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.
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