A mixed bag of a mixtape still has worthy interpretations

The most exciting part of The Hamilton Mixtape is how it harkens back to a time when popular music and Broadway were intertwined. Whether it was the music of the time being structured around a narrative, like Gershwin’s songs for An American In Paris, or the pop stars of the day covering hit songs, such as Frank Sinatra cutting an album of Rodgers & Hammerstein songs. There’s a storied history of the interchange between the two bastions of music.

Recently Broadway has been doing a lot more taking than giving with the larger cultural zeitgeist. Though there have been jukebox musicals like Jersey Boys and Rock of Ages that make use of popular songs and creating a story to fit them, few pop music stars are looking to Broadway for inspiration (Beyonce including ‘Listen’ from Dreamgirls in her concerts notwithstanding, after all, the song was written for her in the film version). Even when well known pop composers dip their toes into the waters of Broadway, they usually change their style to fit the stage, rather than the other way around. Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening is a good example of this, though he retains much of his pop sensibility (this is even more on display in the sadly maligned American Psycho musical, which features a gorgeous soundscape from Sheik). Even Rupert Holmes (yes the singer of ‘The Pina Colada Song’) is a prolific writer for Broadway, whose Mystery of Edwin Drood has been very successful in its various iterations over the years.

Hamilton, as most of you (okay, ALL of you) will know by now, is set to change that. The hit musical is already an outlier because it is a show where the music is focused on combining hip hop and R&B with traditional musical theater. While not the first of its kind given Composer/Lyricist /Writer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s own Tony Award winning In The Heights and other, less successful amalgamations like Holler If Ya Hear Me, it is the most successful attempt yet.

It seemed inevitable given Hamilton‘s enormous cultural impact that we would see a resurgence of interest and engagement from artists outside the traditional Broadway spectrum, and so The Hamilton Mixtape has emerged. A collection of 23 tracks that cover, adapt, and play with songs both from and cut from Hamilton‘s libretto. The artists who contributed range from soft pop singers, late night hosts, and hip hop icons. The results of this hodgepodge of talent and style makes for a sometimes dissonant experience, but one that still feels absolutely exciting in terms of once again showing the power and inspiration that can come out of Broadway.

My general rule about covers of songs is this: I want to see the original improved upon or adapted in a way that feels fresh or unique. If the piece is simply performed as is, it will just be compared to the original piece from the show, which in this case is a steep comparison, considering the level of talent in Hamilton‘s original cast. The best tracks in The Hamilton Mixtape take this idea and run with it. The Roots (producers on the original cast recording) are the glue that hold the Mixtape together, appearing on several of the tracks throughtout the album. They open with ‘No John Trumbull’ segueing into the powerful cover of ‘My Shot’ featuring Busta Rhymes, Joell Ortiz, and Nate Ruess. The verses dropped by Busta and Ortiz within the framework of the song are a wonderful representation of how the best tracks on the album allow the artists to express themselves while maintaining the scope and message of each song. This personal connection between the artists and the materials is never clearer than in ‘Wrote My Way Out’ and ‘Immigrants’, two tracks which show how the artists’ own stories so closely echo Alexander Hamilton’s quintessential American story in how they emerged from their communities determined to be greater than their beginnings.

Other high points on the album include Sia, Miguel, and Queen Latifah’s ‘Satisfied’, which is a great showcase for Sia’s usual panache and intensity. Regina Spektor and Ben Folds lend a solid sweetness to ‘Dear Theodosia’. Kelly Clarkson dominates the album with a show-stopping version of ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’, which, alongside the hip hop infused tracks I’ve already mentioned, is the best interpretation of a song from the original recording. The most difficult part of singing from a show where the music is so heavily connected to the story (why we don’t see pop artists sampling Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre, for instance) is taking the song not only out of context of the musical, but giving it its own context to stand on its own. Clarkson, one of our great pop artists, not only executes the song to perfection, she makes it completely her own.

While ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ may be the crown jewel of the album, it’s followed immediately by a subpar version of ‘That Would Be Enough’ from Alicia Keys, whose breathy rendering of the song is so straight forward it can’t help but pale in comparison to Phillipa Soo’s original. Another lesser track on the album is Jimmy Fallon’s lukewarm and straight forward version of King George’s ‘You’ll Be Back’ a song that invites a great pop voice to sing it, or at least something more than the generic interpretation here. There are fair to middling tracks throughout the album, like Ashanti’s ‘Helpless’ with Ja Rule, or Jill Scott’s ‘Say Yes To This’. Andra Day delivers a solid effort on ‘Burn’, and Wiz Khalifa presents an inspired version of ‘Washingtons By Your Side’. The album ends up finishing strong, though, with a gospel-tinged version of ‘History Has Its Eyes On You’ from John Legend that is another great example of taking the original music and making it new and fresh. This trend continues with ‘Who Tells Your Story’ from The Roots featuring Common and Ingrid Michaelson. The best of the covers on the album feature a sense of ownership from the artists coming in to tackle the material. They stamped it as their own, while paying homage to the source. Conversely, the lesser efforts on the album feel like pale imitations of the original material.

There is another series of tracks on the album; songs that were cut from the original show. It’s titillating as a fan to see pieces that were cut for one reason or another. These are ‘An Open Letter’, here from Watsky feature Shockwave, a short, sharp tongued verse insulting John Adams. Miranda himself performs many of these tracks, like ‘Valley Forge’, a version of a song that remains in Hamilton, lamenting the state of the Continental Army, and ‘Cabinet Battle 3’. Any fan of Hamilton probably considers the Cabinet Battles (in Hamilton realized as rap battles) as high points of the show. The third cabinet battle here is presented as a discussion on the subject of slavery. It’s a stark track, one perhaps deemed too unrelated to the core narrative of Hamilton to remain. Still, the song feels incredibly powerful and tragic given that it ends with the cabinet deciding to push off the issue, which is a decision we still reap the consequences of hundreds of years later.

For hardcore fans of the show, the album is a must-have. For more casual listeners, there are a few choice tracks worth picking up, but the album as a whole is too disparate for a full recommendation. I’m more excited about the door this opens up for future endeavors in regards to cross-genre original works of musical theatre that are as varied as Hamilton. Maybe even some of the artists here will be inspired by Hamilton to create their own musicals, which would be a welcome burst of energy in the constantly trying-to-stay-relevant Broadway community.

Must Have Tracks: ‘My Shot’, ‘Dear Theodosia’, ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’