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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.

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.

I’m sorry to add to the sorrows of anyone who didn’t wangle a ticket, but I’m very excited: we are going to see Hamilton in July! Around the time we got tickets, my mom asked what she should give us for Hanukah, so I said the cast recording, and I’ve been listening to it virtually non-stop since then. And when I listen and think about something a lot, I want to write about it. Ergo, this song-by-song analysis.

It’s tempting to start with my favorite song (if I could choose!), or the first one I heard, but I’m determined to take them in order. “Alexander Hamilton” is an opening song that does what an opening song should: sets the stage, the scope, and the tone; tells you, “This is what to expect,” even if some of those expectations are being set up deliberately to be tumbled down later. It leaps onto the stage with the fanfare-like seven-note motif that will be repeated whenever it’s time to set the scene. (Elizabeth Ayme points out that this motif’s rhythm is that of the key words, “Not throwing away my shot.” I’m getting ahead of myself; that’s song 3. But isn’t that brilliant?) All of the main characters are onstage, except as made impossible by the doubling of roles (much more on that later).

The rest of the play is going to cover almost 30 years of Hamilton’s life, from age 19 to his death at 47, so this song tells his life story up until that point, establishing several expectations right away. First, Aaron Burr is the narrator of this biography, and we’re going to get a sympathetic portrait of him as well as of Hamilton: “Me? I’m the damn fool that shot him.” Spoiler alert? Which brings us to the second point: false suspense about commonly-known facts will be cleared away from the start. In case you walked into the theater not knowing even the few things I knew about Alexander Hamilton—one of the founding fathers of the country, the guy on the ten-dollar bill, from somewhere in the Caribbean, died in a duel with Aaron Burr—you know them now. This lets us get right into the story that will unfold, of how two fine men came to point pistols at one another, an act of folly that would doom one to death and the other to ruin. (That’s my editorializing. Lin-Manuel Miranda himself is never so heavy-handed, telling the story with attention to the psychology of the duel, and letting us draw our own conclusions about the ethics.) The bullet sound that will be repeated frequently is introduced right here.

Third, we’re introduced to the mix of musical genres we should expect: in “Alexander Hamilton,” mostly rap and musical theater; British pop circa the 1960s, R&B, and jazz will be added further along the way. The rapping (which morphs into singing) is slow and steady here, easing us in, but we can already see that Miranda and the medium he’s chosen have a great capacity for condensing a lot of information into a few lines, artfully. Four years of Hamilton’s life are encapsulated in ten lines that move so effortlessly between casual lingo of our time (“woulda,” “scammin'”) and vocabulary befitting an 18th century genius (“astute,” “restitution”) that we can already tell this whole rap-about-the-first-Treasury-Secretary idea is actually, improbably, going to work:

There would have been nothin’ left to do
For someone less astute
He woulda been dead or destitute
Without a cent of restitution
Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and all the things he can’t afford
Scammin’ for every book he can get his hands on
Plannin’ for the future, see him now as he stands on
The bow of a ship headed for a new land
In New York you can be a new man

Other commenters have noted more resonances with musical theater and rap than I can do; I enjoy both, but don’t have enough breadth of knowledge to pick up on all the allusions. I hear similarities to some of my favorite songwriters, like the rhyme-by-enjambment of Tom Lehrer or Roy Zimmerman, the reveling in cleverness of wordplay of Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter, and the richness of rhyme of Bob Dylan, but I don’t know which of these Miranda would name as influences (except for Dylan, whose albums he buys the day they’re released). I just know this: if I want to hear wordcraft like “It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s delectable, it’s delirious, it’s dilemma, it’s de limit, it’s deluxe, it’s de-lovely,” or “I love all the many charms about you, / Above all, I want my arms about you,” Hamilton will oblige.

Although, again, the tempo has not yet ramped up to the rapid-fire pace it will reach in later songs, their richness of rhyme and internal rhyme are already here. Never mind ABCB or even ABAB rhymes; Miranda writes AAAAAAAA, and even then he doesn’t stop:

This ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.

He’s not done!

And every day, while slaves were being slaughtered and carted
Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up
Inside he was longing for something to be a part of
The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow or barter.

Twelve, count ’em, twelve rhymes. A lot of popular music composers use ABCB because it’s so much easier; they also try to “rhyme” a word with itself, a cringe-inducing dodge Miranda never employs except, for emphasis, once (tell you about it when we get to Act II). Even in a long string like this, each rhyming word is a new one; when he uses a word twice, it’s for a purpose, such as the irony expressed by “Founding Father without a father.”

And fourth, since rhyme, assonance, meter, and other technical brilliance are all hollow unless pressed into the service of a grand vision, “Alexander Hamilton” gives us the grand vision: the themes of time, of who tells the stories of our lives, of the way history is written and re-written and forgotten, of the immigrant making good and making the country to which they’ve come, of the turning point that one life and one moment in history can be: “The world will never be the same,” the company sings. We’ll hear that again. And we’ll know it, gut-deep, by the end of the play.

As Hamilton himself might say, “One more thing.” The play informs us from the very first sentence that it is going to celebrate his being “a hero and a scholar.” American history celebrates military heroes, athletic heroes, heroes of love, and occasionally scientific heroes whether born here (Edison) or immigrants (Einstein), but “scholar” is not a word that is usually uttered with patriotic pride. But Hamilton was a thinker and political theorist who, as a mere child, orphaned and broke, started “readin’ every treatise on the shelf” in his cousin’s house. He was a writer, who “put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain / And . . . wrote his first refrain” of a voluminous, erudite and influential oeuvre. He was a self-educated finance wonk. In short, Alexander Hamilton was a highly pragmatic and creative intellectual. And his intellect, even more than his considerable military accomplishments or his way with women, is what this story celebrates.

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