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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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