In which I send a fully armed battalion to remind you that all you need is love
Hamilton’s George III, our favorite mad king, steps out in the middle of Act I to the most fanfare since, well, Hamilton stepped out. He proceeds to introduce himself with a tune I can only describe as Late-Stage McCartney—late-stage within the Beatles era, anyhow. Lin-Manuel Miranda has confirmed his intention to characterize the king through scattered compositional and instrumental references to the Fab Four. When you listen closely, or really even when you don’t, that intention is clear.
But why exactly does the number sound like a studio outtake from 1967?
Glad you asked.
The bass. Sgt. Pepper is held by many listeners—at least, myself and some like-minded listeners—to contain McCartney’s best bass tones, recorded on his Rickenbacker 4001 and engineered for maximum buoyancy. Coupled with the syncopated lines he wrote into the songs (“With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Getting Better,” “Fixing a Hole”), the effect is that of a rubber ball bouncing deep in the mix. “You’ll Be Back” replicates this technique, sometimes with an electric bass and sometimes with a cello pizzicato. It helps that the time signature swings similarly, a 4/4 with a feel of 2. This, I think, is the element that gets your foot tapping, and by then you’re halfway there.
The harpsichord. Not only is the instrument chronologically appropriate, having been all the rage at 1770s parties, it hearkens back (or forward?) to its famous use on “Fixing a Hole.” And the steady rhythmic 4 it beats out evokes multiple tracks: “Little Help,” “Getting Better,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”—even “Penny Lane,” which was part of the Sgt. Pepper sessions and meant for the album. Had George III dabbled in time travel and jumped a couple centuries, hearing this record would have made him feel oddly at home.
The jazzy piano interjection. The aforementioned harpsichord largely overshadows the piano due to the ‘period’ atmosphere the composer was after, but the old joanna isn’t entirely robbed of its moment. In the bridge, the king’s line “And no, don’t change the subject” is answered by a honky-tonk jangle of keys (a minor-sixth interval, if you insist on knowing). I trace this orchestrational choice back to “Lovely Rita,” whose piano interludes are played by yet another George (Martin). That piano is more prominent than this one, but then Miranda and arranger/musical director Alex Lacamoire spotlight the instrument plenty elsewhere.
The guitar layering. The final chorus gives us our strongest nod: a direct melodic interpolation of the guitar ostinato that begins and ends “Getting Better.” Granted, the repeating G note doubles the tonic (this number is in G major), whereas it doubles the dominant in the Beatles song (which is in C major). Still, the pitch is the same, and you couldn’t tie the tunes any closer together than that. “Getting Better” could well be my personal favorite Sgt. Pepper track—it has a quintessential Beatles sound, impossible to mistake for any other group—so a song or production that pays it homage wouldn’t have to do much more to curry favor with me. Hamilton, of course, goes above and beyond.
All these winks and nudges within the song’s structure culminate in a…Beatleness, an abstract quality comprising concrete quantities. In a show full of un-classic strengths, this number, being its sole representative of ‘classic’ musical theatre, makes a tasteful statement indeed. God save the King.
And hang on—even the title tips its hat! Or, should I say, its crown…
Image: Jonathan Groff originating the role on Broadway