May I Suggest....'Hamilton' Revisited

Stuart Spencer

May I suggest, now that Hamilton: An American Musical’s place in the culture seems secure, that it may be time to look under the hood of this juggernaut long enough to learn how it works? A second look at the show seemed in order, but with the back row of its balcony selling for a cool $564 (base price, not scalper’s markup) I decided that Alexander Hamilton would not mind, and might even approve, if I foreswore the fiscal improvidence of shelling out that kind of money. Instead, I visited the Atlantic Record website for a free download of the libretto and opened my iTunes. The results were illuminating.

The first thing that struck this reader/listener was the coolly objective nature of the first scene. The major characters reveal, through direct address to the audience, Hamilton’s biography. They do it with efficiency and objectivity, and virtually no opinion. Even he himself has little to say beyond expressing an ambition to do “a million things” he hasn’t yet done, a sentiment that doesn’t serve particularly well to define him since pretty much every bright teenaged boy feels exactly the same. The only distinguishing point of view about the man is uttered in the very first line of the show. He’s called a “bastard” and the “son of a whore” — by Aaron Burr.

Let’s flag that.

In the second scene, the two men meet. Miranda deftly limns the contrast between the cynical, cool Burr and the passionate, logorrheic Hamilton. But it’s the nature of the language itself that’s most impressive here. Whereas in Scene 1 the scansion was haphazard and the rhymes approximate (Hamilton asks us to accept “country/hungry” as a rhyme) now the lyrics show Miranda tossing off a head-spinning series of perfect rhymes with astonishing ease: “Burr, sir; sure, sir; service, sir; nervous, sir; blur, sir; bursar.” Not only do the rhymes snap with finely tooled precision, they also reveal character. Burr’s advice to Hamilton to “Talk less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against, or what you’re for” is not a flashy rhyme, but it’s an exact one, and it crystallizes Burr’s character in a handful of words.

Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr / Joan Marcus

Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr / Joan Marcus

And so, a pattern already emerges. Burr has for the second time in two scenes stepped to the forefront where he threatens to rival Hamilton’s preeminence as protagonist. It doesn’t last long, however. Miranda quickly shifts focus back to Hamilton who tells us in no uncertain terms (but with somewhat murky motivation) that he’s not throwing away his shot. I for one had never suspected he would. He also goes to war as Washington’s right hand man, and meets and falls in love with Eliza (and perhaps Angelica) Schuyler. Through all this Burr remains discretely in the background, though when he does appear he once again has the sharpest and most pointed rhymes: “ANGELICA: You disgust me. BURR: So you’ve discussed me./I’m a trust fund, baby, you can trust me.”)

Much of the material in Act 1 is historically significant and biographically accurate. The stylistic presentation ranges from the hilarious conceit of King George’s Swinging London pop love tune to the densely packed, intricately conceived meeting of Eliza and Hamilton— and Angelica — and their ensuing wedding. But it doesn’t have the complexity of character, the adamantine language, or most importantly the clarifying point of view of Aaron Burr.

Two thirds through the act we finally arrive at Burr’s first chance to let us into his mind, and his “Wait For It” is exactly what I’ve been waiting for. Is it just me, or is this not the most riveting moment in Act 1? The show now snaps into focus the way Burr’s rhymes snap into place. Now the show has not just a subject, but a theme. This is not just Hamilton’s biography, it’s a view of Hamilton as seen through the lens of his cosmic opposite. Aaron Burr is his prickly friend, his bitter rival, and his deadliest enemy.

The song’s first two verses waste time on the exposition of Burr’s biography, but the refrain reveals the two essential truths that Burr holds to be self-evident: that neither love nor death discriminates “between the sinners and the saints”, and that, above all, he is “willing to wait” for his moment. Once again, in just a few lines of lyric, Miranda conveys an essential truth about Burr — that his cynical ambition is matched only by his crippling inability to commit to action. He makes Hamlet look decisive.

It’s the bridge, though, that makes it a great song in dramatic terms. Burr’s focus turns to Hamilton as he compares his own stasis to Hamilton’s unquenchable thirst for action. “What is it like in his shoes?” Burr wonders. His only answer is the natural extension of his hardboiled, zero-sum philosophy: now it’s life that doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.

It’s more than just a good song. Everything we’ve been watching now takes on meaning and purpose. We have a frame through which we can make sense of the many disparate episodes of this show, which even its most ardent fans must confess takes a somewhat encyclopedic approach to its subject. War, marriage, love affairs, blackmail, duels, constitution-writing, monetary system-creating. The canvas is a big one. There’s not a thing wrong with that, but the larger the canvas the greater the need for focus. This song provides it. But isn’t the last third of Act I a little late to introduce the show’s basic point of view?

Burr once again has my (everyone’s?) favorite song in Act II: “The Room Where It Happens”. Surely that’s partly because of Leslie Odom’s incandescent performance, but reading it at home produces the same brilliant clarity of purpose that “Wait For It” did earlier. Only now does Burr’s admiration and envy curdles into revenge. And sure enough, everything that Burr does after this is an attack on Hamilton. He defeats Hamilton’s father-in-law in the New York Senate race, then conspires with Jefferson and Madison to accuse Hamilton of stealing Treasury funds, which leads to the revealing of Hamilton’s affair with Marie Reynolds, which not only does near-fatal damage to his marriage but also draws his son Phillip into a fatal duel. But just as Burr is set to win the Presidency, Hamilton throws his support to Jefferson — a classic ‘lesser of two evils’ choice that certain of my liberal friends might have done well to emulate in the last election — and Burr is defeated. It’s the final straw for Burr and he concocts an excuse that Hamilton has offended him personally, though his real motive is revenge. And so the final, deadly duel.

Burr, as the prime mover behind all these events, weaves the second act into a tight dramatic pattern. He’s is not the subject of the show, but he begs to be its dramatic engine and thematic ballast. Just as Iago provides the action of Othello, and Salieri does the same in Amadeus, so too could Burr serve as protagonist — though not the tragic hero — of Hamilton.

When we look at Miranda’s Hamilton, we see him as a sum of his parts. The show is a concatenation of episodes from his life and it’s a fascinating life indeed, told with verve and energy. But if we could look at him through Burr’s eyes, we would see him as a total person, whose many dimensions, virtues and flaws, would be revealed not one after the other in linear fashion, but rather as parts of a complex but coherent whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Using Burr in this way would not diminish the focus that the show rightly has on Hamilton. It would illuminate him even more because we would understand that his actions and words fit into the messy, contradictory pattern that we recognize as human.

Is Hamilton a great show? I thought so when I first saw it, and I still do. Any show that captures a moment in the culture as perfectly as this show does has an element of greatness to it. In fact it may not be an exaggeration to say that Hamilton didn’t so much conform to the zeitgeist as it helped to define it. But I submit that it is in the tradition of great but flawed masterpieces like Show Boat and Follies, and I can’t help but wonder what might happen if “Wait For It” were placed about an hour earlier.

Stuart Spencer is a playwright and novelist. He teaches playwriting, dramaturgy, and theatre history at Sarah Lawrence College, and is the author of The Playwright’s Guidebook: an Insightful Primer on the Art of Dramatic Writing published by Farrar Straus & Giroux.