Hamilton: Melody and Narrative

Just in time for Independence Day, I was able to see the musical about America’s founding fathers. I finally got to be in “the room where it happens” last weekend! Yes, I got to see the Broadway hit Hamilton.
It was an exciting experience seeing a musical for the first time when you already know every song by heart. That hasn’t happened to me since maybe when I saw Wicked. As obsessed as I have been with the soundtrack, I felt able to focus my attention to other details of the show like the staging and incredible choreography. But knowing all the words did make changes stand out.
When you go to any concert or performance, you expect the artists on stage to elevate from the recorded version while maintaining the familiarity which made you interested in buying a ticket.  I had the impression that the Chicago production was trying very hard to tell the story of Hamilton: An American Musical quite closely to the original Broadway show.
One change that particularly stood out to me was a change of the word “narrative” to the word “melody.” Admittedly, a small linguistic difference that only effects maybe 6-7 lines. But it’s clear Lin-Manuel Miranda carefully considers his words just as he prolific muse Hamilton does.
Let’s track this change to understand its impact and why this choice was made.

This site creates visualizations based on the lyrics of Hamilton. Go down to the Explore their Stories section. Click on Legacy 12. It is amazingly effective at picking out the lines Eliza says about narrative in colored coded organization.

“Let me be a part of the narrative” – That Would be Enough

“I’m erasing myself from the narrative” – Burn

“I put myself back in the narrative” – Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

It feels like Eliza stands for the melody and Alexander the story. As she proclaims in Burn, “You and your words, obsessed with your legacy.”
Now the ligaments holding together the story are the music.

ham 1

From one perspective, in a musical that is comprised entirely of songs, melody is extremely important and an equal partner with words. On the other hand, in the real world, we don’t go around singing in cabinet meetings or regular conversations. Narrative and story are more important to understanding historical events than music. In this case, it feels like Eliza’s role becomes more superfluous. Instead of putting herself in a narrative, she puts herself in a melody that is fleeting.
Even in the former argument, what has been remarkable in this musical has been Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wordsmithing. There is no completely instrumental overture or interlude. In this musical, music is the background to words. The hierarchical relationship between Eliza and Alexander becomes more unequal with this switch in word choice.
It’s interesting where he musical decides to blur lines of social inequality and where it does not. It is incredibly refreshing to have a minority cast in a musical. But we all know it can’t be perfect and I think the development of the female characters in the show is masquerading as progressive. The number two googled query when you type “does Hamilton…” is “does Hamilton pass the Bechdel test.” And the answer is hmm not really… (see this blog post to read more or this article that has racked up a lot of comments)
Historically speaking, of course Eliza Hamilton took a “secondary” role to Alexander. The musical does give her the spotlight at the end showing her contributions to his legacy. (Read an interesting article about the role of women in Hamilton.) Through melody, Eliza’s story does get told (however sparingly).
Why the word melody?
With the above argument, the word music could have been an acceptable stand in. Perhaps melody was chosen because of its connection to other lines already in the musical.

Originally in “The World was Wide Enough”, there is the line “There is no beat, no melody.” There is no beat or accompanying music at this art of the song when the bullet is coming toward Hamilton and the musical replays in fragments like his life passing before his eyes. Here’s more about the inspiration for that scene:

The solution came to Miranda at almost the last moment, early in the morning on New Year’s Day. He was lying in bed, with his infant son sleeping on his chest, and [his wife] sleeping next to him. It was the quietest Miranda could remember his life being for a long time. Quiet, he thought. That was the one card he hadn’t yet played in “Hamilton.” What if he didn’t write any music at all? He took his dog out for a walk, leaving his headphones at home this time, occasionally stopping to scribble in a notebook. He stayed up working until five the next morning, hearing Hamilton’s final moments at last. -Rebecca Mead, New Yorker Meet the Hamiltons

After tracking the word melody from Eliza throughout the musical, it stood out to me as particularly poignant when Hamilton said “There is no beat, no melody.” The statement now gave the impression that he was thinking about Eliza and their life together.

Along this line, the Hamilton’s son, Philip, is shown always changing the melody when playing piano with his mother. With Philip, first we hear him change the melody without it explained by words. Then as he is dying Eliza says “You changed the melody every time.” The music shows us this example first and then the words do. If Eliza is the melody, Philip changes her.

Philip not only plays the piano, but he is also a self-proclaimed poet. He is also interested in writing rhymes. He is the perfect combination of the Hamiltons in his interest in both melody and words.

The choice to change the word narrative to melody may seem like a small decision, but it has some implications that effect Eliza Hamilton’s role as a woman and the relationship between the Hamiltons.

For my art project, I thought about the effect when you read lyrics and process both the words and the melody.  I find that when I read lyrics for a song I am familiar with it takes me about halfway through the sentence to switch from reading the words flat to singing them in my head. It takes a second to recognize the words from the song and then recall the melody.

I pulled quotes from famous songs and highlighted where in the song I switched from reading to singing internally. I wrote down about 15 lines, but these ones stood out the most.

It was easiest to identify when the longest syllable was later on in the phrase. Such as “I got chiiillllls,” the famous melody from Grease is elongated on the word chills, so the brain has time to switch to singing on that word. Also it was quicker when slang mirrors the way the words are uniquely articulated in the song. For example, “I got a feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night” is a very particular way of phrasing that sentiment that bring the Black Eyed Peas song to mind. If it was “I have a feeling that tonight will be a good night,” that would not make the song come as easily to mind.

In these cases, words and melody are inextricably linked if you know the song.


At the bottom, I wrote out part of the rhythm for not throwing away my shot as sung in Hamilton. I morphed the notes into soldiers to connect the melody to the narrative of Hamilton. The staff easily lends itself to turn into an American flag.

We see lyrics from songs everywhere. After beginning this project, I started seeing them everywhere. Especially around patriotic songs, these songs are plentiful around the 4th of July and feel easier to recall than famous words spoken.


Like this flag hanging outside my parents house this weekend. 

In Hamilton, George Washington’s final song, One Last Time, draws directly from Washington’s Farewell Address. Does that help us remember his words? For me, it makes them more accessible.

I love this performance that unites politicians with the historical One Last Time.

Political figures will also do the reverse and call on songs to create a feeling of cultural unity by quoting songs everyone knows.

One of the greatest speeches of all time, Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream speech, calls on biblical passages, patriotic songs, and spiritual songs to connect with the audience’s collective knowledge. Ending famously with:

“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

He quotes both “My Country Tis of Thee” and the spiritual “Free at last.” It is a historic masterpiece that intertwines words with song. His cadence of speech is memorable and those who hear the speech can easily recall phrases he uses by the way they sound.

As we celebrate Independence Day this year, it is important to look back on our American cultural memory. How do our narratives and melodies let every voice be heard? Where have we come from and how can we honor the past while building a better future for our country and all who live here?

You Will Be Found

The Chicago Children’s Choir brought together all of its choirs to for Paint the Town Red in Millennium Park kicking off the summer season. As the largest choral organization in the country, it was an impressive showing of 4,600 singers from in-school and after-school programs and CCC alumni singers.

Chicago Children's Choir

The presentation felt a lot like a big profile pop concert (like Beyonce could appear at any minute.) From the videos, to the choreography, to finale with bubbles, the production value was very professional. You can even watch the whole performance, which was live recorded, on their website.

What these singers can do in their performance is equally impressive. From the clarity of their singing, to the eloquence of their speeches and the precision of their choreography, the group was able to show its talent across programs and in its top choir, the Voice of Chicago.

They really do bring people together and Paint the Town Red was a perfect example of uniting children from all cross the city in music. They tour all over the world. They shared the impact of their tour to Cuba and this summer they go on tour to Italy. Children get a chance to interact firsthand with people of different cultures. They have performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera, and Chance the Rapper.

This really is a cultural treasure in our city and I recommend seeing one of their shows if you have not. But it got me thinking how there are even more children we can reach through the arts and it was a reminder of how powerful of an experience that can be.

With the Tony’s next Sunday, it’s one of my favorite times of the year. This year, I’ve really been digging into Dear Evan Hansen which is nominated for 9 Tony Awards. I think there is so much potential in the musical to explore with students.

Image result for dear evan hansen

The musical follows the title character, Evan Hansen, who navigates high school with social anxiety. He gets caught up in a lie and the story unfolds around themes of connecting in the age of social media and mental health. It’s timely and relevant.

Bringing Dear Evan Hansen into the classroom, the opportunity arises to meaningfully discuss mental health, bullying, and emotion.
I’m researching an article analyzing on the musical focusing on the song “Waving through a Window” sung by the character Evan Hansen to express his desire to connect despite his social anxiety. My suggestion is dance movement therapy (DMT) should be recommended to Evan Hansen because of his use of movement and stalling themes in the lyrics and music of the song.
Students can engage in this type of research too. Through this lesson plan, students will be able to:
  • Analyze a text
  • Use Dance Movement Therapy techniques to consider their individuality in a community
  • Perform music as a group
I recommend this workshop be around 5 hours. It could take the form of a full day workshop, a week long, or month long residency.
I would start with a discussion of emotions. How many emotions can they come up with? Make a list of emotions and encourage more complex emotions. Start with a more simple emotion and ask students to close their eyes and think about a time when they felt that emotion. Have them try to recreate their state of mind. Ask them if they can think about how their body felt when they experienced that emotion. What movements did their body make involuntarily?
Have them open their eyes and ask for a volunteer to show that emotion in their body. Then ask if students had thought of similar movements or if there is someone else who had another way the felt about the emotion.
Repeat the activity with a more complex emotion.
Then show the students the image below from a study in which participants were asked to identify in their body where they felt emotions. Are there emotions here that students strongly agree with or disagree with?

Expand the conversation around actions we associate with these emotions. What motions do we use for disgust? Surprise? Depression? Anxiety? Brainstorm as a group different situations in which people may feel these emotions and have students act out scenarios (either in small groups or embody the emotions as a full group).

Be sure to consider Anxiety and Depression. Could thinking about mental health in connection with movement help doctors, therapists, friends better understand?

Now, introduce Dear Evan Hansen. Explain the musical and the character of Evan Hansen and his social anxiety. Watch the clip below of the song and have students respond to the emotions of the song and his body language.

Pass out the lyrics to the song and tell students you will play it twice through to have them dig deeper into the words. On the first listen, have students circle all of the verbs. On the second listen, have students underline the subjects.

What do students notice? How are sentences put together? How does the music work with these words?

Have them look particularly at the subject “I.” Evan flips back and forth between I and you as the subject of the sentence when referring to himself. Sometimes, he doesn’t even use a subject at all.  What effect does this have?

Then encourage students to think about how these subjects and verbs interact with the music. Does the music give us more information than just the lyrics? Many times when he uses I, there is a pause in the music before the verb (“I – wait around for an answer to appear”).

How is what Evan is expressing consistent with social anxiety? How does he embody his feelings?

After a break or some time in the unit, return to this material. Students will create their own Identity Dances or IDs that will then be combined into a final performance.

They will brainstorm adjectives to describe themselves. They can write them or draw representations of them on a paper. They should aim to come up with 10 words. They should try to write the first words that come to mind. Then, they will narrow it down to three and then to one word.

Let students split up into their own area of the room to come up with a movement for their word. A few students can share their word, motion, or both.

Repeat the exercise together for the whole group. What motion will represent what we are as a community? The can be a combination of suggestions from students to create a dance phrase that can be repeated.

Keep these dance moves on hold because they will be the choreography for the song. Listen to “You Will Be Found.” This is an opportunity for students to think about how many unique voices can blend together to create a song.
Solo and Ensemble: One person and the full group
Four part harmony: 4 voice types, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass singing unique parts
Teach them the above terms and have them listen to the song with an ear for moments when they are used.
I would love to hear more children singing “You Will Be Found” from the show. (The Chicago Children’s Choir could do quite a number on this piece.)

Teach the song. Depending on how much time you have and the level of the students, introduce some solos and harmony. Choreography can be simple. Try to use the group identity dance for the chorus or on the words “You Will be Found.” Have them do their individual identity dances as the final phrase into a final pose.

This is the main outline for the lesson and trust exercises, warm-ups etc. are encouraged. Singing, dancing, and celebrating bring people together. A powerful network can be formed around the arts to support individuals who struggle with mental health. The teenage years can be particularly difficult and I think that is one of the things that makes Dear Evan Hansen so special; it offers hope.

Dance Theatre of Harlem: Return

I’m still feeling energized and thankful for a stunning production by Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Auditorium Theatre last weekend.

It’s the time of year for valuing the people in our lives. I’ve been having a relaxing time with family away from the city for Thanksgiving, but part of my heart is still at the Dance Theatre of Harlem student matinee with my students. Continue reading