The point of counterpoint
If you’re a certain kind of musical theater fan, you can’t resist a good counterpoint song. You know the sort of number I mean: it usually occurs at an act break or another hinge moment in the story, and it involves at least two singers—and often a bunch more—singing different melodies at the same time. The effect, when properly executed, is one of convergence and multiple levels of simultaneous action, and it can give us the sense of characters on a collision course, as the themes that the musical has developed separately clash and combine into a larger pattern. “Tonight Quintet” from West Side Story is maybe the definitive example, and its use of counterpoint and quodlibet to push forward numerous subplots is topped only by “One Day More” from Les Misérables, which is both the trope’s high point and a ripe target for parody. And a stunning utilization of counterpoint is one of the most striking aspects of the best numbers in Hamilton. In songs like “My Shot,” “The Schuyler Sisters,” “Non-Stop,” and “Take a Break,” Lin-Manuel Miranda seamlessly stitches together multiple characters and trains of thought, until counterpoint comes to symbolize the deepest themes of the musical itself. America, it implies, is a notion that emerged out of the interactions of diverse needs, agendas, and points of view, and it has a synergistic complexity and resonance that isn’t there when any of the threads is separated from the others. It’s a political value system embedded in the structure of the songs themselves, which I think is a pretty neat trick.
It’s also a virtuoso technical accomplishment, to the point where it occasionally pulls us out of the narrative. (“Take a Break,” for example, is an eminently cuttable song—Miranda says that he was advised by at least one trusted advisor to remove it—that winds up seeming indispensable, thanks mostly to a bravura display of counterpoint.) Whenever I listen to the soundtrack, I find myself wondering how just one man could make all these pieces come together. And I got my answer, unexpectedly, from Hamilton: The Revolution, the very good coffee table book that was published earlier this year as a companion to the show. In a note about the climax of “My Shot,” Miranda writes:
So how do you build an ending like this? Endless conversations with [director Thomas Kail], [orchestrator] Alex Lacamoire, and [choreographer] Andy Blankenbuchler. Seriously, so many versions of different counterpoints to build to just the right finish. In these meetings, I find I’m more the editor than the writer—Alex will have fifty musical ideas, Andy will have fifty staging ideas, and Tommy and I will sift them in the middle. It’s like this for most of the buttons in the show.
He says much the same thing about “Non-Stop,” the climactic number of the first act:
This all-skate came from tons of trial and error between me, Andy, Tommy, and Lacamoire. Take pieces from five different puzzles and make something new, that sets us sailing into intermission: that’s what’s at play here. As the guy who gets to play Hamilton, let me also say, it’s a helluva view from the center of it.
I love this for a lot of reasons. First, it’s a reminder of how long it takes to figure out this kind of thing, and that countless other versions that had to be tried and discarded along the way to get it right. Miranda has spoken of how it took years to write certain verses in “Hamilton,” and he recently tweeted out a picture of his notebooks with the comment: “Songs take time.” It’s also noteworthy that these overwhelming effects are usually the product of more than one person’s contributions. (Unless you’re Bach, an ambitious counterpoint piece is probably too complex to hold in your head at once, which leaves you with two alternatives. Either you figure it out in pieces over time, collaborating with your past and future selves and keeping good notes to bridge the gap, or you bring in a few trusted collaborators to work on it together. And in practice, you tend to combine the two, aided by software tools like Logic Pro that allow you to manipulate the result.) There’s also the important point—as Miranda’s mention of Kail, Lacamoire, and Blankenbuchler implies—that what seems at first like a problem of composition is really one of direction, orchestration, and choreography. It’s easier to conceive of a number like this when you’re already dealing with a healthy number of moving parts onstage. Miranda originally envisioned Hamilton as a concept album, complete with a guest reading of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense by the rapper formerly known as Common Sense, but there’s no question that there are also elements that never would have occurred to him without the input of real actors interacting with one another in front of a live audience.
And the punchline, of course, is that this is true of everything in musical theater. A counterpoint number impresses us because it’s clearly the outcome of months of hard work compressed into something like two minutes—but that’s equally the case with any two minutes in a well-constructed musical. It’s just more obvious here: in counterpoint, all those invisible interactions come to the surface to invite our admiration. When properly done, this can seem miraculous, but it’s a little dangerous, too. If overused, it can overwhelm or exhaust the audience, which is why composers generally save it for act breaks or other big moments. (Hamilton deliberately pushes the envelope here, as it does in so many other respects, as to how much counterpoint the listener’s ears can handle.) But at its best, it becomes an emblem for the enterprise of theater itself, which weaves the extended engagement of its author and the contributions of its collaborators into a tapestry that we can deconstruct into its component parts or enjoy as a whole. Writing about a similar moment in the movie Frozen, I said: “It amounts to a fantastic structural trick that moves us before we even know why.” That’s true of Hamilton, too. I’ve loved this musical since I first heard it, but I was also inclined to underrate its emotional power because of its sheer technical facility: “It’s written from the head, more than from the heart,” I once wrote, “and its emotional impact, which is undeniable, is more the result of impeccable musical theater than of an experience that Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to have lived through for himself.” After repeated listens, I’ve come to realize that the two things are really the same: Hamilton is both by and about a team of rivals grouped around a single charismatic figure, working in counterpoint toward a common dream. And it’s all the more powerful because of it.