A report by William Robin for the New York Times.
Toward the end of the first act of the Broadway smash hit “Hamilton,” opening the Los Angeles leg of its national tour on Friday, Aug. 11, the British Army surrenders at Yorktown. Narrating this transformative moment in the American Revolution, the musical’s title character observes that “as our fallen foes retreat, I hear the drinking song they’re singing.”
The musical’s company then sings, “The World Turned Upside Down.” Though the words echo those of a song supposedly played by the retreating British forces at the real Battle of Yorktown, the tune was newly composed by the musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“It’s sprightly and lively and fun to sing with a pint in your hand, but didn’t serve me musically,” Mr. Miranda says of the original song in the book “Hamilton: The Revolution.” “So I wrote my own melody for it. But God, what a great sentiment for the end of the war and the birth of this moment.”
That Mr. Miranda turned away from the sounds of Colonial America is not surprising. Musicals that dramatize early American history — whether Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s Tony Award-winning “1776,” or Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner’s infamous flop “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” — have rarely delved deeply into the music of the period in which they are set.
“When it goes there for the hip-hop feel, it really goes there,” Alex Lacamoire, the original music director and orchestrator of “Hamilton,” said in a phone interview about the show. “When it goes there for the musical theater sound, it really goes there as well. I don’t know that there’s any kind of music that really went to: ‘Oh, this is 1776.’
And while rap aficionados and theater nerds have exhaustively catalogedthe rich referential web of Mr. Miranda’s “Hamilton” score, little attention has been paid to the show’s engagement with the music that Alexander Hamilton would have known in his lifetime.
If the show’s creators had decided to “go there” to 1776, they might first have looked to the music of the American maverick composer William Billings. A clear parallel to the partisan braggadocio of Hamilton’s indelible Act I number “My Shot” is Billings’s hymn “Chester,” first published in 1770.
“Let tyrants shake their iron rod,” the hymn opens, with a stirring and catchy melody. “And slav’ry clank her galling chains. We fear them not; we trust in God. New England’s God forever reigns.” Conscripting God to the side of the patriots, it became an unofficial anthem of the Revolution, and is still frequently performed by choirs today.
A Boston tanner who had no formal musical training, Billings was an emblematic musical patriot: He developed an eccentric style marked by boisterous tunes and uncouth harmonies, and was a friend of agitators including Samuel Adams. His first book of hymns, “The New-England Psalm-Singer,” had a frontispiece engraved by Paul Revere.
Rather than riffs on Billings, the only sustained sonic reference to an 18th-century composer in “Hamilton” is to a European, Johann Sebastian Bach. In the Act I scene “Farmer Refuted,” the loyalist Samuel Seabury chastises the revolutionaries in an affected waltz accompanied by twinkling harpsichord, a gesture that Miranda describes in “Hamilton: The Revolution” as “getting my Bach on, essentially.” Mr. Lacamoire said of the song: “Bach died in 1750, so that’s not too far off from what was popular at the time. To me, the harpsichord was a really cool way to represent the Old World, to represent this tight, brittle, repressed kind of feeling.”
Aligning the classical sounds of Bach with the stuffiness of the Old World is a typical gesture in historical musicals, notes the musicologist Elissa Harbert, whose research focuses on musical dramatizations of American history. “It’s often in the music for British or British loyalist characters that we see the most signifiers of European music,” she said in an interview. “The patriot side very often will be represented by very up-to-date popular musical styles.”
Indeed, as Seabury continues to sing, the character of Hamilton intrudes and decimates his argument in a contrasting riposte, inspired not by Bach but by the rappers Joell Ortiz and Big Pun. “It casts the present-day audience in the role of the patriots,” Ms. Harbert added.
But, in fact, that stodgy European sound was exactly what the real-life Hamilton would have appreciated. “Music in the early United States was almost entirely borrowed from British and Italian musical styles,” Ms. Harbert said.
Just as some historians have criticized “Hamilton” for playing down the founding fathers’ position as slave-owning elites, musicologists might argue that the show similarly misrepresents Hamilton’s cohort as musical populists. Although native compositions by figures like Billings were widely consumed at the time, prominent men like Hamilton primarily heard and performed music imported directly from Europe.
And many revolutionary hits succeeded precisely because of their nonnative origins. Patriots frequently tweaked familiar British songs with new words. Changing the lyrics to well-known songs allowed political messages to spread easily — everyone could already sing the melodies — and increased the potential for partisan satire.
One of the most popular of these propagandistic reworkings was John Dickinson’s 1768 “Liberty Song.” A founding father, Dickinson took the tune of the beloved British naval anthem “Heart of Oak” and exchanged its original text (“Come, cheer up, my lads, ‘tis to glory we steer, to add something more to this wonderful year”) for a political provocation (“Come, join hand in hand, brave Americans all, and rouse your bold hearts to fair liberty’s call”).
Loyalists subsequently fired back with their own revamp, mocking the patriots: “Come shake your dull noddles, ye pumpkins and bawl, and own that you’re mad at fair liberty’s call.” Such dueling sets of political lyrics represent a kind of Colonial counterpart to the hip-hop battles of “Hamilton.”
And though it’s not emphasized in the show, several of the starring founding fathers were musicians themselves. Alexander Hamilton was fond of singing and performed duets at the piano with his daughter. (In “Hamilton,” this domestic music-making is transposed to Alexander’s son Philip and his wife Eliza.) The family piano was a gift from Angelica Schuyler Church, his sister-in-law and a key character in the musical.
Thomas Jefferson was a proficient violinist who described music as “the favorite passion of my soul” and once characterized American musical culture as “in a state of deplorable barbarism.” But Jefferson-as-violinist didn’t necessarily suit the purposes of “Hamilton.”
“The way Jefferson is in our show, the way he’s represented, he’s got a little bit of a killer instinct to him,” Mr. Lacamoire said. “He’s a little bit more biting and loves the audience and is a little bit more of a showman. For whatever reason, the violin didn’t seem to speak to that portrait of Jefferson that we were seeing. To me, the violins were much more emotive and much more ‘dolce.’”
As the orchestrator of Mr. Miranda’s songs, Mr. Lacamoire did seek to capture the sound of early America with a handful of subtle coloristic touches. He researched instruments that were prevalent in the Colonial era and subsequently incorporated snippets of strings, recorder, fortepiano, hammered dulcimer, field drum and even glass harmonica (an invention of Benjamin Franklin) throughout the score. And he cast a ball scene in Act I as a gavotte, a popular dance form in the colonies.
But Mr. Lacamoire intentionally avoided overplaying such references. “There’s a certain point where you feel like you might be trying to be clever for clever’s sake,” he said. “The songs guided me in enough of a direction that I didn’t need to go that deep into what was happening in the era.”
Even if musicals have no special obligation to historical accuracy, it is notable that the oft-retold story that shapes that pivotal moment in Act I — British drummers playing a march called “The World Turned Upside Down” to accompany the Yorktown retreat — is apocryphal. Although repeated by the historian Ron Chernow in the Hamilton biography on which the musical is based, the anecdote has been debunked by musicologists who have studied the era. No witnesses at Yorktown ever reported hearing this tune, and the only description that attests to its performance is from an account written 47 years after the battle by someone who wasn’t there.
Given the haunting conclusion of “Hamilton” — spoiler alert: it involves a deadly duel — it is surprising that Mr. Miranda overlooked one potentially rich opportunity to use period music. On the Fourth of July, 1804, a week before his fateful final meeting with Aaron Burr, Hamilton and Burr sat together at a banquet for a patriotic society. As the artist John Trumbull recounted: “Burr, contrary to his wont, was silent, gloomy, sour; while Hamilton entered with glee into all the gaiety of a convivial party, and even sung an old military song.”
Historians have not agreed on the actual music Hamilton sang that evening: It may have been a drinking song called “The Drum,” or the somber military ballad “How Stands the Glass Around.” The latter, purportedly sung by a British general on the evening before his death in battle, includes the lyrics “Why, soldiers, why should we be melancholy, boys? Why, soldiers, why, whose business ’tis to die!”
Though it would have offered a chance to draw on the music that the historical Hamilton knew, for Mr. Miranda such a moment might have been a bit too on-the-nose. Perhaps it’s understandable that he threw away his shot.