Alec Bojalad | July 3, 2020 |
Photo: Getty Images
Imagine the experience of being one of the first individuals to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s now-classic Hamilton: An American Musical live.
The first thing you notice is the spartan, largely empty stage. Then as Leslie Odom Jr. takes the stage as Aaron Burr followed by Miranda’s Hamilton, you realize that this production about America’s founding fathers is made up almost exclusively of People of Color. That’s a lot to take in from the start. At a certain point, however, you’re bound to realize that the play is about 40 minutes in and The. Music. Has. Not. Stopped.
In addition to its many ingenious quirks and hooks, Hamilton is truly a musical musical. Miranda’s book and lyrics about one of the country’s most colorful and impressive founders has a lot of ground to cover. And it does so at a musical sprint with almost no expository time-wasting in-between.
As such, the Hamilton soundtrack is a staggeringly impressive piece of recent culture. At 46 tracks spread out over nearly two and a half hours, this album closely replicates the experience of a show most could never get a ticket to live. A passionate, thriving Hamilton fandom rose up out of that soundtrack and it continues through to this day.
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Now, with Hamilton about to be more accessible than ever by joining Disney+, we decided to rank all 46 of those tracks.
The hurricane that ravaged Alexander Hamilton’s Caribbean island home of St. Croix was a crucial part of his life and led to him securing passage to the United States. But the song “Hurricane” uses the storm late in the play as a tortured metaphor for his turbulent public life. It’s undoubtedly the least energetic and weakest full song on the Hamilton soundtrack.
45. Farmer Refuted
“Farmer Refuted” does well to capture a young Hamilton’s rhetorical brilliance early on in the play but doesn’t hold up well against other, more fully crafted tunes. Hercules Mulligan mumbling “tear this dude apart” is certainly a soundtrack highlight though.
44. The Story of Tonight (Reprise)
What would any Broadway musical soundtrack be without a reprise or two? “The Story of Tonight (Reprise)” is certainly fun. But, ultimately, tales of Hamilton’s legendary horniness would have been better suited with a full song.
43. Schuyler Defeated
Just about every line of dialogue in Hamilton is sung… including heavily expository moments like Burr defeating Hamilton’s father-in-law in a local election. The subject matter and lack of true musical gusto makes “Schuyler Defeated” one of the least essential tracks in the show.
42. We Know
It’s a testament to how strong the Hamilton soundtrack is that a song like “We Know” could appear this low on the list. This account of Jefferson and company informing Hamilton of what they know is quite good; it just pales in comparison to the song in which they uncover Hamilton’s misdeeds.
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41. It’s Quiet Uptown
This is sure to be a controversial spot on the list for this much-loved ballad. “It’s Quiet Uptown” is indeed composed quite beautifully. It also features lyrics that seem to be almost impatient in nature – as though the song is trying to rush the Hamiltons through the grieving process to get back on with the show.
40. Take a Break
Part of the miracle of Hamilton is how the soundtrack is able to turn rather mundane concepts and events in Hamilton’s life into rousing, larger-than-life musical numbers. “Take a Break” is charged with dramatizing the notion that Hamilton simply works too much with a sweetly melancholic melody. It does quite a good job in this regard but naturally can’t compete with some of the more bombastic songs on the list.
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39. Stay Alive
Set in the brutal dredge of the Revolutionary War, “Stay Alive” is a song about desperation. And between its urgent piano rhythm and panicky Miranda vocals, it does quite a good job of capturing the appropriate mood. It also feels like one long middle with no compelling introduction or conclusion.
38. Best of Wives and Best of Women
Talk about “the calm before the storm.” “Best of Wives and Best of Women” captures one last quiet moment between Alexander and Eliza before Aaron Burr canonizes his one-time friend to the $10 bill. It’s brief, lovely, and effective.
37. The Adams Administration
Hamilton wisely surmises that the best way to introduce audiences to new eras of its title character’s life story is through the narration of the man who killed him in Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.). Odom Jr.’s real flare for showmanship turns what could be throw-away intros into truly excellent material. It also features a hilarious nod to Sherman Edwards’ 1776 musical when Hamilton says, “Sit down, John” and then adds a colorful, “you fat motherf***er!”
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36. A Winter’s Ball
Again: Burr’s monologues are always a welcome presence in these tracks. And in “A Winter’s Ball,” he does some of his best work by setting up Burr and Hamilton’s prowess… “with the ladiessssss!”
35. Meet Me Inside
Despite a brief running time, “Meet Me Inside” is able to establish George Washington’s general bona fides and Hamilton’s daddy issues in equal measure.
34. Your Obedient Servant
“Your Obedient Servant” is Hamilton’s loving ode to passive aggression. In just two minutes and thirty seconds, you’ll believe that two grown men could somehow neg themselves into a duel via letter-writing.
33. The Reynolds Pamphlet
You know that old adage of “he could read out of a phonebook and it would be interesting?” Well Hamilton basically does that with “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” The ominous music injects real import into the simple act of writing that would upend the Hamilton family’s lives.
32. That Would Be Enough
Eliza’s refrain of “look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now” recurs at the beginning of “That Would Be Enough” in a truly touching way. This song is a real tonal whiplash from the revolutionary battles and duels that precede it, but it is ultimately strong enough to bring the focus back to Alexander and Eliza and not just the hectic world they inhabit.
31. The Story of Tonight
“The Story of Tonight” is both a clever drinking song among bros and a subtle setup for the show’s larger theme of one’s story being told after they’re gone. The song is both affecting and effective, just a little too short to stand out and make big waves on our list.
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30. Blow Us All Away
“Blow Us All Away” is a fun, jaunty little ditty from Anthony Ramos’ Philip Hamilton. It rather ingeniously incorporates the young Philip’s own musical motif before ending in tragedy.
29. Stay Alive (Reprise)
It’s hard for any song to emotionally contend with the death of a child in under two minutes but “Stay Alive (Reprise)” does a shockingly good job. There’s a real sense of urgency to the music before it settles in for poor Philip to say his final words.
Musically, “Burn” is not one of the better ballads in Hamilton. Lyrically, however, its power is hard to deny. Phillipa Soo does a remarkable job communicating Eliza’s pain at her husband’s betrayal. More impressive is how she communicates the only way to work through that pain, which is through burning all of his personal correspondences and writings to her.
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27. The Election of 1800
Hamilton is the rare musical where one character can sing “can we get back to politics please?” and the audience’s response is “hell yeah!”. The show is uncommonly good at dramatizing boring political processes, and “The Election of 1800” is no exception. The song builds up to a pseudo-reprisal of “Washington on Your Side” in a shockingly effective and cathartic way.
26. History Has Its Eyes on You
“History Has Its Eyes on You” is a powerful recurring phrase through the entirety of Hamilton. Each and every time the concept comes up in a song, it truly stands out. Strangely though, the song that bears its name is only in the middle of the pack in terms of the show’s numbers. Perhaps it’s because it occurs near the middle of the first act, before we can properly appreciate its heady themes?
25. Aaron Burr, Sir
One of Hamilton’s most charming traits is how readily it acknowledges what an annoying pain in the ass its lead character can be at times. “Aaron Burr, Sir” is literally the second song of the entire musical and helps establish its playful tone as much as the bombastic opening number establishes a deadly serious one.
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24. Guns and Ships
Ballads are nice. “I want” songs are nice. Recurring motifs are nice. But sometimes you need a song that just goes hard. Thanks to “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman” that’s what “Guns and Ships” delivers. Lafayette actor Daveed Diggs faces an enormous challenge in Act One by filling out the character’s growth in bits and pieces. “Guns and Ships” is the reward, where a fully unleashed (and English-fluent) Lafayette makes it very clear what hell he has in store for the British army.
23. Washington on Your Side
Thomas Jefferson is such a dynamo of a presence in Hamilton that one could be forgiven for forgetting how infrequently he turns up. Jefferson (and Daveed Diggs) is operating at an absurdly high capacity in “Washington on Your Side.” Meanwhile the music has a ball keeping up with the increasingly incensed backroom scheming of Jefferson and his “Southern motherfucking Democratic-Republicans!”
22. Right Hand Man
Thirty-two thousand troops in New York Harbor. That’s uh… that’s a lot. While the second act of Hamilton has to work a little harder to capture the drama of the inner-workings of a fledgling government, the first act is able to absolutely breeze through some truly epic and exciting songs covering the Revolutionary War. “Right Hand Man” is one such ditty that really captures the frenetic urgency of a bunch of up-jumped wannabe philosophers trying to topple the world’s most powerful empire.
21. The Schuyler Sisters
Honestly, “The Schuyler Sisters” deserve better than its placement on this list. It’s just that everything that comes after is such a banger, that it’s hard to justify moving up the dynamic introduction of Angelicaaaa, Elizzzaaaaa… and Peggy.
20. Ten Duel Commandments
Imagine how insane you would sound in circa 1998 explaining that there would one day be a musical about the founding fathers that uses the framework of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments” to describe the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Then imagine how insane you would sound when explaining that it was great. “Ten Duel Commandments” doesn’t cover the “big” duel of Hamilton. It’s a teaser for what’s to come. Thankfully it’s a hell of a good teaser.
19. Cabinet Battle #2
Hamilton’s two cabinet battles run the risk of being the cringiest part of the show. Every concept has its stylistic limit, and a rap battle between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson should absolutely fly past that limit. Somehow, however, the novelty works and the creativity of Miranda’s writing shines through.
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18. Cabinet Battle #1
The two Cabinet Battles are pretty interchangeable on the list. #1 gets the nod because of “we know who’s really doing the planting.”
17. What Comes Next
The trilogy of King George III songs is some of the most purely joyful songwriting on the Hamilton soundtrack. We can dive into the specifics of what really works about the songs in a later entry. For now, know that “What Comes Next” falls the lowest on our list due to featuring only one round of “da-da-da’s.”
16. I Know Him
“I Know Him” also features only one burst of “da-da-da’s.” But it still gets the nod over “What Comes Next” for King George III calling John Adams “that little guy who spoke to me.”
15. Dear Theodosia
Perhaps more so than any other character in Hamilton, Aaron Burr works best on his own. The character (and the man he was based on) plays things close to the vest by design. It’s only through his musical soliloquies that we get a real sense of the guy. That’s what makes “Dear Theodosia” so powerful in particular. Burr wants the same thing for his daughter that Hamilton wants for his son: “Some day you’ll blow us all away.”
14. One Last Time
George Washington owned slaves. Yeah yeah, you can bandy around the usual “bUt He ReLeAsEd ThEm AlL lAtEr In LiFe” all you want. At the end of the day, it’s an inescapable fact for the country to confront. It’s a hard thing for Hamilton, however, a show realistic about America’s flaws but still reverential to its founding story, to deal with. Hamilton presents the George Washington of American mythos for the most part and he strikes an undeniably impressive and imposing figure. To that end, “One Last Time” is one of the most unexpectedly moving songs in the show. Washington is committing one of the most important and selfless acts in American history by stepping aside. Yet there’s a real sense of sadness as the cast chants “George Washington’s going hooo-ooo-ooome.”
“Non-Stop” is an extremely atypical choice for an Act-ender. Hamilton could have just as easily chosen to wrap up Act One with the rebels’ victory over Great Britain. Instead it takes a moment to process that then deftly sets up the rest of its story with “Non-Stop,” which is simply a song about Hamilton’s insane work ethic. The key to the track’s success is how relentless it is, as if it were trying to keep up with and mimic the title character’s pace. Then there are all the usual exciting Act-ending reprisals and recurring motifs to boot.
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12. Say No To This
Just as was the case in Hamilton’s life, Maria Reynolds has only a brief role in the show, but her influence casts quite a long shadow. “Say No To This” is a real showcase for both Miranda and Maria actress Jasmine Cephas Jones. This is a devastatingly catchy jazzy number about marital infidelity…. as all songs about marital infidelity should be.
11. Alexander Hamilton
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore / And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot / In the Caribbean by providence impoverished / In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” our narrator Aaron Burr asks in Hamilton’s superb opening number. A play with so many moving parts, and such a high-concept needs an indelible opening track to convince audiences that the madness that is about to follow is worth waiting for. “Alexander Hamilton” is more than up to the task. This is an exhilarating starter that introduces its audience to all the important characters, themes, and sounds of the show. It also has its lead character spell out his full name in a rap, which somehow ends up being awesome and endearing rather than corny.
10. Wait for It
Just like the rest of us, Burr is the main character of his own story. And the show allows him to tell that story in songs like “Wait For It.” “Wait For It” is an exciting, downright explosive bit of songwriting. It’s every bit the “I want” song for Burr that “My Shot” is to Hamilton. And just like Burr and Hamilton are two sides of the same coin, so too are these two songs. Burr is alone once again in this powerful number. And he uses that privacy as an excuse to loudly… LOUDLY exclaim his modus operandi. He comes from a similar background as Hamilton and he wants mostly the same things as Hamilton. The difference between the two of them is that Burr is willing to wait for it all.
9. The Room Where it Happens
Bless this musical for having a song as brilliant as “The Room Where it Happens” only just being able to crack the top 10. There are hundreds of musicals in which “The Room Where it Happens” would be far and away the standout number. For Hamilton, it’s ninth. “The Room Where It Happens” is another example of the show taking a seemingly bland topic (backroom deal-making) and turning it into something transcendently entertaining for its audience and something transcendently illustrative for its characters. This is the song where the borders between Aaron Burr: Narrator and Aaron Burr: Vengeance-Seeker come down. Burr starts off as a patient observer of what kind of nefarious negotiations go into the building of a country before his frustration slowly builds into the recognition that he needs to be in the room where it happens.
8. Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
Truly there is no more fitting ending to Hamilton than “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” At its core, this is a play not only about legacy but about the fungible nature of legacy. Alexander Hamilton is gone and we know his story lives on. But who will tell that story? Like any good closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” knows the importance of bringing back many of the play’s core concepts and characters. And none of those are more important than Eliza’s assertion that she is ready “to write herself back into the narrative.” In the end, it’s not the revolutions or the pamphlets but the love. And that’s how one finds oneself in the absurd position of crying over the guy on the $10 bill.
7. What’d I Miss?
Lin-Manuel Miranda has described Thomas Jefferson as the show’s Bugs Bunny. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the ludicrously jaunty track that opens up Hamilton’s Act Two. There might not be a more joyful or outright hilarious three minutes in any of the soundtrack’s 46 songs. After several years spent living it up in France, Daveed Diggs’s TJ returns to the United States. The rest of his fellow revolutionaries have moved on to R&B and rap, but Jefferson is still stuck in full on jazz mode. “What’d I Miss” serves as the perfect introduction to a crucial character and the themes of the show’s second half.
6. The World Was Wide Enough
If “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is designed to make the audience cry, then “The World Was Wide Enough” exists to make them gasp. This penultimate song is a truly stunning piece of work. This is a sprawling performance that brings back “The 10 Duel Commandments” in expected yet still emotional fashion. Then at the play’s climactic moment, it cuts out the music entirely to make room for Hamilton’s internal monologue – his one last ride through all the pages he won’t write. Finally it covers the grim aftermath of Burr and Hamilton’s duel as the survivor grapples with what he has done. There is a lot packed into these five minutes of song and each moment is more compelling than the last.
5. You’ll Be Back
If absolutely nothing else in Hamilton worked – if the characterizations were off, if the costumes were too simple, if the “Founding Fathers rapping” concept couldn’t be executed – the play’s two and a half hours all still would have been worth it for this one, tremendously goofy song. King George III (portrayed by Jonathan Groff in the original Broadway production) pops up three times throughout the show to deliver pointed little reminders to the American colonists about how good they used to have it. The first time around is by far the best, in large part because it’s so charmingly unexpected and weird. By the time King George III gets to the “da-da-da” section of his breakup song with America, it’s hard to imagine anyone resisting the song… or the show’s charms.
4. My Shot
While “You’ll Be Back” may go down as the most enduring karaoke song from Hamilton, “My Shot” is almost certainly the play’s most recognizable and iconic tune. Every musical needs an “I want” song in which its lead articulates what they want out of this whole endeavor. Rarely are those “I wants” as passionate and thrilling as “My Shot.” This was reportedly the song that Miranda took the longest to write and it’s clear now to see why. Not only is “My Shot” lyrically and musically intricate, but it does the majority of play’s heavy lifting in establishing Hamilton as a character. Just about everything we need to know about Alexander Hamilton and what drives him is introduced here. And the work put into “My Shot” makes all of its recurring themes and concepts hit so much harder in the songs to come.
3. Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)
In many ways, “Yorktown” benefits from the precedent that earlier songs like “My Shot” established. This is a song that puts energetic renditions of previous lines like “I’m not throwing away my shot” and “I imagine death so much it feels like a memory” to grand use. But for as much as “Yorktown” deftly invokes Hamilton’s past, what makes this song truly special is how solely focused it is on the present. To put it quite simply: “Yorktown” goes hard. It is fast, harsh, chaotic, and thrilling. This is the song that captures the moment that American troops defeated the British empire and “the world turned upside down.” It’s to the song’s immense credit that the music and lyrics capture the enormity of the moment. Also, there’s “stealing the show” and then there’s what Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan) does here in “Yorktown.” We’re in the shit now, and Hercules is loving it.
“Helpless” might be pound for pound the best musical moment in all of Hamilton. It’s a simple, seemingly effortless love song that, even removed from the context of the show, would sound beautiful coming out of anyone’s car radio on a lovely summer day. Within the context of the show, it’s even better. It acts as a rare moment of celebration for all the characters involved before the Revolutionary War really gets churning and before a young America needs capable young Americans to guide it. What makes “Helpless” truly great, however, is the song that follows it…
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Wait, wait… why is Angelica saying “rewind?” Why do we need to rewind? We had such a lovely night! The transition between “Helpless” and “Satisfied” is Hamilton’s greatest magic trick. The former presents a night of unambiguous love and celebration. Then the latter arrives to teach us that there is no such thing as “unambiguous” in Hamilton. In a truly remarkable performance, Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry) teaches us what really happened the night Hamilton met the Schuyler sisters. Angelica will never be satisfied, and it’s because she’s “a girl in a world in which (her) only job is to marry rich.” Hamilton and Eliza’s story is a love story. But it’s also a story of Angelica’s loss. “Satisfied” imbues the musical with a sense of subtle melancholy that it never quite shakes through to the very end. “Satisfied” is the emotional lynchpin of Hamilton, and as such also its very best song.