I dragged my family into myobsession a few years back. My preteen daughter pretty much went straight from memorizing the Frozen soundtrack and wearing Elsa capes to rapping out the 10 Duel Commandments and playing Peggy Schuyler at a theater summer camp. On a much-scrimped-for trip to London, I swallowed hard, tried not to think about my bank balance, and nabbed us tickets to see the show at the Victoria Palace Theatre. (“All the way from London? Damn!”)
I’ve seen the show live twice, pored over creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 270-page book about the making of the show, read (parts of) Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography that inspired it, and even visited the Marquis de Lafayette’s US flag-draped grave in a small Paris cemetery. (“Ev’ryone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!”) And now the much-anticipated hip-hop musical is, with the original 2016 Broadway cast. So whether you’re coming to the room where it happens for the first time, or you’re practically an honorary Schuyler sister, here are six surprising scenes to watch for. (Spoilers ahead.)
1. Keep an eye on the bullet
There’s a semi-secret character in Hamilton. One dancer in every production — it’s Ariana DeBose in the film — plays The Bullet. She’s never introduced as such, but the actions she takes are those that that signify death. She steps close to cast members who are about to die, hands Burr his quill when he challenges Hamilton to the fatal duel, and whizzes by Hamilton when his death is mentioned or suggested, playing a special role, of course, in his last moments.
To find DeBose, look for a dancer with a distinctive poof of curls, and pay attention to the lyrics and actions that are taking place on stage when she makes a prominent appearance. When Burr and Hamilton have their famed duel, her purpose becomes crystal clear. Read this 2016 interview with DeBose to read about how she’s always aiming for the title character.
2. One scene is not on the soundtrack
If you’re like me, you played the entire Hamilton soundtrack over and over again before you ever dreamed of seeing the show. And no question, you can understand and fall in love with the show that way. But when you watch the movie, you may be surprised to see a short scene where Eliza reads Hamilton a letter telling of the death of his dear friend John Laurens. In a Tumblr post, Miranda explained that he left the scene off of the soundtrack intentionally. It’s more a scene than a song, he says, and more powerful when seen.
Also, as a Broadway fan himself, he wanted to save one revelation for those seeing the show itself and not just listening to the soundtrack. “Please understand that the reason I left this scene off the album is precisely BECAUSE I value it (and Laurens) so much,” Miranda says.
3. Look for Broadway and rap homages
Miranda is a music buff, raised on Broadway shows, rap, hip-hop and other genres. He’s peppered the show with musical references kind of like Easter eggs in video games. In My Shot, he includes “you’ve got to be carefully taught,” which is familiar to many of us from South Pacific. In Right Hand Man, George Washington calls himself “the model of a modern major general,” which is of course, a famous line from Pirates of Penzance.
And in Story of Tonight, Hamilton and friends toast to their impending battle while drinking together, then revisit the song later. Miranda writes in the book Hamilton: The Revolution that he was inspired by the group of friends in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along, who sing a recurring chorus toasting their friendship.
There are plenty of rap and hip-hop references — a couple are very easy to spot. The 10 Duel Commandments pays homage to Biggie Smalls’ The Ten Crack Commandments. In My Shot, Hamilton says he’s “only 19 but my mind is older,” and in Shook Ones Part II, by hip-hop duo Mobb Deep, a lyric runs, “I’m only 19 but my mind is old.” And the rhythm Hamilton uses to spell out his name is very similar to when Smalls spells out N-O, T-O, R-I, O, U-S (for “Notorious B.I.G.”) in Going Back to Cali.
4. Spot the censorship
Hamilton the musical deals with serious subjects indeed — death, infidelity, grief, the violence of war and revolution. The filmed version has been rated PG-13, but Miranda explained on Twitter that the show uses the F-word three times, and in order to hold that PG-13 rating movie can only use it once. So he let the censors snip that word twice. Soundtrack obsessives — why are you looking at me? — will notice them when they happen, but if you’re wondering, here they are:
- In Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down), the exuberant Hercules Mulligan shouts that he will “get the fuck back up again,” but the movie mutes it.
- And in an iconic moment during Washington On Your Side, Jefferson and Madison sing of themselves as “southern motherfuckin’ Democratic Republicans!” In the movie, the swearing part is bleeped over. (Miranda said it would be replaced with a record scratch, and maybe it was, but I replayed it three times and just heard a blurred sound.) It’s not a big deal, really, and as Miranda himself said on Twitter, he literally “gave two fucks so the kids could see it.”
5. US vs UK changes
As you watch, you can keep an eye out for three tiny instances where the lyrics you hear in the film were changed for the play’s London performances. None are major, and if you only see the film, you’ll never see the British changes, but for Hamilton completists, it’s fun to know what they are. (I saw it in both countries, and can confirm the lines were shifted for London patrons.) They all seem to be based on very specific US references that Brits may not get.
- In Take a Break, “John Adams doesn’t have a real job anyway” is changed to “vice president isn’t a real job anyway,” perhaps assuming that Brits wouldn’t know Adams’ role. Heck, I’d bet many Americans didn’t know Adams was vice president either.
- In Your Obedient Servant, Aaron Burr challenges Hamilton to a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. Instead of the US lyric of “Weehawken. Dawn. Guns. Drawn,” the Brits hear, “Jersey. Dawn. Guns. Drawn.” The Brits probably could’ve figured that Weehawken was a place name from context, but the change was made anyway.
- And a similar geographic change was made for Brits in The Room Where It Happens, when the site of the US capitol is being discussed, a line that ran, “I propose the Potomac,” turned into, “Well have him over, propose it.” Seems to be assumed that mention of Washington DC’s Potomac River wouldn’t make sense to the English.
6. Catting around
This is so minor, but so purr-fect. In A Winter’s Ball, Aaron Burr claims that Hamilton was such a ladies’ man that “Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after him,” and a cocky A.Ham chimes in, “That’s true!”
It’s probably not. (Hamilton plays fast and loose with a lot of facts, many much bigger than this — Angelica’s love life, for one.) Miranda admits in the book Hamiton: The Revolution that the cat story was “probably a tale John Adams spread later in life.” And the official site of the Washingtons’ Virginia home, Mount Vernon, admits that the first couple were really more dog people — though they did have barn cats, so who knows what Martha may have named the tomcattiest of them all?
Hamilton is printable online version of the program from the week the show was filmed, with cast biographies, headshots, the song list and more.. And if you want the full theater experience, Playbill has posted a
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