At this point in my journey of writing a musical, I’m finishing an excellent book called Writing Musical Theater by Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus. This is a really great book that provides a lot of insight and information into exactly what a musical is and how to write one (I’ll post a full review of the book when I’m finished).
Currently, I’m finishing a section of the book about songs; specifically, the dramatic function of songs in musicals. Because the best way to synthesize information is to teach it, I’d like to take a moment and do a song analysis on one of my favorite songs from the musical Hamilton, “Wait For It.”
Before we get into the actual song, we should first have an understanding of the context in which it appears:
“Wait For It” comes near the middle of Act I: shortly after Alexander Hamilton meets and marries Eliza Schuyler, Aaron Burr enters to congratulate Hamilton on his marriage. Hamilton and Burr have met earlier in Act I, when Hamilton first arrives to New York, and we have already seen that these two are polar opposite people. Hamilton is all about taking immediate action, while Burr prefers to wait out his adversaries until the most opportune time; as an example of this characterization, when Burr gives Hamilton the advice of “Talk less; smile more,” Hamilton rebuffs him and turns to join up with three revolutionaries he finds in a pub, which leads to Hamilton declaring, “I’m not throwing away my shot!”
After congratulating Hamilton on his marriage, Burr confesses to him that he is having an affair with the wife of a British officer. Why does Burr tell Hamilton this, especially after Hamilton just got married? My guess is that it’s because Burr is pretty proud of how subversive he is in this action. Burr and Hamilton are on the same side of the Revolution, they just have two different approaches to it. Hamilton doesn’t see it that way, however; he tells Burr that he should take a chance: “I will never understand you. If you love this woman, go get her! What are you waiting for?” Hamilton departs, and Burr sings.
Of the different types of songs outlined in the Cohen and Rosenhaus book (ballad, comedy song, rhythm song, list song, charm song), I believe “Wait For It” is a charm song. Charm songs are meant to humanize characters and make them likable to the audience, and Burr definitely needs some likability. Burr is established as the villain in the beginning of the musical, singing the line “I’m the damn fool that shot him” in the opening number. But in the several reviews I’ve seen or heard regarding Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has been praised for how “human” he makes these historical figures; no one is a saint, and things don’t just “work out” in the end. Even Hamilton is a flawed figure, and he’s the star of the show!
How does this song work to humanize Aaron Burr? I’ll start with a brief quote from Miranda in an interview with the New Yorker:
Burr is every bit as smart as Hamilton, and every bit as gifted, and he comes from the same amount of loss as Hamilton. But because of the way they are wired Burr hangs back where Hamilton charges forward…. I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve seen friends and colleagues zoom past us, either to success, or to marriage, or to homeownership, while we lingered where we were—broke, single, jobless. And you tell yourself, ‘Wait for it.’
The lyrics to “Wait For It” begin with Aaron Burr discussing his current affair with the British officer’s wife, and it’s obvious that he would love to take Hamilton’s advice (“He can keep all of Georgia; Theodosia, she’s mine.”), but he prefers to hold back. The second verse, Burr speaks about his upbringing (“My grandfather was fire and brimstone preacher…, my mother was genius, my father commanded respect”) but also recognizes that there is no “right way” to go about protecting and honoring their legacy.
The choruses in this song more directly speak to the emotion that Miranda spoke about in his New Yorker interview: the feeling of being left behind, of watching all of your friends find success while you feel stuck in a rut…
Sidebar: maybe this is why I relate to this song so much? My friends are all getting married and earning graduate degrees, and I’m kind of “stuck” as a single guy, wishing, even though I love my job, that I could do more with my life?
… as Aaron Burr philosophizes about life, love, and death. In each of these cases, Burr says that they “don’t discriminate/between the sinners and the saints/it takes and it takes and it takes,” but also sees that “if there’s a reason” things seem to be working out how they have for him so far — with Theodosia, “if there’s a reason I’m by her side/while so many have tried;” with life and death, “if there’s a reason I’m still alive/when everyone who loves me has died” — then something bigger must be on the horizon, and he’s willing to wait for it.
The song takes an interesting turn when Burr starts speaking about Hamilton. Burr begins this section by identifying his life philosophy (“I’m not standing still, I’m lying in wait” — which might also be a reminder to himself as he watches Hamilton get all these accolades and promotions), and then starts speaking about Hamilton, and how he must have “something to prove” with “nothing to lose.” At first, Burr seems to be frustrated or angry about Hamilton’s quick rise to power, but as the music comes to a crescendo, Burr all of a sudden reins it in and asks, “What is it like in his shoes?”
That line tells us that, however Burr might be feeling that Hamilton has all of this success, he still very much admires the man and wonders what makes him tick. Is it because Burr is hoping to glean any sort of information to apply to his own rise to power? Or is it simply curiosity?
Burr finishes his song by discussing his disbelief at Hamilton: “… 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.” In Aaron Burr’s worldview, this sort of reckless abandon should have failed Hamilton years ago. It should have prevented him from achieving any sort of success in New York, much less being named Gen. Washington’s right hand man and marrying the daughter of a successful businessman.
The final line of this chorus, however, is curious to me: “And if there’s a reason he seems to thrive/when so few survive then goddammit/I’m willing to wait for it.” It’s curious to me because, while I think I know what he’s saying, I’m not exactly certain.
What I think Burr is saying is that Hamilton must be a fluke. Hamilton is having all of this success, despite being an impulsive brute with no foresight. He’s not doing it the way it should be done. And if he’s having all of this success by doing things that are against conventional wisdom, then by following conventional wisdom, Burr should be able to find much greater and more meaningful success.
By the end of the song, there is no doubt that Aaron Burr is still the antagonist of Hamilton. But we also get a glimpse inside his head, and we can see that Burr still wants the best for this fledgling country called America; he just disagrees with Alexander Hamilton about how it should be done.