Hamilton Chicago Cast Analysis, or I Try to Explain My Feelings About Aaron Burr
This past month I got to see Hamilton in Chicago, which was just about as incredible as you’d expect, and because I am the sort of person who has a Lot Of Thoughts about things and also the sort of person who has a Lot Of Feelings about Aaron Burr, I wanted to word vomit about how acting choices change Burr’s character.
(Of course, when babbling about Burr’s character, I mean musical Burr, not historical Burr. I enjoy historical Burr too, but largely for the “what the fuck are you doing” factor; obviously, musical Burr isn’t and, for the sake of the narrative, shouldn’t be an exact replica of his historical counterpart.)
(Also, when I saw Hamilton in Chicago, I saw Daniel Breaker as Burr and Miguel Cervantes as Hamilton, both of whom are excellent actors and beautiful singers. My only real points of comparison are Leslie Odom Jr.’s Burr and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton as they exist in the cast album, clips online, etc.)
From the beginning of the Chicago production, I was listening to Burr and thinking, “This is so different. How is this so different? What is so different about this??” I didn’t really know until “Wait For It”; right at the end, Burr closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and held his hands palms-down at his sides, visibly calming himself and visibly reminding himself to, essentially, wait. He believed that he needed to wait in order to get ahead and so he made a conscious, strategic choice to do so. LOJ’s Burr wouldn’t have done that, because he did not need to remind himself to wait; waiting was what he did. It was who he was.
The other really telling moment for me was during “Ten Duel Commandments,” when Burr says “Okay so we’re doing this.” DB’s Burr said this with a lot more humor and bemusement and a lot less resignation than LOJ’s Burr. It also came across like a joke or an aside to the audience, whereas LOJ’s Burr delivered his asides (“okay so we’re doing this,” “this should be fun,” “sweet Jesus”) as though he were making comments to himself. They weren’t Burr’s asides to the audience so much as they were Burr’s asides to Burr. LOJ’s Burr of course interacted with and addressed the audience (or the listener, in the case of the cast album), since Burr is the narrator, but there was almost always the sense that he was holding something back, maybe even from himself and certainly from us.
I think these two moments say a lot about how differently DB and LOJ play Burr. DB’s Burr is not cautious because he is a fundamentally reserved, cautious person; he’s cautious because it’s a choice. He’s slicker. He’s funnier. He’s more charming and more open with both his anger and his sorrow. You can see him make calculating political decisions (going immediately to Madison and Jefferson after Hamilton’s rejection in “Schuyler Defeated”). He plays his cards close to his chest, but he plays them that way because it’s a strategy; it’s how he gets ahead. It becomes something he does, rather than something he is. His caution is external rather than internal; he’s cautious because that’s how the thinks he can succeed, not because that’s how he thinks he can survive. The tragedy of his taking the fatal shot in the duel is that after so much careful calculation, so much strategizing, he makes this reckless, wild choice; he waited too long, his career fell apart around him, and he finds himself in the wreckage with seemingly no other options.
On the other hand, LOJ’s Burr is solemn. He is serious and sad; from the clips I’ve seen and from what friends who’ve seen him in the role have told me, he’s also unbelievably still on stage, until “Room Where It Happens.” Everything about him is directed inwards, and because of this quiet sophistication, there is always the sense that a million things are happening somewhere deep inside his head. Campaigning exhausts this Burr (“honestly, it’s kinda draining”) because his is not a political temperament, but he wants power, he wants influence, he wants to be able to do what Hamilton can do. In the moments when we get a sense of what he’s feeling (“Wait For It,” “Room Where It Happens,” “World Was Wide Enough”), this mixture of sorrow and fury comes bursting through the cracks in his caution and his fear, and it’s powerful. Those moments are for himself; we’re watching him sing “Wait For It,” but he’s singing for himself. His anger is so different, too; when he gets mad (“Your Obedient Servant,” “World Was Wide Enough”), his rage is icy and cruel and seething, and it goes deep. In the end, when LOJ’s Burr pulls the trigger, the tragedy is that in the single moment when it mattered the most, he resisted his fundamental impulse to wait. He acted contrary to who he was as a person, to everything he believed, and paid the price. The most painful moment in the cast album for me is when Burr yells “WAIT!” after realizing Hamilton threw away his shot; Burr didn’t wait, and he can’t go back in time and make himself wait. The one time he truly, truly should have waited is the one time he didn’t.
It’s also true that how Hamilton is played affects how Burr comes across. LMM’s Hamilton is constantly manic with energy, with desperation, with need. Even during his final monologue, when he’s become tired and gray with the weight of his life, he’s still a little bit manic. MC’s Hamilton is a little quieter. He’s cocky, he’s arrogant, he’s passionate and overzealous, but the reserve absent in Burr is present in him. I believed the other characters when they said he wrote like he needed it to survive; he is tightly coiled and a little bit on fire, always, like a low thrum rather than a constant buzz. I adore LMM’s Hamilton and I think LMM is pretty incredible in general, but his Hamilton always felt like a very different person than the character I imagined when I read Hamilton’s letters. MC’s Hamilton, though, felt very much like the Hamilton I imagined. He was still hot-headed, he still had no idea how to talk less, but his pain and trauma dampened him and weighed on him from the beginning. I kept thinking abut how historical Hamilton spent months in bed after the war; as a trauma survivor and someone with PTSD, I connected immediately to the growing ache that built up in MC’s Hamilton as Laurens died, as Phillip died, as his life crumbled around him.
I think what results from all of this is that the relationship between Hamilton and Burr changes. LMM’s Hamilton and LOJ’s Burr are foils of one another; they are both brilliant, prodigious men who are motivated, primarily, by fear. They’ve both been orphaned and abandoned at a young age and they are both working, as best they can, to avoid feeling that pain ever again. Hamilton does this by working, without rest or pause, to create a legacy; if he can’t be forgotten, then he can’t be abandoned, and no one will ever discount or ignore him again. (I think this is really supported by realizing that “Non-Stop” comes right after the Laurens Interlude; loss and abandonment result in mania, result in a desperate need to create something that cannot die.) Burr, on the other hand, manages his fear by waiting; if he is careful and cautious, if he waits for what he wants, then he can understand the world, he can avoid mistakes, he can create the life he wants. If he refuses to be reckless, then he can’t be blindsided by pain or by loss. His caution is not a political strategy, “Room Where It Happens” is not a strategic decision; his caution is the armor he wears to survive. Ultimately, with LOJ’s Burr and LMM’s Hamilton, the ways Burr and Hamilton are different serve largely to illuminate the ways in which they are the same.
DB’s Burr, on the other hand, because he was so much more strategic and so much more political, seemed more like an antagonist than LOJ’s Burr did for me. Played against MC’s more reserved, more internal Hamilton, his Burr becomes Hamilton’s opponent first and foremost; Burr and Hamilton are playing a long, slow game of chess, always working against each other, each move bringing them closer and closer to the inevitable checkmate. They start Act I wary of one another but still friends; as we move through Act II, the gap between them gets wider and wider and it seems hard to believe they were ever friends. They have nothing in common. They are so unlike each other. Their relationship is defined by the ways they are different, not the ways they are the same.