The opening song of Hamilton, "Alexander Hamilton," retells the early life of Hamilton very quickly. He really did have an incredible amount of both trauma and impressive deeds at a very young age and in a very short span of time, and the way the song rushes through it, tossing off in a single line moments that could be worthy of an entire song, does a great job of making that point.

For instance, after it's established in less than two minutes of singing (1:50 on the cast album) that his father ran off, his mother died, and a hurricane destroyed his town, we get:

Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide
Left him with nothing but ruined pride, something new inside

THE COUSIN COMMITTED SUICIDE. If your last living relative committing suicide and leaving you destitute is only worth half a line, you've endured a lot. (IIRC, historically, he had a brother. But the brother's not in the play.)

But apart from recounting a tale of incredible hardship and amazing deeds ("at age fourteen, he was placed in charge of a trading charter," the opening number sets up the level of lyrical complexity of the play. That line seems like a simple, if impressive, statement of fact that one might read in a history book, but it's also got triple vowel repetition (age/placed/trading) and internal rhymes and alliteration (charge/charter).

Here's my favorite verse:

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned
Our man saw his future drip, drippin’ down the drain
Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

Hip-hop tends toward density and referentiality. A single line often packs in a lot of wordplay, references, and allusions. And like a lot of great hip-hop, Hamilton was written to be experienced repeatedly, not just once. Miranda knows you won't catch everything the first time. The songs are meant to reward you if you listen to them over and over, and then think about them. As people do. Look at all of us listening to Hamilton on endless repeat.

The verse above has an amazing amount of associations and lyrical complexity packed into four lines. To start with, "hurricane/came" is a slant rhyme with internal alliteration. (The entire song is full of stuff like that-- just grab any line and look at it closely, and you'll see all sorts of clever things.) Then there's the pun on reign/rain. The rhythm and intensity of the "drip, dripping down the drain" line is fantastic. It's one of my favorite lines in the whole show.

But there's layers beyond that. A hurricane is destruction by water (additionally evoked by the reign/rain pun). So we have water destroying on a mass scale (an entire town) and on a smaller scale (one man's future.) Hamilton's future becomes water dripping down the drain, sliding out of his grasp. Is anything more futile than trying to grab at water? And if you look at water being sucked down a drain, it swirls in a whirlpool: a miniature hurricane.

The third line is also very dense. The thing you normally hear about getting put to someone's temple is a gun. "Pistol to the temple" is a really common phrase, and pencil sounds a lot like pistol, especially when sung fast. (I actually misheard it as "pistol" the first time I heard the song, and thought he'd considered suicide.) And the song has just established that Hamilton is at rock-bottom, so suicide seems plausible. Maybe some people (like his cousin) would have gotten desperate enough to kill themselves.

But instead, it's an equally desperate grab at life. Hamilton sees his future drip-dripping down the drain, but he's not going to just stand there and wait for it to slip away. He's going to slam his hand down over the drain.

That's a great reversal, but I'm sure you all noticed it before and don't need me to point it out. But what I didn't catch until multiple listens are the associations of the next part of the line:

connected it to his brain

People have been writing with pencils and shooting themselves with pistols for a long time. They were doing both in Hamilton's time. But "connected it to" isn't something you do with either a pencil or a pistol. You connect a plug to a socket. You connect electrical wires together. Hamilton's time was when people were just starting to experiment with electricity. So there's a word-association suggestion that he's cutting-edge for his time, if your mind jumps to Benjamin Franklin or Michael Faraday or some such when you hear "connected it to" in a 1700s setting.

But there's a more direct association that's way more futuristic. The idea of literally connecting something to your brain is mainstream in science fiction. People plug wires and such into their brain to get into virtual reality. So Hamilton isn't just cutting-edge, he's so far ahead of everyone that he's from our future-- our future-yet-to-come. We still can't jack into our brains a la Neuromancer or Mindplayers. But Hamilton's doing it in the 1700s with a pencil.

In an interview with Miranda, he said that Hamilton comes into the 80s rap of the revolutionaries with a modern hip-hop style, so he sounds like he's from the future. I think this line is similar. Metaphorically, of course all writers connect their pencils to their brains. But this is a very thematically coherent musical, and if those associations weren't written in deliberately, they probably were subconsciously. There's not a single line of this play that was just thrown together for the rhythm or the rhyme. (Which is impressive considering that even Bob Dylan once needed to rhyme "You always responded when I needed your help," and couldn't come up with anything better than, "Now the beach is deserted except for some kelp.")

Like many great opening songs, "Alexander Hamilton" sets up the main themes of the play: Hamilton writes his way out, he's way ahead of his time, he works non-stop, he makes a big impression on people for better or worse, he's an immigrant, he overcame adversity, and history has its eyes on him:

Alexander Hamilton,
When America sings for you,
Will they know what you overcame?

They sure will, because now they've heard this song. And not only is the play a hit, but Miranda wrote such a catchy tune that he literally got America, or at least quite a few Americans, singing for Alexander Hamilton.

The opening number also introduces many of the repeated lyrical motifs of the play-- "What's your name?" "How does a…?" and several variations on "Wait," among others. Here's another:

My name is Alexander Hamilton
And there’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait, just you wait

If you don't already know, Burr tells you toward the end of the song that he's "the damn fool that shot him." So Hamilton is going to die prematurely, still with a million things he hasn't done. But he'll do more in the time he has than most people could do in ten lifetimes. In the next song, he says he didn't expect to see twenty. Much later, Burr (and the ensemble) sing:

Why do you write like you're running out of time?

Why do write like tomorrow won't arrive?
Why do you write like you need it to survive?
Why do you write every second you're alive?

Burr sees death as a universal leveler. It will come for him, as it came for everyone who loved him, as it comes for everyone. All you can do it wait for it. Hamilton also knows death can come at any time (his mother, his cousin, the hurricane), but to him, that means that he can't just wait for it. If you wait, you could die before you accomplish anything. If you want something to happen, you have to make it happen, right now, because you might not get a tomorrow.

He's never not heard his clock ticking. But in his time, as now, the written word survived. Parents die. Children die. Entire towns die. Politics change. Empires fall. But words outlast their writers. Every second not spent writing is a second wasted, when he could be making that little bit more sure that after he dies, something of him will survive.

Burr's "What's your name?" question is a musical reference-- it turns up fairly often in hip-hop. (Also in folk songs, though phrased a little differently depending on how old they are. But in those it's usually a real question, not a rhetorical one.) But it also connects to the theme of immortality through works. Even if we hadn't just heard it a million times in the song, if we went to high school in America, of course we remember the name.

What's your name, man?

Alexander Hamilton!

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