I wrote part of this in a comment to another entry, but thought it might of general interest to Hamilton and/or Sondheim fans, of whom I luckily have many on my f-list, so I pulled it out and expanded it. Er. A lot.

Hamilton makes fantastic use of repetition, especially of the repeated phrase whose meaning changes with context. The most striking uses of this are “I am not throwing away my shot” (sometimes just “my shot” or “shot”) and “Wait for it.”

The historic Hamilton occupies a specific spot in American common knowledge. In my experience, before the musical came out, if you asked the average American who Alexander Hamilton was, you’d get something like this: “He lived during the American Revolution. He was… Uh…. Secretary of the Treasury, I think? Something like that, anyway. He was shot and killed in a duel with another politician, Aaron Burr. [That is probably the only thing the average American knows or recalls about Aaron Burr.] Oh, yeah, and he's the dude on the ten-dollar bill.”

What both cracks me up and gladdens my history nerd heart about the sheer unlikeliness of the entire existence of this musical is that previous to it, Hamilton was not one of America’s iconic political figures, like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson (or, in terms of people who weren’t president, Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King.) Nor was he obscure enough to be cool. He was in the exact "One of those dead white guys" zone where people interested in his period know a lot about him, because he really was important, but the average American knew exactly what was in my paragraph above, and no more. (If they’re a leftist, they may have the impression that he sowed the seeds of making America a plutocracy but probably didn’t intend that. Or that may just be me. If I recall correctly, my grandfather hated him for exactly that reason.)

But in popular consciousness, he was just above the level of someone like Paul Revere, where everyone can spit out “The midnight ride of!” upon mention of his name, and then, “Uh… He warned everyone that ‘The British are Coming!’” (Wikipedia has this note in his entry: "The British are coming" redirects here.) And that’s it. In general, no one who isn’t otherwise interested in that period (or economics/the Coast Guard/etc) has thought of Alexander Hamilton since high school. Whereas Americans who are otherwise not knowledgeable of history often have actual opinions on, say, Thomas Jefferson. (If you’re younger than me, you probably heard a lot about his slaves. If you’re my age, he had a sort of demigod status in high school history classes, which makes his takedown in the play especially hilarious.)

You notice that the duel figures prominently in common knowledge. People who know who Hamilton was at all always remember the duel. This is probably because 1) duels are cool, 2) Hamilton was the only important person in American history who was killed in one. (I guess unless you count Button Gwinnett. But I’m pretty sure nobody counts Button Gwinnett except autograph-collectors and people who enjoy unusual names. For the former, his signature is the rarest of any of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. For the latter, just FYI, a dude named Peru Italian Blackerby Ping served in the Kansas state senate in the mid-1800s.) Anyway, just in case you don’t know or forgot about the duel, Hamilton tells you about it right in the opening number. Miranda does not want that to be a surprise.

Burr shot and killed Hamilton, and every time you hear the word “shot,” that goes through your mind. And like any good tragedy, you know what’s coming but you want to scream, “No! Don’t do it!” So “wait,” in the sense of “stop,” also brings the duel to mind.



Shot obviously means both “gunshot” and “opportunity,” so “I’m not throwing away my shot” means that Hamilton won’t give up his chance (at a whole lot of things, depending on context) but also ironically points at the possibility that he literally threw away his shot by firing in the air. (I’m not sure how ambiguous this is in the actual production – it’s suggested but not certain that he does in the album.) As Dhampyresa pointed out in comments, as far as the duel was concerned, for once Burr didn’t wait for it, but shot first. [Dons history geek hat: I have no idea what anyone intended, but the location of the historic Hamilton’s bullet strongly suggests that he fired second and involuntarily, in reaction to being hit. This matches witness statements, which said the shots were extremely close together or simultaneous.]

“I’m not throwing away my shot” is probably also a hat tip to the chorus “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow/This opportunity comes once in a lifetime” in Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” (Which also repeats the word “shot” several times in the song, with its meaning changing depending on context. It’s a pretty obvious pun so I’m sure there’s other songs that do it and they may also be influences.)

However, I think there’s a less obvious implication in Hamilton that has got to be intentional. Hearing the word “shot” sung by black men brings to mind America’s very long history of black men wrongfully shot to death, often but not only by the police. (Also black women and other men of color, of course, but there’s a specific history involving black men.) It also brings up the stereotype, which also has a very long history—again, not limited to black men, but there’s a particular stereotype here— that black men are violent and, specifically, shoot people. So every time you hear the word “shot” sung by people of color, especially black men, it consciously or subliminally reminds you of the long, ugly history of racism, violence, and stereotypes that the musical is upending by having the white Founding Fathers played by men of color, the majority of them black.

And then there’s “wait for it.” Every time we hear it, it has at least a triple meaning: an address to the audience to expect something, a character holding himself back, and “Wait! Stop! Don’t do it!” There’s also a contemporary political implication, which is the very long debate over whether oppressed people should fight for their rights by any means necessary, or wait for it and let change happen slowly over time. I don’t think that’s as strong of a connotation as “shot,” but on the other hand, the musical’s Burr would certainly be on the “wait for it” side if he existed now.

In his gorgeous song “Wait For It,” Burr sings that he’s “lying in wait”— waiting for his chance, his shot. So how different are Burr and Hamilton, really? Are they brothers under the skin? "What is it like in his shoes?" Burr asks, but maybe he already knows. The musical suggests that in some important ways, they were, but they threw away their shots by destroying each other rather than joining forces or at least not having that goddamn duel.

Hamilton’s signature song “My Shot” is hip-hop (connotations of modern, radical, daring), but Burr’s signature song, “Wait For It,” is a power ballad— a classic Broadway musical song (connotations of tradition, old school, playing it safe.) The music echoes the basic clash between the men— do it your own way vs. go with the tide, aggressively put forth your opinions vs. talk less, smile more, and don’t give people anything to hold against you. (As always, unless otherwise noted I refer to the musical characters, not the historic figures. You could very easily make the argument that the historic Burr was way more iconoclastic than the historic Hamilton.)

“Wait For It” begins with Burr singing about his mistress, and goes on to the first instance of a verse which will repeat with variations:

Love doesn't discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep loving anyway
We laugh and we cry
And we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there's a reason I'm by her side
When so many have tried
Then I'm willing to wait for it
I'm willing to wait for it

Second repetition: love becomes death, and Burr has another reason to wait.

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it
Wait for it

And then it all stops— the words, the music, everything - making the audience wait for it to return. Making the audience wait in a song called “Wait For It” would be predictable and heavy-handed in a less-good song, but here it feels inevitable and perfect, the only way that song could possibly go, the way the song has to go, the moment you anticipate every time after your first listen. Wait for it—

On the return, the entire ensemble sings “Wait for it” with Burr in a glorious crescendo. Then he goes on to the third repetition, but instead of unstoppable forces like love and death (and life, which is the fourth repetition), suddenly there’s a person squirming into the middle:

Hamilton doesn’t hesitate
He exhibits no restraint
He takes and he takes and he takes
And he keeps winning anyway
He changes the game
He plays and he raises the stakes
And if there’s a reason
He seems to thrive when so few survive, then Goddamnit—
I'm willing to wait for it

Instead of inhuman forces that don’t discriminate—not because they’re kind or just, but because they’re universal and impersonal— Hamilton doesn’t hesitate. He takes and takes and takes but for himself and on purpose, rather than because that’s just how the universe works. He’s the personal thorn in Burr's side that Burr could maybe do something about, rather than an eternal force that you can do nothing but wait for.

The second pause, making the audience wait for it, is a musical surprise even though it's been done before, because it comes in the middle of the phrase this time, still logical but unexpected.

I see a lot of Sondheim influence in that song. Sondheim is also a master of musical repetition, using the same phrase in different contexts until it suddenly punches you in the gut. One song that’s musically and contextually completely different, but has some interesting similarities in structure and theme, is "The Ladies Who Lunch," from Company. The character is Joanne, though I’m probably not the only person who connects it more with the original singer, Elaine Stritch. (I actually had to look up the character’s name.)

A toast to various types of women, “Here's to the…” starts off each verse. It begins with,

Here's to the ladies who lunch.

And then comes a line that will eventually repeat with variations… but Sondheim’s going to make you wait for it:

Everybody laugh.

The verse continues,

Lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch.
On their own behalf.

Caft/behalf is an all-time genius rhyme. It's almost too clever, but that suits Joanne. She's the smartest in the room, and it got her absolutely nowhere.

And then the next toast:

And here's to the girls who play smart-
Aren't they a gas?

This time, there’s no command to “everybody,” though the audience might be waiting for it; the first verse set up an expectation that it would be repeated. But instead of an exhortation, you get commentary.

Third toast:

And here's to the girls who play wife-
Aren't they too much?

Again, no "everybody," and again, commentary rather than command. However, a different repetition (“aren’t they?”) appears. I think at this point the audience who hasn’t heard the song before decides that “everybody” isn’t going to repeat and forgets about it, and instead waits for an “aren’t they [something]” sarcastic inquiry.

Fourth toast, the most bitter:

And here's to the girls who just watch-
Aren't they the best?

Yep, we’re still on “aren’t they.” But this one is a little different, because Joanne is now clearly talking about herself. Maybe once she lunched and played wife, but now she’s just watching.

When they get depressed
It's a bottle of scotch,
Plus a little jest.

Final toast:

So here's to the girls on the go-

And now that Joanne has made it clear that she’s including herself, "everybody" returns at last:

Everybody tries.
Look into their eyes and you'll see what they know.
Everybody dies.

Suddenly the immense and brutal forces beneath all the trendy, surface-y things that all those women are clutching at, hiding behind, and covering their eyes with break through, explicit and unstoppable. But instead of surrendering to the inevitable, Joanne turns around and fights, denying what she’s already said is true out in a pure fuck-you to the universe:

A toast to that invincible bunch.
The dinosaur surviving the crunch.
Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch-

And then comes the final “everybody” repetition. Then the song concludes in a crescendo of a different repetition, rising into a fury, raging against the universe in sarcasm and impotent anger. Nobody’s going to rise for her, no matter how hard she yells into the wind:

Everybody rise!
Rise!
Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!
Rise!

The final layer of irony is that the song is a show-stopper, and if the singer is any good at all, the audience will rise. But they’ll feel a little weird about it.

“Wait For It” also concludes in a long series of repetitions, “Wait for it,” but on a falling rather than rising note, fading into a hush. Wait…

I have no idea if Miranda had “The Ladies Who Lunch” in his mind— that sort of repetition occurs in a lot of songs by a lot of people, and it’s a very unlikely comparison on the surface— but he certainly knew it, and Hamilton is the sort of work that clearly arises from everything the artist has ever encountered, both in conscious references and in subconscious influences.
movingfinger: (Default)

From: [personal profile] movingfinger


Footnote: When Dick Cheney shot Harry Whittington, the Burr-Hamilton duel became fresh matter again briefly, as had Whittington died, Cheney would have been the first sitting Vice President since Burr to fatally shoot someone.
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)

From: [personal profile] davidgillon


Well, apart from Dan Quayle fatally shooting his own career with 'potatoe' ;)

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From: [personal profile] hederahelix - Date: 2016-02-09 02:37 am (UTC) - Expand
vass: XKCD comic: Elaine Roberts plays drums, caption she even for a time took up drumming." (Riot Prrl 2)

From: [personal profile] vass


A couple of YouTube links, because I went there after reading this post:

Elaine Stritch furiously rehearses 'Ladies Who Lunch'

Elaine Stritch performs 'Ladies Who Lunch'
Edited (spelling) Date: 2016-02-08 07:33 pm (UTC)
dhampyresa: (Default)

From: [personal profile] dhampyresa


As someone not from the US, I have to say I knew nothing about Alexander Hamilton until the musical. My knowledge of the US Founding Fathers was essentially "are they the dudes on Mt Rushmore?". (There are areas of history that interest me; this is agressively not one of them.) /0.02€

I'm really glad Miranda told us up front about the duel, because that's what sold me on it.

I'm not familiar with Sindheim, but this post was super interesting!

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From: [personal profile] dhampyresa - Date: 2016-02-09 09:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
ruthi: a photograph of a dormouse eating a berry (Default)

From: [personal profile] ruthi


Here is a Button Gwinnett footnote:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7YTPuEMgaE
Lin Manuel Miranda and Stephen Colbert talking, wherein Colbert brings up Button

Youtube link to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stephen Colbert performing the musical, 'Button!'
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhFeQSBZUSk

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From: [personal profile] movingfinger - Date: 2016-02-09 06:20 am (UTC) - Expand
cadenzamuse: Cross-legged girl literally drawing the world around her into being (Default)

From: [personal profile] cadenzamuse


Re: Button Gwinnett--or you grew up in Gwinnett County, Georgia, as I did.
cadenzamuse: Cross-legged girl literally drawing the world around her into being (Default)

From: [personal profile] cadenzamuse


Also, given what I've seen of LMM's commentary and the general commentary on Genius about the lyrics, the racial element of respectability politics vs. direct action is 100% deliberate.
shehasathree: Matt Bomer clapping (clapping)

From: [personal profile] shehasathree

awesome


Thank-you for sharing this analysis - I am a bit obsessed with Company.

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rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (Default)

From: [personal profile] rydra_wong


However, I think there’s a less obvious implication in Hamilton that has got to be intentional. Hearing the word “shot” sung by black men brings to mind America’s very long history of black men wrongfully shot to death, often but not only by the police. (Also black women and other men of color, of course, but there’s a specific history involving black men.)

There's a direct Black Lives Matter reference in the song -- "This is not a moment, it's the movement" -- so yeah, I think that subtext is very consciously present.

Also:

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?


Btw, would it be okay to link this and your other Hamilton posts in [community profile] hamiltunes?
shehasathree: (Default)

From: [personal profile] shehasathree


That's really good/important to know - thanks!
rmc28: Rachel smiling against background of trees, with newly-cut short hair (Default)

From: [personal profile] rmc28


The repeated line that I just spotted is:

There’s nothin’ like summer in the city
Someone in a rush next to someone lookin’ pretty

in The Schuyler Sisters
and in the opening of Say No To This (both times sung by Aaron Burr):

There’s nothing like summer in the city
Someone under stress meets someone looking pretty

Which is ow, the change from youthful exuberance to adult folly.

(Admittedly the *reason* I spotted it is the wonderful "Schuyler Georges" Ham4Ham video:
https://youtu.be/3C4vmM5mQT8)

From: [identity profile] naomikritzer.livejournal.com


Have you seen this? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crIWX1SMOOw It's the Snowmaggeddon Ham4Ham in which Leslie Odon sings a mash-up of "Stars" (from Les Miserables) and "Wait for It."

From: [identity profile] naomikritzer.livejournal.com


Some thoughts I have on that mash-up, in no particular order:

* I would really like to see Leslie Odon play Javert, when he gets tired of playing Burr. There was a modern-dress production of Les Mis a year or so back in Dallas, which is a really interesting idea, but a production in which both Javert and Valjean are played by black men would also be really, really interesting. And Leslie Odon would make an AMAZING Javert. He'd probably make an amazing Valjean too, actually.

* I really love Les Miz; prior to "Hamilton" is was my favorite musical. It's apparently Lin's favorite musical, too.

* Listening to this made me realize that "Wait for It" kind of filled the same musical spot as "Stars."

I'm not familiar with Company but Hamilton is jammed with musical and lyrical references to previous musicals so it could well be intentional. I'll go listen to it after I have (ha) lunch.

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rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (Default)

From: [personal profile] rydra_wong


Apparently the original casting description for Burr was "Javert meets Mos Def", IIRC.

And you must have seen LMM's Les Miz moment, right? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpUJYCTUIMg

(It's so touching because he is so clearly giving it his all; for that moment, he is going to be the very best Loudhailer they have ever had.)

Company at the Donmar Warehouse with the amazing Adrian Lester, and I really need to rewatch this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iamM_Qe7nbw

From: [identity profile] naomikritzer.livejournal.com


I love that video.

One of the things I love about Lin-Manuel Miranda is that he is so clearly a FAN. He is a huge, huge fan of Les Miz, of Sondheim, of hip hop, of Beyonce... and he gets super excited over things like getting to do this (and teary when Gavroche dies).

From: [identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com


This is such a great post! I absolutely love Hamilton, but I don't know much about musical history or musical theory, so I miss a lot of stuff like what you've written about here. I love learning about it, though!

(I’m not sure how ambiguous this is in the actual production – it’s suggested but not certain that he does in the album.)
I believe in the show it's supposed to be fairly clear that Hamilton deliberately "aims his pistol at the sky", but I haven't seen it yet either, so I can't say for sure. I think that choice fits better with the themes of the show, regardless of historical accuracy.

There’s also a contemporary political implication, which is the very long debate over whether oppressed people should fight for their rights by any means necessary, or wait for it and let change happen slowly over time. I don’t think that’s as strong of a connotation as “shot,” but on the other hand, the musical’s Burr would certainly be on the “wait for it” side if he existed now.
I have seen other people claim Burr is deliberately supposed to represent respectability politics, while Hamilton & co represent more radical racial politics, but like you, I'm not sure if that was definitely LMM's intention. For one thing, I think it's hard to claim that musical Burr really has any consistent political motivation at all.

And speaking of Button Gwinnett, have you seen Miranda's appearance on Stephen Colbert's show? He did a rap about Button!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhFeQSBZUSk

From: [identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com


Oh, and here, I just saw this gif set, which includes images of the duel from the show, and LMM talking about the themes:
http://brigdh.tumblr.com/post/134953616052/trashybooksforladies-i-was-too-young-and#notes

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From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com - Date: 2016-02-09 04:38 am (UTC) - Expand

From: [identity profile] a2zmom.livejournal.com


This was a wonderful post. I haven't listen to Hamilton that closely yet, but you insights into that song was excellent and will give me more to chew on. And I loved the comparison to Ladies Who Lunch; Stritch's performance is iconic.

From: [identity profile] spectralbovine.livejournal.com


Ooh, this was great, thanks for expanding and posting!

Hamilton is the sort of work that clearly arises from everything the artist has ever encountered, both in conscious references and in subconscious influences.
YES.
.

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