The Roots‘ Questlove and Black Thought produced the soundtrack for acclaimed new Broadway musical Hamilton, which was released Friday. Below, Questlove shares his thoughts on the significance of the play and the power of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fusion of hip-hop with musical theater.
Hamilton is Hamilton. Every time I go to look for something to compare it to, I come up short. There’s really not a set precedent. The closest I can come is Fela!, a brilliant Broadway musical that did things with the form that no one could have imagined. But Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about the life of the most interesting and most star-crossed of our Founding Fathers, is something different, something all to itself.
When I first saw Hamilton, I was set back a step. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. The musical, and the choices that Lin has made in creating it, sets me back a step because I need that extra distance to really think about what it is. Not what it is subjectively. I know that Lin has done something intelligent and passionate with his writing, something vibrant with his performance. But I can’t always figure out what it is objectively. If you’re a geologist and you see a rock, you want to know what kind of rock it is. If you’re an ornithologist and you see a bird, you want to know what kind of bird it is. If you’re a pop-culture obsessive who has spent his life both making things and consuming things that are at the intersection of various art forms (music, television, comedy, politics and technology), and you see a musical that sets you back a step, you want to know what that is, too. If I can’t put my finger on it, it just makes for an itchy finger.
So what has Lin done? For starters, he has brilliantly re-presented American history through the use of race-blind casting. Roles played in history by white people are, in Hamilton, played by Latino or African-American performers, without any explanation. Or rather: the lack of explanation is the explanation. That’s been the creative move that has powered much of the show’s critical attention, and it’s easy to see why: It’s audacious and funny and serious all at the same time. It’s radically democratic: The only thing that’s elitist is how hard it’s become to get a ticket. (Yes, even for me, and I work for them.)
But I think that the reason that Hamilton is blowing people’s wigs back is something a little different. I think that Lin is stepping forward, boldly, with the first real synthesis of two great American institutions: the Broadway musical and hip-hop. Before Hamilton, each of them had their monuments. Broadway had its Chorus Line, Cats and West Side Story. Hip-hop had its Ready to Die, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 3 Feet High and Rising. But the two worlds turned independently of one another. When there was a seismic event on Broadway, the citizens of hip-hop nation didn’t feel the ground move under their feet. And when there was a major release or retrenchment in hip-hop, the dancers and directors and dramaturges didn’t experience an inner reawakening. Until now. Because Hamilton‘s isn’t just a hip-hop musical or a stage presentation of hip-hop; it’s organically and genuinely both things at once, in ways that are too important to be skimmed over.
Let’s start with the music and build up from there. When I hear Hamilton described as a “hip-hop musical,” even when I’m the one doing the describing, I balk a little bit at the phrase. Even when swearing to friends that it’s not “B-boy with spirit fingers,” it’s hard to capture. The music in the show isn’t limited to hip-hop. There are elements of pop and elements of rock and elements of the more traditional show-tune feel. But the very fact that the show draws on all these diverse genres is exactly what makes it hip-hop in spirit. Think back to all the different kinds of music and musical energy that have been absorbed into hip-hop. Run-DMC used American hard rock, in the form of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” for their song of the same name. Kanye West sampled classic R&B, in the form of Ray Charles, for “Gold Digger.” And Jay-Z used Broadway show tunes themselves, in the form of the Annie lament “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” for “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” (and then, in an encore performance, the Oliver! song “I’ll Do Anything” for “Anything”). Hip-hop, at its heart, draws on old pieces of multiple traditions but gives them a new context and new life.