Hamilton: pro/cons of knowing the story/music ahead of time?
May 15, 2016 5:54 PM   Subscribe

Should I read Alexander Hamilton (the book) or listen to Hamilton (the music) before actually seeing it live?

I'm seeing Hamilton in a month (eee!). My partner who is an avid fan has been listening to the soundtrack non-stop. I haven't read the book or listened to Hamilton. I get the general idea behind the musical. Would it be worth it to read the book or listen/read the lyrics beforehand?
posted by inevitability to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If it were me, I'd at least give the cast recording a spin once or twice. I feel like the density of words and information being thrown at you is so high it would be worth having some familiarity with what's going on, if only to appreciate some of the nuances when you're there live.

I think you can skip Chernow for these purposes (although it's certainly a great book and worth reading). Hope you have a great time!
posted by soonertbone at 6:02 PM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

I saw it after being sorta familiar with it (in December) and after knowing every word (in April). It was great either way, but I really liked knowing it inside and out; I heard everything and it let the surprises of the stage (things I didn't get from the recording) really jump out.

Also, while I think the thing about it being a hip-hop musical has been slightly over hyped (a lot of it sounds like .... a musical), there are a ton of words, so it's nice to know at least some in advance.
posted by purpleclover at 6:03 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, and agree. Skip Chernow. (But I liked it.)
posted by purpleclover at 6:03 PM on May 15, 2016

You could split the difference and read the book that Lin and Jeremy McCarter put together about making the musical and has all the lyrics, with cool explanations and notes - Hamilton: The Revolution.

(Not sure when you said "the book" if you meant Chernow or this one.)
posted by Merinda at 6:05 PM on May 15, 2016

Sorry, I meant Chernow. I didn't know Miranda wrote that book!
posted by inevitability at 6:15 PM on May 15, 2016

Another vote for listening to the music and reading some sort of background - maybe these annotated lyrics?

In my experience live musicals are happening fast and can be a little hard to follow; even with a recording I sometimes listen to a song a few times before I catch all of the lyrics and make key connections. I cannot imagine that preparing will diminish your enjoyment.
posted by bunderful at 6:24 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hamilton is so dense that you won't possibly be able to pick everything up on your first listen. Or second. Or fifth. Add in all of the stunning stuff actually happening on stage, and I would very much recommend against going in blind. I saw it having read the Chernow book and listened to the full soundtrack enough times to be able to sing most of it by heart, and I felt like I had just the right amount of prep: it meant I could focus on what made the actual show itself unique rather than focusing on trying to actually catch all the lyrics.
posted by Itaxpica at 6:28 PM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

(You can probably skip Chernow; if I hadn't heard the music I would have been glad I had read it but knowing the music makes it moot, and it is a very long book. It's worth reading but it is very much a project)
posted by Itaxpica at 6:32 PM on May 15, 2016

I've seen it twice - the first time I deliberately didn't listen to any of the soundtrack. The second time (3 months later) I had listened to it obsessively (and read the annotations and all the interviews and everything I could possibly read about the show). Really fascinating to compare the experiences (won't go into it for the purposes of this question, feel free to memail me).

I would listen to the soundtrack a few times, so you get the general gist of what's happening. Then you can look for some of the more nuanced stuff that's going on in the background while you are watching it.
posted by gaspode at 6:32 PM on May 15, 2016

Don't read Hamilton: the Revolution first! There's a big spoiler not on the cast album in there.
posted by praemunire at 6:35 PM on May 15, 2016

Go for it. The lyrics are so dense and well-crafted, it's worth multiple listens.

And if you have managed to avoid hearing any of it thus far, and your partner is totally obsessed, it's probably a really good idea to hear it beforehand in case you happen to be totally not into it - so you have time to process your lack of interest, think of a diplomatic response, and avoid ruining your partner's Hamilgasm with "it was ok, I guess."
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:39 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Respectfully dissenting here.

Read the Wikipedia bio of A.Ham, and nothing else, and allow yourself some modicum of the surprise that enabled critics to freak out over what they saw when it was making its way up the ranks.
posted by mahorn at 6:52 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hamilton in particular, as everyone is saying, is incredibly dense.

It depends on what you get out of these things. I LIKE knowing the music and story before I see the musical because I want to be able to really pay attention to the performances - in this case, when I finally get to see Hamilton, I am going to know the ever-living crap out of the cast album, and I cannot WAIT to really be able to watch the performances instead of struggling to follow the music and story while also trying to SEE the performances.

I also don't care about being spoiled for TV or movie things, so YMMV.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:23 PM on May 15, 2016

I went in cold on purpose and really enjoyed it. I didn't find it hard to follow, but remember thinking that I would have if I hadn't already been a fan of pretty dense, wordy hip-hop.
posted by town of cats at 7:52 PM on May 15, 2016

I went in mostly cold--the only things I'd remembered were that he was the 1st secretary of the treasury and died in the duel with Aaron Burr-- and loved it. My quibble is: would he have been considered an immigrant at the time, given that he was a fellow British subject?
posted by brujita at 8:53 PM on May 15, 2016

I feel like you will enjoy it more and have more room to pay attention to the staging/acting of you have some familiarity with the cast album.

(I saw it last week and it was breathtaking; I have been listening to the cast album for a few months. YMMV, as with anything.)
posted by rtha at 10:35 PM on May 15, 2016

Another vote for listening to the cast recording a few times before you see it live. Hamilton is amazing, but dense, and it took me a few runs through the music to really understand all the references. I recommend the CD + the annotated lyrics on Genius if you have the time/interest. Enjoy the musical!
posted by girasoli at 12:29 AM on May 16, 2016

I wish I had access to the cast album before we saw it (last January) because the comments about the word density are true. it will in no way diminish your enjoyment- it is an amazing production - enjoy!
posted by bluesky43 at 6:45 AM on May 16, 2016

Here is a guide that offers varying levels of Hamilton familiarity for if you want to listen to something less than all but more than none. (Or, if you like, something more than all -- there's an "additional listening" section if you want to be really REALLY prepared.)
posted by babelfish at 8:14 AM on May 16, 2016

I went in so cold I hadn't even heard of the play before. (A friend walked over and said "hey, do you want to go see this play with me tomorrow?" back when it was still at the Public. I almost declined the offer, not knowing what I was turning down).

I am glad I saw it totally cold. My expectations were zero, and therefore I was completely blown away.
posted by slateyness at 10:15 AM on May 16, 2016

That shock isn't possible now, though, because pretty much everyone who's going to go does so knowing it's a giant phenom.

We probably can't see it before late in the year, but we've been listening to the soundtrack nearly constantly for months. It's amazingly dense, and absolutely supports multiple listens (obviously). Having some familiarity with it will help you in the show.

The other thing, suggested to me by John Hodgman, is that holding off means you're deliberately reducing the number of days in your life in which you have the Hamilton music in your brain. That seems like a bad plan.
posted by uberchet at 10:20 AM on May 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

My answer depends on whether you're the type to see shows more than once (and with this show, knowing the second time will be far away).

Seeing it cold is one of the greatest experiences of my life. Even with all the hype, if you haven't heard any of it, there is no way you know what to expect. I didn't have any trouble following the show, but I know I missed a lot and it's pretty overwhelming.

That being said, I've told people to listen to the cast album first. My cold viewing was incredible, stunning, there are no words, but if you're only going to see it once, listen to the cast album so you can pay attention to more than just trying to follow the plot. There is so much in the score that just whizzes right over your head the first couple of times, and the staging is also very dense. There are many things I missed the first couple of times I saw it because there's so much going on.
posted by Mavri at 1:59 PM on May 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nthing that seeing it cold can be super intense. I wept three or four times because of the the way the songs drove the narrative twists.

The soundtrack was not available when I walked out of the theater. A month later, I got the album and cried again for days. Helpless/Satisfied is a full on masterpiece.
posted by bruceo at 5:51 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ok, I hear you all, thanks. We're going to do a wine and cheese night this weekend and listen to the soundtrack with annotated lyrics.
posted by inevitability at 4:24 AM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just dropping by to say I was about to ask this same question. Glad to see it's been answered so well.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:33 AM on May 12, 2017

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