Hamilton: The Original Broadway Cast Recording

Music – If you’re into musical theater (or, indeed, if you watch late-night talk shows), surely by now you’ve heard of Hamilton, the outrageously popular hip-hop musical about Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. If you haven’t: It’s a hip-hop musical. About Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. It is, in a word, amazing.

The story follows Hamilton (played by writer & composer Lin-Manuel Miranda) from his arrival in New York City in 1776 through the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s presidency, and to his death in a duel with Aaron Burr (spoilers!) in 1804. Burr, played by Leslie Odom, Jr., narrates, offering a little distance from Hamilton’s own relentless enthusiasm. The music is a brilliant mashup of theatrical flair and the past several decades of hip-hop, quoting both lyrically and musically from sources as diverse as Les Miserables, Beyoncé, Company, Kanye West, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Biggie Smalls.

This show is so dense, complex, and uniformly strong it’s hard to pick out favorite pieces. General Lafayette’s (Daveed Diggs) rap in “Guns and Ships” is a huge amount of fun; Burr’s statement of purpose in “Wait for It” is outstanding; Thomas Jefferson (also Daveed Diggs, in a great piece of double casting) never gets his own showstopper, but he steals every piece he’s in anyway. When it comes down to it, though, it’s Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsbury) and Eliza Schuyler (Philippa Soo) I love best – their songs, particularly “Satisfied” and “Burn,” are some of the best depictions I’ve ever seen of strong women constrained by their place in history.

If you get hooked, there’s plenty of American history to keep you busy, from Ron Chernow’s biography that formed the basis of the show to new titles like War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.

Castor, The Twin by Dessa

castor the twinMusic Dessa is a 33-year-old rapper and writer from Minneapolis, a part of the cerebral indie hip-hop collective Doomtree. Her style is much more musical than most rappers, but her skill with words is outstanding. (And fair enough – she graduated from the University of Minnesota with a philosophy degree at age 20.) She and the rest of Doomtree appear regularly on “most-underrated” lists of modern artists, but despite all this critical acclaim, she hasn’t yet made it big. It’ll happen one of these days, because Dessa is just too fantastic to ignore.

Castor, the Twin is a remix album of many of her more highly-produced tracks from earlier albums, False Hopes and A Badly Broken Code. What that means is that this is a hip-hop album with a singer-songwriter feel. If Joni Mitchell did hip-hop beats, she might sound like Dessa. There’s not a bad track on the album, but my favorites are “Dixon’s Girl,” a sympathetic shout-out to under-appreciated and abused women in the music industry, and “The Crow,” which borrows the symbol of Edgar Allan Poe’s avian nemesis for a soul-baring song about loss and survival.

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

The Bellwether RevivalsBook – Oscar is doing pretty well for himself. He’s found his way to Cambridge, working his way through his degree as an aide in a nursing home, where he meets the most interesting characters. He never loses his head, though, until he meets Iris Bellwether at one of her brother’s church services (he plays the organ). A little light church music isn’t all Eden Bellwether is interested in, though, and before he knows it, Oscar is drawn into Eden’s circle of admirers, accomplices and experimental subjects. Eden believes that his music has the power to heal. He might be right.

This spectacular Gothic novel by debut author Benjamin Wood sucked me in from the wonderful two-page prologue. It’s been repeatedly compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but as I’ve read neither of those, I couldn’t tell you how accurate the comparison is. I can tell you that I fell in love with all the characters, who are by turns symbolic and wonderfully genuine, and that the tense, surreal atmosphere was sustained well throughout the book. I’d recommend it for a book club – there’s lots to talk about.