Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording). HDtracks.com and SuperHiRez.com (44.1/24)
The situation on Broadway is lamentable. Theaters increasingly traffic in slick adaptations of popular books, movies, and characters, to which it applies a rigid formula that pervades every element of the production. Musicals, in particular, stick to formulaic stories, choreography, and even chord progressions. Every “new” song is instantly recognizable, which I suppose is the point.
Over the years there have been notable exceptions. Once and The Book of Mormon come to mind. Both broke free of the standard Broadway musical playbook. But neither compares in degree to the bold originality that propels Hamilton.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s concept was to stage a story as old as America itself, told by a cast that looks and sounds like today. To that end, he mostly eschewed the usual Broadway tropes. For instance, rather than alternating between dialogue and songs, as is traditional, all dialogue is incorporated into a modern-day version of an operatic recitative. Some of it is spoken over an orchestral backdrop, some is rapped to a hip-hop groove. The result is stunningly fresh. Further, the lyrics in these passages are as adroit as the conceit, as when Aaron Burr wonders aloud about the pending conflict with the British, “How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower / Somehow defeat a global superpower?”
Of course, Hamilton also includes straight-up songs. But these bear little resemblance to Broadway numbers; instead, they’d feel at home on pop radio—only with much better singing and much more to say. Miranda doesn’t have the melodic gift of, say, an Andrew Lloyd Weber, which explains why Hamilton never had a “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” However, the songs compensate with energy and pluck to spare.
Amidst all these new-fangled musical ploys, which could’ve had the unintended effect of making audiences uneasy, Miranda slyly incorporates just enough Broadway fundamentals to lend a modicum of familiarity. First and foremost, there is a great story. Surprisingly multi-faceted, Hamilton is filled not only with history, but also with love, sex, scandals, politics, vendettas, complex characters, triumphs, and tragedies.
Another element that lends familiarity is Miranda’s period interjections of Broadway-style singing. Phillipa Soo’s rendition of Eliza’s bitter, mournful lament, “Burn,” would be right at home in a more typical Broadway show. Similarly, Miranda employs the age-old device of using a “crowd” (chorus) as a vocal and narrative device. He even ends big numbers with the standard Broadway punctuation: a satisfying thump on the tonic chord.
All this sounds like a lot to pull together, and in lesser hands Hamilton undoubtedly would have been a sprawling mess. But Miranda brilliantly weaves all of these narrative and musical threads into a seamless, epic, moving experience. The result is a masterpiece that’s significantly greater than the sum of its parts. The only question remaining is: How do these new downloads sound?
There are two things working against the Hamilton downloads. The first is that the popular 2-CD set, like the 4-LP set, is a handsome physical package. Secondly, the downloads are only a disappointing 44.1/24. Material of this stature and popularity deserves the full hi-res treatment. Having said that, I’ve been surprised more than once by albums whose 44.1/24 download sounded far better than the corresponding 44.1/16 CD.
In this case, the difference isn’t huge, but it’s highly worthwhile. Most significantly, the (identical) downloads breathe, enveloping the instruments and singers in a realistic cushion of air. On the CD these same performers sound suffocated. The downloads’ greater airiness allows everything from brass to vocalists to sound more like they’re on stage.
The other main difference involves background noise. The CD has it, the downloads don’t. The absence of grain works with the aforementioned air to make instruments and vocals—especially when they’re a cappella, as in portions of “Burn”—much more believable and present. But it’s the quieter background that arguably makes an even bigger difference. Subtle though the CD’s digital hash may be, when it’s removed you can hear previously absent subtleties. In particular, decays become audible.
This is easily heard on the opening track’s finger snaps. On the downloads, the initial “crack” sound decays slowly, and the decay evinces a mild reverberation. In contrast, on the CD you hear the initial snap, after which the sound simply drops out.
Mind you, the CD doesn’t sound bad. This is a well-done ProTools recording that was obviously made with care. But the downloads are distinctly better. Even though the only difference is bit depth, it’s enough to push the realism factor into more favorable territory. If you haven’t heard—or don’t have—Hamilton yet, the download is the digital version to get. Highly recommended.