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Somewhere around “The Story of Tonight (reprise)” I realized that I was listening to an opera. It’s not called that–the subtitle is, “An American Musical“–but except for one spoken scene that’s not on the CD, and the brief spoken interludes of the songs, the entire play is sung or rapped. So the songs have to provide all the information and all the transitions. As the story moves between the personal and political, this reprise is one of the bridges between the two. It’s the party late at night after most of the wedding guests have gone home, when everyone’s a little drunk; the music slurs and slows along with their voices. Hamilton’s pals parody their anthem to tease him about the ol’ ball and chain–

Raise a glass to freedom
Something you will never see again
No matter what she tells you . . .

–and about his good fortune in marrying up the social ladder:

Raise a glass to the four of us
To the newly not-poor of us

Soon-to-be heroes of the Revolution though they may be, when these guys are drunk, they’re like the high school buddies who won’t grow up, putting down the more mature friend (Lafayette: “You are the worst, Burr”). Hamilton is a bridge, too, managing to be charming to both Burr and the other three while giving one his attention and dismissing the others.

Before I ever heard “Wait for It,” I read something Lin-Manuel Miranda had said about its writing: how he was trying to capture that feeling of seeing one’s friends and age-mates rocket ahead with partners, kids, career, recognition, when one is still struggling to get established. (Aside: Did he ever have that feeling? Not for long, I’m guessing, but when you’re young even a few years’ gap can feel like an eternity. I’m not overly prone to that feeling myself; I don’t hanker much after fame, even in my own small pond, and I’m successful by my own lights. Nevertheless, when, only 13 years after his own graduation, Miranda gave the commencement address at the university we both attended, he had already written a Tony award-winning play and another one that was about to go on Broadway and rock the cultural world. I was 25 years out of college, and definitely experienced one of those “I will never catch up to that” twinges.) Anyway, knowing that Miranda empathized with Burr’s position, I was predisposed to see the merits of that “Wait for it wait for it wait” in tension with “I am not throwing away my shot.” The moral of the play is notcarpe diem.”

And then, too, Hamilton is being unreasonable here, when he says of Burr’s affair with a British officer’s wife, “Go get her. What are you waiting for?” Burr might play it too safe about a lot of things, but in this matter, he’s already sailing pretty damn close to the wind. I don’t know what the penalty was in such matters, but I’m guessing that if he’d taken Hamilton’s advice, he’d have been unceremoniously shot. (Burr’s approach did work out well for him. He and Theodosia were still together when her husband died, presumably never having discovered the affair, and she was Burr’s wife for 12 years, until her own death.)

“Wait for It” is about how two people in similar circumstances can take them in opposite directions. In contrast to Hamilton’s poor and fatherless childhood, Burr grew up in a distinguished family (the “fire and brimstone preacher” grandfather he refers to is none other than Jonathan Edwards), with money and privilege, but otherwise their stories run in parallel: orphaned at an early age, burdened by a sense of responsibility, possessed of  brilliant minds and a strong drive to do something worthwhile with them. That can cause one person to rush ahead, feeling that “He has something to prove / He has nothing to lose,” and another to hang back waiting for just the right moment to use his gifts.

Miranda says he had to think hard about which of these two characters to play. He judges “Wait for It” and “The Room Where It Happens” the best songs he’s ever written, and wryly notes that he gave them both to Leslie Odom, Jr.. But he decided that as a Latino actor he never got a chance to be the main character, only the white guy’s sidekick, and with the chance to play the title character and hero, he was going to be Alexander Hamilton. I think it was the right decision on other grounds. Can you imagine these two voices switched? Miranda’s is rougher, more conversational, and not only because he does nothing to obscure his Nuyorican accent. He sings with great expressiveness and subtlety, but his voice, like Hamilton’s personality, is a bit abrasive. Odom’s is lyrical, befitting Burr’s more diplomatic character, the one who persuades rather than arguing someone into submission. The one who, in this song and elsewhere, is all too aware of the possibility of making mistakes; the one who calls his friend/enemy by his first name (Hamilton never calls him simply “Aaron”); the one who wonders of the other, “What is it like in his shoes?”

And his voice rises to the occasion of this great song: it’s tender, gritty, and passionate in turns as he Burr shares his whole life philosophy and how he got there. He may seem like a ditherer to Hamilton (and to us), but he has his reasons for taking his time, and we hear it in his voice as clearly as in the words he sings:

I am the one thing in life I can control
I am an original
I am inimitable

I’m not falling behind or running late
I’m not standing still
I am lying in wait.

There’s so much more to say, but this is long enough. Instead of writing ten more paragraphs, I’ll encourage you to read or watch Miranda’s address to those 2015 graduates, which is all about Hamilton and Burr, and the way each of them responds to “the ticking clock of their mortality.” It’s eloquent and will make you see these characters in a more nuanced way.

P.S. Isn’t it great how you have to wait for the second-to-last “Wait for it” Burr sings? “I’m willin’ to . . . wait for it.” It comes at such an unexpected moment that I had to listen half a dozen times and practice about half a dozen more before I could hit it on cue. Waiting is an art.

Sometimes, being a minister means working with some prickly people. They’re among the congregational leaders or visitors or–particularly tenderly–among the people I visit when they’re sick or sad. Not long ago, I was on my way to meeting with a member of the congregation when I passed under a stand of sweet gum trees (I think that’s what they are), whose seeds I love whenever I see them, and have never dared to draw. I went on to the meeting, and in our conversation, the person was both prickly and, to me, very beautiful: honest, caring, vulnerable. When I left, I picked up one of the fallen seeds, and I drew it that evening. In my private thoughts, it has this person’s name.

Two people find each other. Their lines match, like two halves of a broken ring. They’re married. Except that what goes on beneath the surface of a simple story makes it much more interesting, and the next song, “Satisfied,” remixes “Helpless” to show what else was going on while Eliza and Alexander were falling in love.

Erin Conley wrote such a good analysis of this song  (“A Deep Dive into the Hamilton Stunner “Satisfied”) and said so much of what I want to say, that instead of repeating her I’ll just encourage you to read her essay and add a few thoughts of my own. (Warning: Her essay will make you want to take a second and third job if it’s what will get you airfare to the nearest performance of Hamilton. I cannot wait to see this choreography.)

Angelica Schuyler’s rush of language, her aside to check if we’re keeping up when we barely are (“you see it, right?”), the rapid-fire rapping (try it–it’s almost as hard as the more celebrated “Guns and Ships”), the shifts between speech and song (oh that voice!), all show a mind at work that’s so nimble, everyone else seems to move in slow motion. Only Alexander Hamilton moves at her speed. No wonder she will never be satisfied. “In a world in which [her] only job is to marry rich,” what is such a brilliant person to do with herself?

Depending on her temperament, she turns bitter, wastes her talents on trivialities, kills herself, entertains herself by playing games at the expense of slower and more innocent people . . . characters like Hedda Gabler, Lady Macbeth, and the Marquise de Merteuil in Liaisons Dangereuses come to mind, not to mention real middle-class US women I’ve encountered whose lives could never quite flower within the constraints of nurse / teacher / secretary / mother they were permitted. But in the interpretation of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and her portrayer Renée Elise Goldberry, Angelica Schuyler is saved from any of these fates by her love for her sister. She keeps on flirting with her brother-in-law, but she means what she says in her toast–she wishes them only the best. As she’ll say of Eliza later, in a look back at “Satisfied,”

I will choose her happiness over mine every time. (“The Reynolds Pamphlet”)

Whether she and Hamilton ever consummated their mutual attraction (or even confessed it?) is unknown, either in the real-life version or the play. What’s evident is that there was a tension there, and Miranda imagines it drawn tight by Angelica’s loyalty to her sister. She could have had him, but she “sized him up so quickly,” as she did everything; and by the time the initial attraction had turned to love, Eliza was in love with him too. (And what Angelica feels for Alexander is love. Note she does not say, “If I told her that I loved him,” which might leave some ambiguity, but “If I tell her that I love him.”)

Angelica, in short, is a woman of honor. This makes her a fascinating foil for Hamilton: along with a quick wit, charming manner, love for Eliza, and fascination for political philosophy, their strict code of honor is something they have in common. But whereas his is based on pride, hers is based on love; his honor is about taking care of himself, while hers is about care for others. Honestly, Angelica, he doesn’t deserve you.

Burr’s getting pretty fed up with Hamilton. Before, his introductions were insulting, but might have been reporting–everyone wants to know how a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore . . . ” attained such status. In the introduction in “A Winter’s Ball” (which is in turn the introduction to “Helpless”), straight off Burr’s unsuccessful attempt to gain Washington’s favor, it’s sounding more personal.

How does the bastard, orphan, son of a whore go on and on,
Grow into more of a phenomenon?
Watch this obnoxious, arrogant, loudmouth bother
Be seated at the right hand of the father.

At the same time, we see the rapport between them, a teasing rivalry from two men who are both “reliable with the ladies”:

Burr: A winter’s ball
And the Schuyler sisters are the envy of all
Yo, if you can marry a sister, you’re rich, son

Hamilton: Is it a question of if, Burr, or which one?

That’s prescient, but we don’t know that yet. “Helpless,” on its own, is a straightforward R&B love song, the story of love at first sight and the courtship of just a few weeks that followed. The year is 1780, the chorus informs us, but it’s not really that different from our day, with young people dancing in an overheated room, nervous attendees eyeing each other across the crowd,  sisters playing matchmaker, and “the band . . . top volume,” though I do find it a comical stretch to imagine anyone “grind[ing] to the rhythm” of an 18th century chamber orchestra. Likewise, modern soldiers take note: have you ever tried a line like “If it takes fighting a war for us to meet, it will have been worth it”? It worked for Alexander Hamilton.

The song is beautifully constructed. Burr, Hamilton and Laurens’s uncreative flirting “Hey, hey, hey, hey” (apparently even Hamilton was not always golden-tongued) turns into the women’s sung chorus, and Eliza enters with “I do,” signalling that by the end of the song, we can expect to be hearing a wedding march, which we do. The first verse gives us the initial meeting at the party, which is echoed by the betrothal in the second verse. “Grind to the rhythm as we wine and dine” in the first scene with Eliza’s sister becomes “I’m dying inside as you wine and dine” with her father; “Laughin’ at my sister as she’s dazzling the room” becomes “Laughin’ at my sister ’cause she wants to form a harem.” (We learn so much about the affection between Eliza and Angelica in the space of this song.) Likewise,

My sister made her way across the room to you
And I got nervous, thinking “What’s she gonna do?”
She grabbed you by the arm, I’m thinkin’ “I’m through”
Then you look back at me and suddenly I’m
Helpless!

becomes

My father makes his way across the room to you
I panic for a second, thinking “we’re through”
But then he shakes your hand and says “Be true”
And you turn back to me, smiling, and I’m
Helpless!

I came to the play a little skeptical about the whole hip hop musical idea. “Helpless” seems designed to persuade people like me; it builds a bridge, as if deliberately, between a musical convention of musical theater and one of hip hop. The spoken interlude (here illustrated by the several lines of dialogue among Hamilton, Angelica and Eliza beginning, “Where are you taking me?”) is familiar to anyone who knows musical theater; Miranda pairs it with the rapped interlude that begins “Eliza, I don’t have a dollar to my name.” Ah, I realized–I know how this goes! It’s not a departure from the genre of musical theater so much as an exciting new variation upon it.

Oh, and if you think rapping is “just talking,” try rapping Miranda’s part here, and notice how it changes pitch, following and interweaving with the instruments. One of the beauties of rap is that it reveals the pitch of speech, showing us that everything we speak, we actually sing.

We’ve established that I love Lin-Manuel Miranda’s virtuosic rhyming, and here’s one form it takes: a line that doesn’t seem to have a rhyme at all can have its rhyming partner arrive several lines later–or half a song later–or half a play later. It delivers a deeply satisfying ahhhh, as if we’ve been unconsciously waiting for it to appear. The most dramatic case I’ve noticed in Hamilton is the refrain in “Wait for It,” about one-quarter of the way into the play:

I’m willing to wait for it,

whose rhyme arrives at last in the second-to-last song, when, having just killed Hamilton, Burr sings, to the same melody,

I’m the one who paid for it.

We didn’t even know that “Wait for It” was waiting for its fulfillment until it arrived.

“Helpless” gives us a smaller but deeply satisfying case of this phenomenon. One of Eliza’s first lines is “Look into your eyes and the sky’s the limit,” a sweet expression of what it’s like fall in love (just as Philippa Soo’s gorgeously fluid voice tells us how joyous it feels), but nothing much on its own. Then Alexander raps and their voices intertwine, and look at that:

Hamilton: My life is gon’ be fine ’cause Eliza’s in it
Eliza: I look into your eyes, and the sky’s the limit

Two people find each other. Their lines match, like two halves of a broken ring. They’re married.

We’re at war. The battle’s intensity is felt in the BOOMs, the military snare drum, the chaos of voices erupting with “Rise up” and the “whoas” from “My Shot.” It’s the country’s shot. “Understand? It’s the only way to rise up,” says Hamilton.

The song introduces George Washington, not at the height of his success but at the verge of complete failure, which in this account isn’t blamed at all upon his leadership. I just read Lafayette in the (Somewhat) United States, by Sarah Vowell, and Washington screwed up plenty in the early years of the Revolutionary War; the many lost battles, including this one for New York, can’t be blamed entirely on the soldiers’ lack of discipline, equipment and experience. What Miranda chiefly wants us to know about Washington (and I know of no account that disputes this view) is that, simply put, he’s a grownup. A mentor to the hotheaded Hamilton, sure, and beyond that, someone who’s grounded in reality, keeps a check on his ego and insecurities–in other words, someone we’d want as the “father of our country.” His most glaring flaw is obviously known to the creators–Christopher Jackson, who portrays him, starkly says, “He owned people”–but other than a tiny hint later in the play, when “Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom,” and Washington says, “Not. Yet,” Miranda gives us no reminder of it. His Washington is the wise, prudent father, the one who summons Hamilton and others to their better, more mature selves.

We see only glimpses of that in this song, for example when he advises, “Dying is easy, young man–living is harder,” but more is to be revealed. For now, it’s enough to hear the hero worship in Miranda’s voice when his Hamilton says of the general, “Here he comes.”

Like so many of the songs, this one is a marvel of succinctness. We’re introduced to the daunting military situation; Washington and how he’s viewed by his soldiers and himself; his frustration with his soldiers (“Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” is a direct quote); the disastrous battle for New York (“Watch the blood and the shit spray . . . we’re abandonin’ Kips Bay”); the strategic decisions under pressure:

Guns and horses giddyup
I decide to divvy up
My forces, they’re skittish as the British cut the city up
This close to giving up . . .

All of this sets the stage for Washington’s hiring Hamilton as an aide-de-camp. He was one of several, but it’s true that the two men had a special relationship that continued to the end of Washington’s life. It’s also true that Washington snubbed Burr, not in the same hour that he promoted Hamilton–that’s just for dramatic contrast and compactness–but in a battle around this time. (Wikipedia does not know why.)

I’m unable to decide whether Hamilton wants the job, and I enjoy the ambiguity. He didn’t want to be “secretary” to anyone else, even leaders as illustrious as Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox; does he feel differently toward the general? Or when Washington holds out the job offer and he says, sotto voce, “I am not throwing away my shot,” is he resisting being his glorified secretary? Arguing for the anti-aide-de-camp side is Hamilton’s continued chafing at his role. “Hamilton still wants to fight, not write,” Burr will say in the next song, and Hamilton himself will later say to the newly-promoted Burr, “I wish I had your command instead of manning George’s journal” (“The Story of Tonight [Reprise]”).

On the other hand, there’s that rapid list of ideas Hamilton produces for Washington, which could be interpreted as “here’s a few suggestions for you, now let me go on fighting,” but sounds more like a man interviewing for a job he eagerly desires:

I’ll write to Congress and tell ‘em we need supplies . . .
I’ll rise above my station, organize your information,
‘til we rise to the occasion of our new nation. Sir!

Judging from video I’ve seen of the performance, he’s proud when he gets it. But when I hear that final cannon blast, I wonder if Hamilton is also thinking, “Damn, I’m stuck with it now.” BOOM!

I’ve been looking forward to this. “You’ll Be Back” is the first song from Hamilton that I heard, and it was so incisive and funny that I was immediately won over. I had to hear the rest. It is the “love” song of an abusive partner to the one who’s finally had the nerve to walk out. Isn’t that the perfect metaphor for the relationship between an empire and its colonials? I love you too much to let you go, the partner threatens. I’ll see you dead first. Or, if he’s the king of England,

I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love. . . .

I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.

I laughed out loud–the connection was so obvious and so new to me. What is a war against rebellious colonists if not an attempt to kill a former partner’s friends and family?

But I’m getting ahead of myself; the troops arrive in the next song. Let’s spend some time with King George. In my opinion, Lin-Manuel Miranda is needlessly apologetic about working him into the play. No, he and Hamilton never met; no, he did not show up in New York (or even New Jersey) to give his personal opinion of the revolution; but to me, his presence in the play is a “meanwhile, back in England,” and that perspective is fascinating. How did the revolution look from the outside? The king’s songs give us that chance to step back and review, which becomes particularly important when the rebels, against all odds, actually win. But that’s even further along. On to the music.

Tory politics hearken back to the past, and the music of “Farmer Refuted” underscores Seabury’s views, as a harpsichord playing Baroque fillips proclaims a nostalgia for an earlier time. It concludes with a royal fanfare, the command to the crowd–“Silence!”–and the announcement that the king has sent a message. The king’s introduction is accompanied by solo piano, but the harpsichord re-enters shortly, and hilariously, it’s got the beat of a British invasion band. Of course, this is the original British invasion. My wife, who knows music far better than I do, laughed at that point in the song and said, “Herman’s Hermits.” I don’t know a thing by Herman’s Hermits–are they the ones who did “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am”?–but I recognize the sound, especially when the violins come swooping in straight out of a late Beatles album.

On the original cast recording, King George III is sung by Jonathan Groff. You may know him from Glee; my only acquaintance with him was as the voice of Kristoff in Frozen, where he is very funny but doesn’t get to strut his singing. In Hamilton he does, and boy does he strut. I love the shift from the falsetto (hello, John Lennon) in “You say my love is draining and you can’t go on” to the lusty, angry growl on “You’ll be the one complaining when I am gone.” At judicious moments like that “when I am gone,” he drops the assumed royal accent. The rest of the time, his voice is over-the-top aristocratic: “you’ll be beck” for “back,” “when push comes to shAHve” for “shove,” and a long, lovely roll of the “r” on “arrangement.”

The song’s title may be a prediction of the future, but the song’s backwards gaze intensifies even that of the Baroque “Farmer Refuted.” Abusers want their victims to remember the good old days of romance and roses, before the true nature of the relationship was revealed. King George uses the word “remember” four times in the first dozen lines.

You say
The price of my love’s not a price that you’re willing to pay
You cry
In your tea which you hurl in the sea when you see me go by
Why so sad?
Remember we made an arrangement when you went away
Now you’re making me mad
Remember, despite our estrangement, I’m your man
You’ll be back, soon you’ll see
You’ll remember you belong to me
You’ll be back, time will tell
You’ll remember that I served you well

Oh, I love that tea joke, and another historical reference he tosses off, “When you’re gone, I’ll go mad.” But I have to say that the madness jokes get a little wearisome; they appear in all three of the king’s songs, which is wildly clever but also mean, because King George III really did descend into mental illness later in his very long reign, and once you get past the glee at a dictator’s comeuppance, that’s not actually funny. My father reassures me that he recovered. (Now I am hearing Monty Python: “I got better.”)

Viva la British Invasion.

What is a composer to do when his subject’s most dramatic actions were frequently . . . the writing of political pamphlets? Not exactly nail-biting action, right? “The Farmer Refuted” is a pamphlet Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1775 in response to a Tory named Samuel Seabury who had written a pamphlet of his own, under the nom de plume “A. W. Farmer”–A. Westchester Farmer, get it?–arguing for loyalty to the crown. Duelling pamphlets, the blogs of the day. Hot stuff. So Miranda moves it to a few years later, makes it an in-person debate, and with amazing contrapuntal wordplay, interposes the two men’s arguments to make a very funny duelling duet. Seabury gets the first word, then repeats his argument, while Hamilton now uses Seabury’s own words to counter him.

Seabury:                                 {Hamilton:}

Heed not the rabble              {He’d have you all unravel at the}
Who scream                          {Sound of screams, but the}
Revolution,
 they                    {Revolution is coming}


Have not
your interests       {The have-nots are gonna win this}
At heart . . .                             {It’s hard to listen to you with a straight face . . .}

We see Burr trying unsuccessfully to tamp down Hamilton and Co.’s open rebelliousness; we also see Hamilton’s belligerence, even arrogance, but because he’s so funny, we’re on his side–also, we get the feeling that if people had heeded Burr’s advice, the revolution would never have happened and we’d be fussing over the Duchess of Cambridge to this day. Oh wait, we are. Well, anyway, Hamilton wins the crowd with his charm and wit. And clever repartee is even better when carried out in clever rhyme and assonance, so check this out:

Seabury:                                                       {Hamilton:}

This Congress does not speak for me
.                                                                       {My dog speaks more eloquently than thee}
They’re playing a dangerous game          {Though strangely, your mange is the same . . .}

“Farmer Refuted” delivers one of my favorite lines: when Seabury says, “I pray the king shows you his mercy,” Hamilton cries “Is he in Jersey?” I assume, though I haven’t seen it staged yet, that he looks around in mock alarm as he does.

Even in the 1770s, rich people went slumming. So says Aaron Burr, and why should we doubt it? Major General Philip Schuyler’s daughters are rich, but they want to be “downtown . . . at the college,” where things are hopping.

We’ve met Hamilton and Burr and each has his musical signature; now we meet the two other main characters with signatures, Eliza and Angelica Schuyler. (Eliza’s signature gets on my nerves, one of the reasons it took me a long time to warm to this song, which I have since come to love.) Their sister, Peggy, is hardly heard of after this song, but the actor will return in Act II as the third important woman in the story, Maria Reynolds–one of the ways doubling of roles enhances themes and characters. When Eliza, Angelica, and Maria declare “I loved him” in “Alexander Hamilton,” the opening song, we’re hearing from the three actors who play the Schuyler sisters.

The star here is Angelica. Peggy is nervous, Eliza is curious, but Angelica is “looking for a mind at work” (a shout-out to The West Wing? Friends who are fans of the show say  Hamilton alludes to it frequently). She’s got a pretty sharp mind herself, and like intellectual women of many times and places, she has to push back against men who want to reduce her to an object of their desire.

Eliza: Angelica, remind me what we’re looking for . . .
All of the men on stage: She’s looking for me!

Burr tries some lines:

Burr: Excuse me, miss, I know it’s not funny
But your perfume smells like your daddy’s got money
Why you slummin’ in the city in your fancy heels
You searchin’ for an urchin who can give you ideals?

Angelica: Burr, you disgust me

Burr: Ah, so you’ve discussed me
I’m a trust fund, baby, you can trust me!

His finesse at turning rejection into potential is impressive (“So you’ve discussed me”), but she’s more than a match for him, and brings the topic back to what matters to her. She’s been reading “Common Sense,” as a revolutionary should, with the result that this is the way men regard her: “I’m intense or I’m insane.” She doesn’t care. Nothing intimidates Angelica, including the most prominent men of the day. As I said, it took awhile for this song to grow on me, but these were lines I loved the first time I heard them:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!

Was she or any influential woman of the time really that outspoken about full equality? Before this is all through I may be reduced to reading the letters of Angelica Schuyler Church, and other women of the revolutionary era, just to find out. Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband,

remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation,

but when, a few months later, the Declaration of Independence was signed without including a word about women, and then the constitution was ratified without guaranteeing women “voice or Representation,” she did not make good on her threat.

On the Sunday after Inauguration Day, when many folks in my congregation (and I) were acutely afraid of the ways our democracy was already under siege, I began my sermon with Eliza’s frequently-repeated words, “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” For me, one of the greatest sources of hope at a grim time is to look at history and realize that they, too, were afraid. They didn’t know how it would all end. We still don’t; the American experiment could end here, now, after only 240 years; but it gives me some hope to remember that to the colonists, things looked very uncertain in the 1770s, and they prevailed. And what Miranda imagines here is that they also found joy and purpose in being alive at such a crossroads. Maybe it is how he feels himself, despite–or because of?–the racial turmoil of the 21st century United States. The play opened on Off-Broadway in 2015, six months after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the rise of Black Lives Matter; when, in “My Shot,” Hamilton says, “This is not a moment, it’s the movement / Where all the hungriest brothers with something to prove went,” he’s explicitly quoting a BLM slogan.

I think that like the Schuyler sisters, we are lucky to be alive right now, when our country teeters between disaster and possibility, and so what we do matters intensely.

How will our lives appear to the people of future generations? How will our story be told? Hamilton repeatedly raises these questions. It’s a historical drama about history itself.

Of course Miranda fictionalizes when he has Hamilton meet all three of these friends at once. Maybe they didn’t ever all gather together, in a tavern or anywhere else. But when they sing,

Raise a glass to the four of us
Tomorrow there’ll be more of us,

the details of who and when are not the point. The song is about the seeds of change, the people who were on board the train when it began rolling so fast there was no stopping it. So they are confident that

when our children tell our story
They’ll tell the story of tonight.

The lines I ponder most are:

Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away
No matter what they tell you.

Do you think it’s true? There are political prisoners all over the world, even here in the republic Laurens (the principal singer in this short song) and friends are hoping to found; people are locked away for life, sometimes in solitary confinement, for trying to use their freedom. But in the sense of “Gedanken sind frei,” thoughts are free, I guess it’s true. In which case, maybe that is the freedom Laurens and the others are toasting: the freedom of the mind, which can be surrendered but never taken.

The challenge of writing about a historical event is to make the audience feel what people felt before the event had reached the conclusion we all know about. During the American Revolution, no one knew how it would come out–though there were long periods in which the only outcome that seemed possible was for the revolution to fail. Hamilton will take us into those moments, too, with its scenes from the front a little later on. In this song, the whole project still seems like a wild, necessary dream, the kind of thing that young, idealistic people talk about in bars, getting louder and louder, building on each other’s commitment, working themselves up to a daring and dangerous act, which is what revolution was in New York City in 1776. “My Shot” is their anthem, filtered through one character. Hamilton knows this could get him killed, but he’s willing, he knows he’s ready despite having none of the prerequisites that a class-conscious society demands, and he’s giddy with the determination to make his life count for something.

I love the multiple meanings of “take a shot”: with Lafayette’s verse, it means fire a gun, with Mulligan’s it means make an effort, and with Laurens’s it means have a drink. All three intertwine throughout the song–maybe even more in the staging, which offers the option of people downing a drink when the word is said (I’ll have to watch for that). And of course, the defiant refrain foreshadows Hamilton’s decision, in the final duel, to do exactly that–throw away his shot–or would firing straight at Burr been throwing away his shot? The unambiguous dictionary definition is complexified* by the metaphorical definition. We’ll hear more on that when we get to each of the three duels: Laurens and Charles Lee’s, Philip Hamilton and George Eacker’s, and Alexander Hamilton and Burr’s.

In any case, it is Hamilton’s theme: literally his musical motif (along with the sung signature of his name), rat-a-tatted each time Burr repeats “How does a bastard, orphan . . . ” and its variants; the core of his personality; the summation of his drive and the root of his phenomenal success. Miranda could have blamed Hamilton’s most foolish decisions on it, as well, but he doesn’t. It’s plausible to conclude that Hamilton’s determination to get the most out of life might have been self-destructive as well as creative, but Miranda implicitly argues against drawing this conclusion by omitting the oft-repeated “not throwing away my shot” from the moment Hamilton plunges into his disastrous affair (“Say No To This”) or the moment he disastrously reveals it (“Hurricane”).

Not that his declaration here is entirely positive. It’s a mix of ego (“Don’t be shocked when your history book mentions me . . . . eventually you’ll see my ascendancy”) and purer motives (“You want Britain keep shittin’ on us endlessly? . . . . I will lay down my life if it sets us free”). But what strikes me most is the way his bravado is shot through with intelligence and forethought. He’s “thinkin’ past tomorrow”:

And? If we win our independence?
Is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants?
Or will the blood we shed begin an endless
Cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?
I know the action in the street is excitin’
But Jesus, between all the bleedin’ ‘n fightin’
I’ve been readin’ ‘n writin’
We need to handle our financial situation
Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation?

The lyrics and the drive of the music argue that it’s the combination of passion and careful thought that made the revolution a success, made it more than a brawl that a bunch of hotheads started and unexpectedly won. The “great man theory of history” is all over the play, but despite the limitations of that worldview, it’s true that Hamilton and a few other disciplined leaders were essential in getting us through the war and establishing a lasting government. And at least Miranda has broadened “great man” to include a tailor’s apprentice who would survive his work as a spy and go back to a quiet postwar life as a tailor, proudly telling his war stories to the people gathered in his shop.

The part of the song where I choke up with unexpected patriotism is when Laurens leads the people in singing, “Rise up.”

Rise up!
When you’re living on your knees, you rise up
Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up
Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up

Just try to join the ensemble without feeling a rush of emotion as you sing:

When are these colonies gonna rise up?
When are these colonies gonna rise up?
When are these colonies gonna rise up?
When are these colonies gonna rise up, rise up?

Has there ever been a time in our history when these words were not appropriate?

I don’t know how to say all that I want to say about this song, so I’ll just stop here. All I know is, every time “My Shot” reaches its end, every time, I say out loud, to the empty car or whoever’s around, “That is such a great song.”

 

 

*Spellcheck says this isn’t a word. I like it anyway.

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