The loudest buzz on Broadway this season is for Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about the Founding Father whose face graces the $10 bill (at least for the time being). The show sold hundreds of thousands of tickets before it opened, bringing in about $30 million in advance sales. The Hamilton cast recording goes on sale today, and the hoopla has been big enough that the hashtag #hamiltunes has been trending on Twitter all week, ever since the recording previewed on NPR’s website.
The reviews for Hamilton have been nearly universal in their praise for the show’s energy, its use of hip-hop stylings, and its creativity in bringing Founding-era politics to the stage. One rare sharp criticism came in the New Yorker, where Hilton Als complains that the “show’s radicalism is slowly drained” by the second half, “and the resulting corpse is a conventional musical love story.”
While it’s true that the themes Als cares most about (“race, immigrant ambition, colonialism, and masculinity”) go largely unaddressed, the second act of Hamilton is much more than a tired love-story rendering of the marriage of Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton. Indeed, after several scenes related to intimate and painful matters of sex and family and loss, one of the characters breaks the fourth wall, or at least presses his nose against it, griping, “Can we get back to politics?” After that, the story returns to other themes, and is driven forward mostly by its exploration of the ways that character shapes destiny.
Hamilton’s foremost frenemy in the musical is Aaron Burr, the man who—spoiler alert for those who skipped their high school history classes or who forgot this classic commercial—eventually kills Hamilton in a duel. The depiction of Burr in the musical is broadly unsympathetic, in keeping with the way he is usually depicted in accounts of the founding. (Anyone wanting a more nuanced portrait of the real-life Burr should pick up historian Nancy Isenberg’s 2007 biography Fallen Founder.) To understand why the character of Burr breaks bad, we have to look at his virtues and failings before the duel that kills Hamilton and ends Burr’s career.
1. Imprudence. In another time or place, a man of Burr’s talents might have been a first-rank leader. But he had the sheer bad timing to be surrounded by statesmen-in-making whose natural gifts exceeded his own, including especially Hamilton, a man of abilities that sometimes seem superhuman. Early on we see General George Washington preferring Hamilton over Burr in his search for a “right-hand man,” a crucial moment in Hamilton’s rise and an opportunity that was never Burr’s to lose. In another pond, Burr might have been the biggest fish. Instead, he is forced to play Salieri to Hamilton’s Amadeus. He lacks the judgment and insight—in a word, the prudence—to realize his own comparative strengths and weaknesses.
2. Reticence. Burr compounds that first problem by preferring inaction to action at crucial moments. Not always: he suggests at one point that the Army should “fight instead of fleeing west,” as Washington prefers. But in general, Burr’s style during the musical, both in singing and staging, is to hold back and wait instead of charging ahead. This is true even in his romantic life;
Hamilton at one point chastises Burr, “If you love this woman, go get her—what are you waiting for?” By contrast, Hamilton himself sings, “I am not throwing away my shot. You know I am just like my country, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.” This Eminem-inspired lyric becomes a motif for the hard-charging Hamilton, a man of relentless masculine action, the immigrant who wants always to “rise up.”
3. Excessive calculation. Burr also prefers to “talk less, smile more; don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for” and urges this same tactical caginess on Hamilton. It is true that the stage version of Hamilton might sometimes have benefited from heeding this counsel; Washington suggests at one point that his protégé talk less, and at one pivotal moment Hamilton admits to heeding Burr’s advice. But overall, we are given a picture of Hamilton as forthright, taking stands and fighting for his beliefs, while Burr’s career only moves forward because he appears to lack beliefs altogether. Burr refuses to defend the new Constitution, preferring to “keep all my plans close to my chest.” When the election of 1800 comes down to a choice between Hamilton’s two foes Jefferson and Burr, Hamilton endorses Jefferson: “When all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs—Burr has none.” Burr is a nonentity impelled only by his own ambition.
4. Not for the Ages. George Washington warns Hamilton, “History has its eyes on you,” and that no person can control “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Although Burr cares at least somewhat about his legacy and honor—the duel with Hamilton is, after all, a matter of honor—he does not share Washington’s and Hamilton’s constant awareness of the eyes of the public and the eyes of history. Hamilton, even in the midst of his worst personal crisis and political scandal, demonstrates a concern for the opinion of posterity. Burr comes to such awareness too late to help guide his actions.
The four failings of Hamilton’s Burr offer lessons that are useful for all of us: Know your strengths and weaknesses. You have one life, so make it count. Don’t hide and hedge your beliefs so far that they disappear entirely from view. And don’t forget that your actions matter beyond today.