Lin-Manuel Miranda's mega-hit Broadway musical Hamilton is all about upending expectations. From its casting of actors of all races to play the all-white founding fathers, to its rap-heavy score, to its percussive style of storytelling, Hamilton turns traditions upside down, including traditions involving words.
Using rap lets Miranda pack more words, more information and more rhymes into a typical verse than an average pop or Broadway song. Broadway has a long tradition of fast-paced numbers with many words in them, so-called "patter songs," but they are usually in the score to flesh out a character or to provide comic relief, not to advance the plot. In Hamilton, because of its style, nearly everything comes at the listener fast.
With words like quagmire, polymath, and intemperate flying at the audience, it's clear that vocabulary is a key part of the production. We were excited to see Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeting this Hamilton vocabulary list made by a high school student competing in the yearlong Vocabulary Bowl.
Good morning. Here's a helpful thing! https://t.co/US1YRz7jqU— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) November 11, 2015
But Hamilton distinguishes itself not just by the words it uses but by what it does with words. The sheer amount of wordplay Hamilton's rap-based score allows is impressive and also not at all extraneous to the story. Take these lines from "The Schuyler Sisters."
Burr, you disgust me
Ah, so you've discussed me
I'm a trust fund, baby, you can trust me!
The homophony of disgust/discussed is complemented here by the phrase "trust fund baby," which, playing on two definitions of trust, provides a bridge between the two thoughts Burr is trying to convey.
This line from "The Ten Duel Commandments" is similar:
The reckoning/reckoned joining is interesting because it is ambiguous. Both forms of reckon could mean "calculate" here, so the line means something like "It's good to have someone on your side when there is calculating/strategizing to do." However, taking into account that reckoning can also mean "the avenging or punishment of past mistakes," a careful listener will recognize an allusion to the approaching Burr-Hamilton duel.
Your lieutenant when there's reckoning to be reckoned
Wordplay often passes us by on first listening, only revealing itself upon reflection. Miranda is secure enough in his way with words to have his characters help us out, calling attention to their feats of verbal derring-do, as in this line from "We Know":
You are uniquely situated by virtue of your position—
Though 'virtue' is not a word I'd apply to this situation—
Rap is often derided for being laden with profanity and disrespectful of language conventions, but Hamilton could not be more careful or more respectful of linguistic concerns. Take this choice of words from later in "We Know":
She courted me
Escorted me to bed and when she had me in a corner
That's when Reynolds extorted me
For a sordid fee
Putting aside the courted/escorted/extorted rhyme, let's examine the choice of the word sordid. The "extorted fee" may be extravagant, "expensive, excessive, over-the-top," or even, honoring the rhyme scheme, exorbitant, "excessive," but an amount of money is not usually described as sordid, which means "sleazy, dirty, dishonorable." (You'd call it dirty instead.) With that one word, awkwardly placed, Miranda gives us insight into his main character's opinions and stretches our understanding of both sordid as a word, and the transaction being described.
Sometimes Hamilton's wordplay has nothing to do with words' meanings, working on the level of rhythm and sound instead. "Right Hand Man," an expertly crafted parody of a Gilbert and Sullivan-style rendering, contains something not uncommon in rap, but very rare for a Broadway musical — verbal sound effects. At various points in the song, the ensemble shouts boom and buck to signify things like gunshots or lyrical explosiveness. Later, we hear chick-a-plao! in "Stay Alive" and Laurens' pop-chick-a pop in "Aaron Burr, Sir." Supremes-style nonsense syllables make an appearance in Schuyler Sister numbers like "Helpless" as well.
Miranda uses every weapon in his prodigious linguistic arsenal to stretch, amuse, and delight audiences, ultimately delivering a show that's about more than bringing rap into musical theater and musical theater into rap.
And if you're wondering how Lin-Manuel Miranda comes up with such fluid rhymes, check him out doing it live on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
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