musical, Washington shows the stress of having history’s eyes on him for more than 45 years of service to the United States. It is not a choice, but a necessity that he steps down from his post as President after two terms. Hamilton asks him why he is deciding to resign, and his response says it all: “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone.” The U.S. had to learn how to exist without its only leader to that point, and it makes this song a tearjerker. Hamilton’s role model for decades is leaving, and one last time they get together to relax and enjoy each other’s company. The saddest part of the song comes at the end, when the company joins in with “George Washington’s going home,” alluding also to his death just two years later. It is about as beautiful a song you will find on the soundtrack.

9.) “History Has Its Eyes On You”

What happens in the song: As Washington finally yields and gives Hamilton a command during the war, he reminds him that he and his decisions are under the scope of history from here on out.

This is the shortest song of the 17 total songs in the list, but the message is so powerful I could not resist. History certainly had its eyes on Hamilton, Washington and the rest of the revolutionary ensemble, and it has its eyes on everyone today, too. The decisions we make individually and as a country are being watched right now, and will continue to be analyzed in the future. Hamilton was raw and temperamental, albeit precocious, when Washington gave him a command before Yorktown, and this final reminder was crucial. It’s a slow song, but it is sobering at the same time. It falls perfectly between two very fast-paced jams, “Guns and Ships” and “Yorktown,” so a break to bring us back to reality was key.

8.) “Helpless”

What happens in the song: Eliza and Alexander fall for each other and they wed.

As Miranda writes in Hamilton: The Revolution, Hamilton had been forever altered by his mother’s face as he watch her lay dying as a child. He remembered seeing her as helpless, and he never wanted to see any woman in his life feel that way again. Enter Eliza Schuyler, introduced to Hamilton by her equally-as-smitten sister Angelica, and she is overcome by his way with words and his apparently dreamy eyes. It really is just a fun love song, and Philippa Soo delivers it perfectly. Put on this tune and a long, flowing ball gown and have some fun.

This is part one of the two part top series. Check back on Thursday when we release numbers seven to one of the top 15 songs Hamilton has to offer.

 

Hensley Carrasco
Hensley graduated from the University of Rhode Island where he was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the Good 5 Cent Cigar. He founded the site with hopes to add to the ever-growing digital music newsroom. Hensley generally writes about Hip-Hop, but other genres are not out of his writing spectrum. On the side, Hensley is a photographer, specializing in concert photography.

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