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If You Never Get to See Hamilton, It's Okay (Really)

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Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical Hamilton has been talked about at length since it opened last year, and for good reason. The play explores the illustrious life and career of one of our lesser-known founding fathers. It hits heavily on resonant themes such as aspiration (“I am not throwing away my shot!” — Alexander Hamilton), complacency (“I’m willing to wait for it” — Aaron Burr) and the mightier-than-the-sword power of writing. Alexander Hamilton, in this rap-stylized interpretation, relentlessly pursued historical significance through his writing, his military prowess during the American Revolution and his position as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Believe it or not, Hamilton has been personally inspiring.

So yeah, what seemed at first glance like a misguided attempt at getting kids interested in history — "Check it out, kids! Thomas Jefferson is about to drop some mad science!" and seriously, he does — ended up becoming this inspirational tale of loss, redemption and seizing opportunity. This hip-hop history book has genuinely affected my life in positive ways.

And I’ll probably never actually see the thing.

I have, however, played the soundtrack nearly to death. I’ve annoyed my wife by endlessly spinning these dope show tunes. I’ve tested the patience of passengers in my car. I’ve snuck passionate political discourse into Spotify party playlists and pretended it was a regular old rap battle.

There are two major reasons not to listen to musical soundtracks. Reason No. 1 is spoilers. I have friends who refuse to listen to a cast album until they have seen the play to avoid spoiling either parts of the plot or the standout songs.

The desire to go into something fresh is admirable, but let’s be real: Broadway is a rich-people’s game. More than that, it’s a rich New York people’s game, or at the very least New York tourists. Even leaving out all the class stuff, the geographical specificity of the medium is by its very nature exclusionary. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — live performance naturally has a limited audience capacity — but it doesn’t fully explain how something like Hamilton or The Producers or Book of Mormon (does it say something about me that I’ve mostly only mentioned ones with an “explicit” tag?) becomes a cultural touchstone on a broader scale.

Touring companies and film adaptations don’t come until the show has penetrated the mainstream, but how does it do that when the entire industry is locked to a single street on the East Coast? This is due to the Original Broadway Cast soundtrack album. In rock terms, Springsteen’s live show may be the Main Event, but Born to Run has reached more people. Born to Run is what will live on.

Reason No. 2 comes from a different angle, the “all or nothing” attitude. (The secret Reason No. 3 that’s not even worth talking about is straight-up not liking musical theater, but that’s not even worth talking about.) The truth is, you’re never going to get the full experience from a soundtrack. Chopping out the dialogue, choreography and stage direction can translate to a somewhat fractured narrative. Fortunately, musicals (most good ones, anyway) generally build the songs around the major plot points. Structurally, any turning point or reveal in a character’s arc is the type of event that tends to be best told through the dramatic medium of song.

So why release these soundtrack albums in the first place? My original theory had to do with theater patrons reliving their original experience by re-listening to the songs they enjoyed, context-free. Sort of like buying the I Am Sam soundtrack to enjoy low-key Beatles covers without the sudden need to burst into tears. They do work on this level, and can easily be seen as supplementary to the actual theater piece in that light.

In my new theory, though, I prefer to look at it as its own work of art. An equivalent in my mind would be a film adaptation of a book; it tells roughly the same story, but with less detail. Some musicals, like Book of Mormon, for example, have major plot events that occur through either the blocking or through dialogue outside of the music.

Something like Hamilton is so lyrically dense that it can take multiple listens just to catch the whole story, but it’s all there. Maybe that explains why the album has performed so well comparatively — as of early last month, it was certified Gold (500,000 copies sold), which means the album has reached more people than the play possibly could have. Demand for Hamilton certainly exists, but the Richard Rodgers Theater, where it plays, has only about 1,300 seats. In the same time span that the album went Gold (9/25-2015-4/6/2016), the play went up eight times a week for a total reach of about 270,000 possible unique audience members.

The availability of the soundtrack album is what allows Broadway shows to overcome the natural limitations of their seating chart and reach a wider audience. No wonder it’s so hard to get tickets.

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