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Why Writers Should Listen to the Hamilton Soundtrack

Hamilton, the hip-hop musical about one of our most fascinating Founding Fathers, has garnered a huge number of devoted fans. This is mainly due to the original cast album. If you can’t see the show (and most of us can’t, even many who live in the New York City area) you can listen to the album. It’s as close as you’ll get to experiencing the show because, with the exception of one scene, the entire show is in song.

I told my sister that listening to it the first time is like crossing the Rubicon—once you hear it, there’s no going back. It becomes a bit of an obsession. I was shocked to realize after my first listen how many people on my Twitter TL were regularly quoting lyrics in their tweets. Go to Etsy or some similar web site and you will find an incredible array of t-shirts, magnets, art prints, among other items, for sale that quote lyrics from the show.

I think the reason the soundtrack is so popular and why so many people listen to it multiple times (some on a daily basis, which isn’t me, oh heck, yes, it’s me) is because there’s so much to unpack from the lyrics. It’s not only just plain FUN to listen to (except the parts that stomp on your heart and make you ugly cry in public), it’s also dense with an amazing array of themes, motifs, and emotions.

As a writer, I think there’s much here for writers to identify with and glean from it, only beginning with the fantastic backstory of how the show came about in the first place.

  1. This is the story of a writer.

A remarkably prolific writer, in fact. Hamilton’s wife Eliza and their sons worked to preserve as much of his work as they could after he was killed in the duel with Aaron Burr. The result is that Ron Chernow, his biographer, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical, had a lot to draw on that was in his own words.

Stories about writers are usually boring because the process itself is boring. The number “Non-Stop” is mostly about the process of writing, and is not only NOT boring, it’s one the showstoppers. The big moment in the song is when Aaron Burr recounts how Hamilton wrote 51 out of 85 of the essays in The Federalist Papers. (“Hamilton Wrote the Other 51” is a popular slogan on the Hamilton t-shirts.)

Burr sings:

How do you write like you’re

Running out of time?

Write day and night like you’re

Running out of time?

The company sings:

How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?

How do you write like you need it to survive?

How do you write ev’ry second you’re alive?

Ev’ry second you’re alive? Ev’ry second you’re alive?

While the “every second you’re alive” is a bit much for most of us, the rest of it could be a mantra we could follow:

Write like you’re running out of time

Write like tomorrow won’t arrive

Write like you need it to survive

In this sense, Hamilton is a great inspiration for writers.

  1. This is a story about how we can’t always control our narratives.

Washington:

You have no control:

Who lives

Who dies

Who tells your story?

Of all the Founding Fathers, Hamilton was the only one not to reach old age. Because his enemies and rivals outlived him, it was easy for them to suppress/minimize his impact on the creation of our country. Even though his wife carefully curated his writings, it took centuries for people to fully appreciate his contributions.

Losing control of our narratives is something writers often face, both when creating stories and after they go out into the world. This can be both positive and negative.

The “who lives, who dies, who tells your story” line is also self-referential, as the Chernow book and the show are helping to finally set the record straight.

  1. Writing is a waiting game.

Burr:

I am the one thing in life I can control

Ensemble:

Wait for it

Wait for it

Wait for it

Wait for it

Burr:

I am inimitable

I am an original

Ensemble:

Wait for it

Wait for it

Wait for it

Wait for it

Burr:

I’m not falling behind or running late

Ensemble:

Wait for it

Wait for it

Wait for it

Wait for it

Burr:

I’m not standing still

I am lying in wait

One of the most beautifully composed relationships in the show is the one between Hamilton and Burr, who were friends, then rivals, then enemies, both hurtling through the story on a tragic trajectory. They couldn’t have been more different—but in some ways, they also couldn’t have been more alike. Both were ambitious and driven, but both were completely different in how they went about trying to achieve their goals.

While writers can strongly identify with Hamilton, many of us may also feel like Burr, because we spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen.

  1. Language can be destructive as well as constructive.

Hamilton:

I wrote my way out of hell

I wrote my way to revolution

I was louder than the crack in the bell

I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell

I wrote about The Constitution and defended it well

And in the face of ignorance and resistance

I wrote financial systems into existence

And when my prayers to God were met with indifference

I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance

Faced with the possibility of a love affair becoming public, Hamilton mistakenly believes that the one thing that has always served him well—his talent for writing—can save him if he is completely honest about his misdeeds. Instead, he hurts the people who love him the most and wrecks his political prospects.

The ensemble begs Hamilton to “Wait for it, wait for it” as he makes this crucial error in judgment. It’s a warning to think before we pick up our pens.

  1. Sometimes the craziest ideas are the best ideas.

A hip-hop musical about the American Revolution?

That is C-RA-ZY!

Alex Lacamoire, the musical director for Hamilton, asked Miranda if he was serious when he first showed him lyrics for the work in progress.

When Miranda performed the opening number “Alexander Hamilton” at the White House early in the process of writing the show, the audience nervously laughed during parts of it. This didn’t put him off.

Frankly, if something like that had happened to me, I probably would have shoved the manuscript in the deepest, darkest corner of my closet and cringed every time I thought about it.

Miranda kept working on it for six years.

Now Hamilton is a cultural phenomenon.

Food for thought for all writers.

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6 thoughts on “Why Writers Should Listen to the Hamilton Soundtrack

      1. I just finished listening to this soundtrack (or as much as I could for free on YouTube). LOVE it! It’s original and witty and so clever. Not being an American, I’m not really up on Alexander Hamilton, but the songs are written in a way that you don’t have to be an American History Expert. Thanks so much for the recommendation!

      2. So happy you liked it! To be honest, before this most Americans didn’t know a whole lot about Alexander Hamilton beyond he’s on our 10 dollar bill and was killed in the duel with Aaron Burr. That’s one of the great things about the show–it’s acquainting us with a Founding Father who did a great deal to shape our nation, but whose enemies were able to almost erase his contributions because he died at a relatively young age.

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