“Hamilton,” the hit Broadway musical biography of Alexander Hamilton, helped its composer, writer, lyricist and star Lin-Manuel Miranda win a MacArthur fellowship, and many critics seem to think it packs a lot of genius into its more than two hours. Miranda’s music is much closer to hip-hop and rap than to the usual Broadway ballads, and he explained, in an interview with Grantland, that it would be impossible to tell Hamilton’s story at the pace of a conventional musical.
“It would have to be 12 hours long, because the amount of words on the bars when you’re writing a typical song — that’s maybe got 10 words per line,” he said. “Whereas here we can cram all this shit in all the margins.”
I ran the numbers, and while he was off by a few hours, he’s basically right.
To compare the pace of “Hamilton” with that of other musicals, I counted the words in the cast albums for “Hamilton” and several other shows that are roughly representative of the range of Broadway musicals:1
- Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” (a classic operetta)
- Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” (a modern operetta)
- Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” (the first modern musical)
- Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” (the first concept musical)
- Duncan Sheik’s “Spring Awakening” (a genre-stretching rock musical)
- Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” (a commercial hit, the longest-running musical in Broadway history)
- Sherman Edwards’s “1776” (the political cousin-show to “Hamilton”)
“Hamilton” clocks in with twice as many words per minute as its closest competitor, “Spring Awakening.” With its long run time and dense lyrics, “Hamilton” has nearly an order of magnitude more words than “1776.”2
|SHOW||PREMIERED||CAST ALBUM LENGTH||TOTAL WORDS||WORDS PER MIN|
|Spring Awakening||2006||1h 1m||4,709||77|
|Phantom of the Opera||1988||1h 40m||6,789||68|
|Pirates of Penzance||1879||1h 43m||5,962||58|
The “Hamilton” score still has a fair amount of variation in pace — the fastest tracks are just shy of 200 words per minute, while the five slowest fall in the range of 64 to 80 words per minute. Three of the slow songs belong to King George III (Jonathan Groff), a political and musical intruder in the show, and are explicitly intended to set him off from the rest of the characters.
If “Hamilton” were sung at the pace of the other Broadway shows I looked at, it would take four to six hours (Miranda’s guestimate was off by half). At the slowest paces, “Hamilton” would only be an hour shorter than Elevator Repair Service’s seven-hour marathon play “Gatz” (in which the cast reads “The Great Gatsby” aloud in its entirety). That show is usually presented with two intermissions and a dinner break.
“Hamilton” probably has the fastest pace of any Broadway show, but it might not have the single fastest song. I compared the quickest verses in two of its fastest songs (“Guns and Ships” and “Satisfied”) with two patter songs from other shows, and although the “Hamilton” songs beat the “Pirates of Penzance” song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” the nervous breakdown in “Not Getting Married Today” from “Company” kept pace.
|Guns and Ships (Hamilton)||19||3s||6.3|
|Not Getting Married Today (Company)||68||11||6.2|
|Modern Major-General (Pirates of Penzance)||34||9||3.8|
I’d be inclined to give the speed prize to the singer who makes it through “Not Getting Married.” Although the Sondheim song is a hair slower than “Guns and Ships,” the actor has to keep up the pace for longer. (Lafayette, played by Daveed Diggs, gets quick breathers in “Guns and Ships” while the cast cheers him on.)
But “Not Getting Married” is the exception that proves the rule. In a conventional musical, the only songs that keep pace with Miranda’s lyrics are ones in which a character is hysterical. In “Hamilton,” what would be mania in any other show turns out to be the pulse of revolution.