But wait: what is a top ten list about a Broadway musical doing on a website dedicated to the best in classic rock? It’s a fair question, but make no mistake: Miranda draws inspiration from all sorts of music, including rock, hip hop, and musical theatre, all of which can be heard in the show’s songs. He’s incredibly well versed in many genres, and those influences shine through all over the show. Close listeners pick up on them, but even if you don’t catch the little references he slips in, it’s hard not to be in awe of Miranda’s musical prowess.
In fact, the show itself is a consistent high point — it’s magnificent, practically one long greatest hit — and choosing favorite parts is nearly impossible because there are just so many of them. Divvying up the show into discrete moments almost seems unfair; it flows so well from one part to the next that it’s hard to pinpoint where one great part ends and the next beings. Still, we tried. Many fans will justifiably disagree with some of the choices below, but nonetheless, here’s our pick for the top ten moments in the songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.
# 10 – Cabinet meetings reimagined as rap battles.
Politics in the late 1700s wasn’t much different than politics today: there were lots of contentious issues, lots of disagreements, and lots of arguing. Even in George Washington’s cabinet, Treasury Secretary Hamilton and Secretary of State Jefferson were (as Miranda puts it) “diametrically opposed foes.” Rather than have these two explain their sides, Miranda places mics — actual non-1790s mics! — in their hands and stages two cabinet meetings like scenes out of Eminem’s Eight Mile. Hamilton and Jefferson get a minute each, with Washington moderating, and the insult-laden back and forths are quick, clever, and incredibly entertaining. The best part? In “Cabinet Battle #1,” Jefferson (played brilliantly in the original Broadway production by Tony winner Daveed Diggs) channels Melle Mel, taunting Hamilton with his “ah haha ha ha” laugh and twisting his line from “The Message” to, “It’s such a blunder, sometimes it makes me wonder why I even bring the thunder.” You don’t have to be a hip hop aficionado to get it.
# 9 -Colonial R&B girl power in “The Schuyler Sisters.”
We like to think of feminism as a 20th Century invention, but Miranda writes Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler, along with her sisters Angelica and Peggy, as strong female characters with worthwhile opinions on the revolution and the birth of the new nation. We meet them early in Act I in “The Schuyler Sisters,” a song with an infectious “Work! Work!” refrain that sounds like a non-single track from any Destiny’s Child album, and right away we learn that these women are not about to let the men do all of the thinking. Angelica, for example, has been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine, and both she and Eliza are thrilled at the “new ideas in the air.” Their feminist leanings are perhaps most apparent midway through the song, when Angelica proposes a change to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self evident / That all men are created equal / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson / I’mma compel him to include women in the sequel!” Apparently, girl power is nothing new.
# 8 – Hercules Mulligan’s reveal in “Yorktown.”
Everything about “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” is emotional: the long odds that the colonists were working against, Hamilton’s unorthodox order for his men to take the bullets out of their guns, and the overwhelming ending with its shouts of, “We won!” In the middle of it, though, we find out that the US had a spy to help them outsmart the British, and that spy was perhaps the best named revolutionary of the lot: tailor Hercules Mulligan. In the show, he jumps out of a cloak and lands on stage like Spiderman to explain his role in the colonies’ victory: “A tailor spying on the British government! / I take their measurements, information and then I smuggle it!” The line is delivered brilliantly and with lots of aggressive grit by Okieriete Onaodowan, who sounds like rapper DMX here, and it’s both a high point and a comic interlude of sorts. We laugh because his appearance sneaks up on us, and the energy he packs into this 30 second verse makes it memorable long after the song is done.
# 7 – The blazing speed of “Guns and Ships.”
Lots of us grew up trying to learn the fast patter “Modern Major-General” from The Pirates of Penzance, but today, we’ve got something faster: Daveed Diggs’s Twista-fast verse on “Guns and Ships.” The song is love letter to the Marquis de Lafayette: Diggs as Lafayette explains why he is such an outstanding military strategist and then convinces General Washington to bring Hamilton back as a commander. The real joy of this track, though, is hearing Diggs spit 19 words in three seconds, in a French accent, no less. As far as hip hop goes, Diggs has said, his lyrical acrobatics on “Guns and Ships” is medium-fast, but in the world of Broadway, it now holds the record for the fastest verse on the Great White Way.
# 6 – The gorgeous sing-along chorus on “Wait For It.”
One of the things that makes Hamilton so great is its ability to humanize even the villains in American history. What’s Aaron Burr’s motivation? Why does he act so differently than our protagonist? Miranda lays this all out in “Wait For It,” which explains Burr’s patience, his willingness to wait for his time in the spotlight, and his recognition that he is “the one thing in life I can control.” The melody is radio friendly, with a lovely piano groove and percussive claps to give it lift. The best part, though, comes toward the end when the company joins Burr (played by Tony Award winner Leslie Odom, Jr.) to sing, with full heart, “Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints / It takes and it takes and it takes / And we keep living anyway.” It appeals because the tune resolves itself so well, but it sticks because of how true the lines are.
# 5 – The flashback and rapping on “Satisfied.”
The show’s “Helpless” tells of the first meeting between Hamilton and his wife Eliza from Eliza’s perspective, but “Satisfied” retells the same story from her older sister Angelica’s point of view. It’s the show’s Rashomon moment, when we discover that Hamilton initially had eyes for the elder Schuyler, but for reasons she explains, she could not even consider marrying the then-penniless aide-de-camp and therefore introduces him to her younger sister, who is also smitten. In the song, Angelica, played by Tony Winner Renee Elise Goldsberry, gives us her feelings on the incident in a delivery that sounds like it was heavily coached by Nicki Minaj. It’s so close that after the first few lines, you half expect the chorus to “Starships” to come in. A passion like that of Diana Ross in early Supremes’ songs is also detectable, and the whole song reminds us that there is always more than one side to any story.
# 4 – The Beatles-inspired melody of King George’s songs.
The King of England is on stage in Hamilton for just over ten minutes. It’s enough to deliver three songs, all of which have the same Beatles inspired melody, but it’s also enough to make a huge impression. In fact, original cast member Jonathan Groff made such an impact in his brief time on stage that he was actually nominated for Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. (He lost to Hamilton co-star Daveed Diggs.) The three songs are melodic and hilarious, with an infectious melody and an invite for everyone to actually sing along. We first meet him in “You’ll Be Back,” a message to the colonies that they should drop this independence nonsense and “remember how I served you well,” because he loves them so much that he will “send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love.” Next, in “What Comes Next?” the King foreshadows a sentiment spoken by President Washington, that “winning was easy, governing’s harder.” Finally, in “I Know Him,” King George III laughs at the notion of “that little guy” John Adams picking up the presidential reins. If “always leave them wanting more” is the key to great performances, the character of King George III in Hamilton is perhaps the greatest character ever.
# 3 – The showstopping awesomeness of “The Room Where it Happens.”
Almost as an antidote to “Wait For It,” “The Room Where it Happens” gives us Burr’s frustrations at being left out of big political decisions while detailing the dinner table bargain between Hamilton, Jefferson, and James Madison — the Compromise of 1790. We first get the basics of what went down, especially from Jefferson’s perspective, as he was the only person to actually write down an account of how things transpired. Burr reminds us that we’ll never actually know how it all happened because, as the title tells us, “No one else was in the room where it happened.” What begins as an upbeat rap segues into a true Broadway song and dance number that really swings; Leslie Odom, Jr. as Burr dances, jumps off a table, and lets all of his emotions come out. The result is a real showstopper that’s as much a commentary on contemporary politics as it is about a reluctant agreement that took place over 200 years ago.
# 2 – The nine part climactic conflation on “Non-Stop.”
This is the song that ends Act I, and it brings us up to speed on what Hamilton does between the end of the Revolutionary War and his role as George Washington’s Treasury Secretary: a law practice, a trip to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, his huge role in the publishing of The Federalist Papers, and the fact that he writes “like you’re running out of time.” It’s a lot of history packed into a little over six minutes, but the real swell comes at the end, where Miranda is able to bring in many of the main characters and the hooks from their songs — at the same time! If you’re keeping score at home, he includes “Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now” from “The Schuyler Sisters,” Eliza singing “Helpless,” the “They are asking me to lead” line that Washington gives to Hamilton not half a minute earlier, Eliza asking, “Isn’t this enough?” in the tune of “That Would Be Enough,” Angelica’s “Satisfied,” Washington’s “History Has Its Eyes On You,” Burr’s line, “Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room,” the company repeating “Non-Stop,” Hamilton’s “not throwing away my shot” refrain, and finally, the “just you wait” line from the show’s opening number. That’s ten — ten! — lines from other songs, all delivered within a minute of each other. If you’re curious about why Lin-Manuel Miranda has both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius Award and is just one Oscar away from an EGOT, it’s stuff like this. In fact, only one moment in the show can actually top it.
# 1 – Eliza’s emotional list of accomplishments in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”
They say that behind every great man is a great woman, and Eliza is no exception. We get glimpses of her story in the show — we know she is devoted to her husband, that she teaches her son French and how to play piano, and that she is content to be out of the spotlight while her older sister Angelica is “dazzling the room.” But we get the full story at the end of the show, when she steps forward after Hamilton’s death and drops the audience’s collective jaw with the fact that, “I live another 50 years.” Then we get a list of what she’s done: she reads her late husband’s “thousands of pages of writings,” she is instrumental in the construction of the Washington Monument, she speaks against slavery, and she makes sure people remember Hamilton’s contributions. Her real pride and joy, though, is establishing “the first private orphanage in New York City” so that she can help raise orphans to greatness, just like her late orphan husband. By the time she closes the song with, “Oh I can’t wait to see you again / It’s only a matter of time,” we’re a puddle. As Stephen Colbert put it, we’re left astonished, asking ourselves, “Why am I crying over Alexander Hamilton?” It’s because of Eliza: while Hamilton was busy using his “top notch brain” to “write financial systems into existence,” Eliza was busy noting the significance of it all. When she finally has the opportunity to share it with us, it’s overwhelming — much like the entire show.
Top 10 Moments in Hamilton Songs
Photo By HAMILTON BROADWAY [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons