Music, Review

Hamilton, The Soundtrack – An Unseen Musical

Hamilton is the musical making huge waves in the US, becoming increasingly well known in arts/music and creative pockets around the world. Over in London, where I am, where numerous shows have been born – or made their way to from Broadway – the only downside to Hamilton is that I probably won’t ever see it performed with its original cast.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who stars as the show’s titular character, wrote the book, lyrics and music for Hamilton; based on a 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. Miranda also recently won the Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album which speaks to the power of the music in the show, and why I wanted to write about it.

Alexander Hamilton is one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. While this part of history is well documented, its more well known by those across the pond. But even then, Hamilton’s life has never, I believe, had this level of notoriety. Such is the power of a musical to reach a wider world.

Hamilton is a musical that is mostly sung-through, a term meaning that there is little to no spoken dialogue. As a result, you can understand the story from the music. Typically, I prefer to see the show before I listen to a musical’s soundtrack. But Hamilton was different. As I mentioned, I’m unlikely to see this musical in its current run and unless I fly to America and somehow get a ticket to the show, I won’t see it for many years, if at all. But I wanted to know what the hype was all about. I’d heard Hamilton described as a hip-hop style musical, mashing the historic time with contemporary music. Not unconnected but also interesting, the show has colour-blind casting, meaning there are hispanic and black actors, among others, playing majority white historical figures. This is used to ground the audience in the present, while the costumes reflect the past setting.

But why talk about the music, when I haven’t seen the musical? Because I’ve imagined it, I’ve heard it and, most importantly, I’ve felt it. Listening to the 46 track album, I’ve laughed, wanted to march and teared up. I’ve felt those waves of emotion that comes from seeing something that resonates, but I’ve only heard it.

The mastery of the music, in the choices of the lyrics, the moments that have been selected to piece together this story are so interesting. Alexander Hamilton is at times heroic, but he’s not always the classic hero, at least not one who always does the right thing. He’s hopeful and naive to start, but that makes him brilliant. Without his brashness, intelligence and candor, he wouldn’t have been able to get his wife, have his son, become the first United States Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington. Yet, he does fall from grace and accepts his mistakes. He lived his life well, as honestly as he could, regardless of how honest he was with those around him.

As I write this I realise I should note that I haven’t read a biography of him. I don’t know these things as facts, corroborated by historians and factual accounts. Rather, this is what I’ve learned from this telling of the story.

I don’t want to go into the plot too much because I would rather you get to see it, or hear it, for yourself. I don’t watch trailers for movies I know I’m going to see to avoid spoilers and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment and natural emotional connection by telling you where and when to notice smart lines, quick asides or the most gut-punching songs.

If you aren’t convinced, or still don’t know why you should take notice of Hamilton, consider the opening number the blurb on the back of the book and watch this performance of it at the Grammys:

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Music, Opinion, Television

Reading, Watching, Listening : Best of 2015

Here’s what I’ve been loving in 2015:

TV

BANANA (& CUCUMBER) – queer drama series on UK TV from Russell T Davies of Torchwood and Queer as Folk.

THE FOSTERS – three season strong, this family dramas anout a same sex headed family of bio, foster and adopted children is heartwarming, interesting and deals with queer, race and other social issues in a smart way.

DAREDEVIL – the Hells Kitchen hero who sees the grit and corruption, despite being blind, and takes a stand. He’s also superpower-less meaning we see him tire, ache and break. Fantastic.

SENSE8 – the most LGBT drama series with a superpower twist, 8 people from locations around the world are thrown into each other’s heads and become emotionally connected. Riveting character exploration and real location filming gives a true sense of scale.

Movies

INSIDE OUT – Pixar returns to greatness with the five aspects of a twelve year olds mind. Everything I wanted it to be and more. Prepare to laugh, gasp and cry. All the feels.

Music

Pentatonix (Self Titled) – acapella goes mainstream, great songs from extraordinary voices that won a Grammy.

RWBY SOUNDTRACK (1&2) – the epic web series from Rooster Teeth, created by the late Monty Oum, has an exqually epic soundtrack. Tracks by Jeff Williams and best songs ft Casey Lee Williams.

Book

YOU’RE NEVER WEIRD ON THE INTERNET ALMOST by Felicia Day – one of my favourite geeks wrote a memoir, how could I not love it. Learn how being the outsider helped her find her tribe online.

BINGE by Tyler Oakley – I thought I knew this YouTuber, who is hilarious and ridiculous in the best way, but I had no idea till I read his book. A collection of stories that proves we’re kindred spirits.

Podcasts

INVISIBILIA – exploring the hidden forces in our world. This podcast gave me infinite creative ideas based on the concepts discussed, from hive emotions to computers.

POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR – for the cultural discussion, the ideal set of other perspectives on movies and Tv shows and for introducing me to Glen Wheldon

Comic Books

ALL NEW X-MEN – the lastest series has brought the classic X-men to the future, revealed Iceman is gay and given us Professor Kitty Pryde. A wonderful series, drawn in a beautiful way, its new classic X-men greatness.

UNCANNY X-MEN – Another series that explores the X-men divided, in the aftermath of the Phoenix Force return. The series centres on Cyclops’ new X-men, New Xavier School and feature, my personal favourite, Emma Frost in a central role.

Web Series

RED VS. BLUE – the longest running online series hit a crescendo with its latest season. The soldiers from Blood Gulch have travelled the stars, going from strength to strength. Hilarious comedy, stellar action and outstanding animation.

RWBY – Another series from Rooster Teeth (RED VS. BLUE), this time the magickal world of Remnant sees a main cast of four young women learning to defend their world from the creatures of Grimm. Season 3 is being released bi-weekly now!

L.A.R.P.S. – From Geek & Sundry (THE GUILD) comes a series based on people who play Live Action Role Play. Marathon this series on YouTube and become immersed in two worlds, the characters and the people. Makes me want to LARP.

 

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Lessons From Lyrics, Music

Lessons from Lyrics: “Don’t Forget Me” from Smash/Bombshell

There are some in this world who have strength of their own, 

Never broken or in need of repair.

But there are some born to shine who can’t do it alone,

So protect them and take special care”

When Katherine McPhee first sang those lines in Smash, I felt chills. Empowered, hopeful, defiant and pleading feelings rippled across my body, mind and soul. Like ASMR, some songs and lyrics specifically resonate with you in unexpected ways.

In the song, in the fictional show within a show (stay with me), McPhee’s character Karen is playing Marilyn Monroe. Its the finale of the fictitious musical Bombshell about Marilyn’s life and the writers need a way to mark the end of the show, a showstopper with heart. A cathartic final bow for Marilyn who would soon die.

While Smash, through the songs it wrote for Bombshell, used it to progress character plot lines, it was also in a meta way, crafting core points in the TV show itself, while exploring Marilyn’s story and what she means as a modern icon. As someone who changed herself so completely to become what the world would go on to adore, Marilyn was depicted by her many facets, not just her singular talents or legendary tantrums.

The song struck home for me so potently because it echoed a sentiment I’ve always felt, like it is never quite simple to say to someone: if you’re strong enough, you can do anything. Strength is such a strange subject, especially when coupled with masculinity or femininity. Men are taught to be strong, physically and emotionally (read: closed off emotionally), while women are often told to be weak, moderating their strength to appropriate levels as expected by men. Even if its wrong it applies to some people and works for them. Thankfully more contemporary ideas allow for a shift, but not as far as it should be.

But those are the strong people. What of those who struggle to find that inner strength that pulls someone through? What if you don’t know how to be courageous and sure of yourself at all times?

People who are depressed, who consider suicide, can too often be accused or being weak. As though they are taking the easiest option. But choosing to stop living is not an easy one, nor is it weak. In the minds of those struggling with life, choosing death is a show of force, not to mention the strength of conviction is takes to carry it out.

Strength has many guises. It can applied to many things. There are some people in the world who can be pushed and who grow from it. They fail or are beaten down and they have this inner strength that picks them back up, makes them carry on. Then there are those who don’t have an inner voice telling them they can do it, be it, make it. For those people, being in need of help or support, doesn’t make them lesser, though in a flippant way that is often how they are treated.

Great people can only be great, if they are allowed. Some are allowed when they take the stage by force, demanding to be heard. They are brilliant and know how to show it. But some people are quietly amazing, secretly special without the ability to demand the spotlight. Caring for them and helping them to understand their worthiness shouldn’t be seen as a double standard or coddling but something key to humanity. The best singers aren’t always the loudest.

The lyrics of “Don’t Forget Me” are some of (this version of) Marilyn’s last words. Her plea to her audience, those who knew her, the plea to create thoughts and hope. It that sustains her in her final moments, finally finding release in the song. She asks that, whatever you think of her, and whatever you believe you know of someone, that everyone has potential. Some you can see straight away and some that will need to be coaxed out. Thats what she wants her legacy to be.

Its a powerful idea if you take it to heart. Don’t just be awed by those who do well because they have their own strength. Keep an eye out for those who could be amazing but need help to get there. If you have strength to give, share it.

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Music, Review

James Taylor: Music for Generations

I grew listening up to the greatest hits of James Taylor. Fire and Rain, Carolina In My Mind and, my favourite, Sweet Baby James. They played regularly on lazy days while my mum was cooking in the kitchen or pottering around the house on a Saturday.

It’s her music, in terms of time, because she heard his songs, his albums, as they came out and fell in love with them. For her it brings back significant memories of times and places.

But in that way it’s my music too. I may not know him as well but I know the words and the voice so well that they are an innate part of how I imagine my childhood.

When I think of music, real music, the songs rather than the tracks, I think of James Taylor among a dwindling number of musicians left who actually create great music in the way that he does. People like Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, artists who were the music as much as they created it and gave their voices to the world.

I was lucky enough to get to see James Taylor at The Royal Albert Hall this past week. Having never been to the amazing venue before, I was not only astounding by the space and sound but the people in attendance. I was certainly in the minority, one of only a few clearly under 30 people who had come to see him. Granted James Taylor didn’t reach the heights of The Beatles; whom he worked with when he was starting out, but he was able to fill the Hall for two nights as part of his tour.

The first and only other time I say him live I was fully immersed in my teenage years. I attended an open air gig with my family and some family friends but didn’t really pay attention. I could hear him play and enjoyed it, but my focus was on my GameBoy Advance.

Knowing that I hadn’t taken advantage of the opportunity I’d been offered then, I was excited to absorb as much as I could at this performance. We were in wonderful seats in the centre floor section, seated near enough to easily see the stage. The enthusiasm from the crowd was cheerful and uplifting. This was a crowd who’d grown with him, they’d stayed with him for years and so roared with applause after their favourite songs and were more than willing to dance in the aisles near the end of the show.

There was a politeness to the fandom; though I hesitate to call them that, because they respected him as much as they adored him. Unlike the younger bands and artists of today who gain cult following, often overnight, leading to unbalanced obsession and dedication, the fans here were respectful in their enthusiasm.

The show was just that, not only a performance but a show, a discussion between James Taylor and his fans. His conversation was easy and friendly. He loves what he does and is grateful to get to do it.

He played favourites and new songs in the first act, mingling the expected with freshness. After all, he’s been singing many of these songs for actual decades. He second half was full of the greatest hits that I’d grown up. Though he performed the songs with the twists and changes of someone redoing the familiar, he added stories and anecdotes about the creation of certain hits to make this experience special. From songs that were lyrically questionable – because they can’t all be the great – with melodies he enjoyed, to the background of Sweet Baby James which came with backing images on screens of a pop-up book with representations of the lyrics.

He had written it while on his way to meet his just born nephew for the first time. Being a country man himself and with the little man named after him, he thought a cowboy lullaby would be the most appropriate gift. And so Sweet Baby James was created.

The night was perfectly lovely, emotionally fulfilling and musically uplifting. James is a wonderful performer, with a voice that is almost unchanged and a supporting band who are very talented. They performed as a team and a family.

I did wonder at the time if in 25 years, when I’m heading up to my parent’s age, if there will be a singer I can see again and again, who fills me with as much joy. I think perhaps the only one who springs to mind is Rufus Wainwright.

I attended his show on my own because I adore his music, falling in love with his voice at the very first song; Hallelujah, and then desperately seeking out more. With so many artists disappearing before their time or rising then falling out of existence within a few years, its hard to see a core musical future with established performers.

Fingers crossed anyway.

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Music

Somehow my iPod always knows what song I need to hear.

I’m sitting on the train, only a few minutes away from Brighton. It’s my first journey to the city that was my home for five years since moving to London.

I love my new London life, and with only two weeks under my belt, it is still so new.
But Brighton will always have a special, cheesy, place in my heart. The song that reminds me of this, as sunlight streams in through the clean-ish windows of the train carriage, is My Life Would Suck Without You.

Every line and lyric just adds to my excitement, nostalgia and warm memories of Brighton. Even though I don’t really belong there now, I’ve moved on and moved forward, My life would have sucked if I hadn’t been to Brighton.

I grew up in this seaside town in ways I never expected to and with people I never knew could be important to me. The places, both my favourites and the places that are no more, all hold special meaning. I can still imagine what route I could take to pass by and visit each of my old haunts. Something I did on many a Sunday.

Of course, now that I’m gone I know I saw it through rose tinted contact lenses.

It was just the city I needed at the time. There were a disappointing number of people that I didn’t ever want in my life, but I think I took a little experience from each of them. Thankfully, I don’t feel as though I lost anyone, they were just temporary, like the people from that summer job before uni. Fun and entertaining at the time but not there for the long haul.

Anyway, the sun is going down and my train is pulling in so I’m off to the windy beach to watch the sunset and remember the days gone by.

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