New York – Most Broadway cast albums are not the kind of things you typically blast in your car with the windows rolled down. But most shows aren’t like “Hamilton.”
The groundbreaking, biographical hip-hop show about the life of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton has taken Broadway by storm, and a two-disc CD out this month promises to spread the word further.
“I’m just so proud to be part of this thing and hopefully it gives some kids hope that musical theater can be anything,” said Anthony Ramos, who plays John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in the show. “All the rules have been broken.”
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical tells the true story of an orphan immigrant from the Caribbean who rises to the highest ranks of American society, told by a young African-American and Latino cast.
It’s got a terrifically varied score, ranging from pop ballads to sexy R&B to rap battles, with lyrical nods to Gilbert and Sullivan, Jason Robert Brown, “South Pacific” and the Notorious B.I.G.
“Lin is bilingual. Not just in Spanish and English, but bilingual in his fluency of musical theater and hip-hop,” said Pete Ganbarg, an executive vice president and head of A&R for Atlantic Records. “I don’t think anyone has the capability of having been able to do that before and that’s why it’s so effective.”
As a signal of how important the album is considered, Atlantic Records tapped Questlove and Black Thought, founding members of the hip-hop/soul group The Roots, to help produce it.
“Musically, it speaks to different generations,” said Ganbarg. “It’s our hope that not only will the jeeps be rocking it on the West Side Highway but the SUVs and the minivans on the way to soccer practice.”
The cast album has been available on iTunes since the last week of September, and easily went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Broadway Album chart. But unlike most cast recordings, it also hit No. 3 on the Top Rap Albums chart, No. 12 on the Top 200 chart and No. 9 on the Top Current Albums chart. The shrink-wrapped CDs — 46 songs over 21/2 hours with lyrics — hits stores Oct. 16. It has been streamed more than 2 million times.
Most cast albums are recorded on the first day the cast has off after the show’s opening, but no one wanted to rush it with “Hamilton.” It was recorded over two weeks.
“We knew we wanted to record the whole show, and if you tried to do it all in one day it would have been way too thrown together. We basically made a double album, when you think about it,” said Alex Lacamoire, a Tony winner for orchestrating Miranda’s “In the Heights.”
Lacamoire, who conducts “Hamilton” eight times weekly, is all over the album: He oversaw the music direction and orchestrations, co-arranged the music and co-produced the album. He even played keyboard.
He recorded everything in layers, not by song. Lacamoire got the rhythm section to come in and record their parts over several days and then invited the string section. The singers came in the second week.
Ramos almost didn’t make it to the studio. He underwent emergency appendectomy surgery just days before singing on the album and could barely walk. But the opportunity to add his voice to musical theater history was too good to pass up.
“In the back of my mind, I’m like, ‘Am I going to be able to do this album?’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘You’re absolutely going to do the album even if you have to be wheeled into that studio.’ ”
Atlantic Records is waiting to see how people react, and it has no plans now to release a single.
“I think the public’s going to end up deciding how far this goes,” said Riggs Morales, vice president of A&R and artist development at Atlantic.
Morales calls the Broadway show “a complete anomaly,” and has watched as such hip-hop luminaries as Common, Busta Rhymes, Alicia Keys and Q-Tip come and be blown away.
“You’ve had pretty much the gatekeepers of the hip-hop world walk away from this floored and inspired. Hip-hop music in general has kind of been at a place creatively where no one’s tried anything new,” he said.
“So here comes this thing that’s right underneath their noses, completely flipping the concept of hip-hop music on Broadway. So it’s breaking ground on two levels. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Lacamoire said listeners are not likely to be bored since it’s very story-driven and there’s always a hook, a clever rhyme or a compelling analogy in the music.
“It is so modern and it is so fun. The question is whether or not the lyrics and content of it will make sense out of context,” he said. “Will people really want to crank up a song that talks about a financial debt plan? Will they consider that something sexy? Maybe they will. That’s the hope and all we can do is see how it plays out.”
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