NEW YORK — Of course I had to go see “Hamilton.” My last name is Burr. I’ve been fighting this fight since I was a kid.
To clarify: If I am, in fact, related to Aaron Burr — third US vice president, bad boy of the Founding Fathers, crack duellist, wannabe Emperor of Mexico — the link is lost in the mists of medieval British bureaucracy. There were a handful of Burrs who came to America from England in the 17th century, all from the same area of Suffolk. One settled in Dorchester; he’s my forebear. Another landed in Hartford, whence Colonel Aaron Burr sprang. No paper trail connects them.
But when you grow up with the name in these parts, you get a lot of guff: constant Hamilton guilting, jokes about pistols at dawn, a general sense that you’re related to the J.R. Ewing of early American politics. That “Got Milk” ad some years back didn’t help. Gore Vidal’s 1973 novel “Burr” was a big deal in our house, though.
So here’s this Broadway musical, and it’s about the guy on the other end of the duel, Alexander Hamilton. Self-made genius, Constitutional mansplainer, architect of the federal financial system. Lousy shot. Since its appearance on the New York stage just over a year ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play — he wrote it and stars as Hamilton — has become the musical-theater equivalent of the Beatles landing at JFK in 1964. (The show’s national tour will be coming to Boston in 2018.)
The after-market for tickets is in the nosebleed stratosphere, with people so desperate for seats that they’re behaving as if the apocalypse were upon them. To wit: Immediately after I picked up my press seat at the New York box office, a well-dressed woman in pearls rushed up and offered me double what I’d paid. It was more than a little creepy.
But, yes, I wanted to see “Hamilton” because I felt the family honor (however distant) was in need of upholding. If Hamilton is the hero of “Hamilton,” doesn’t that mean Aaron Burr is the villain? And that my own descendants will be hearing Burr jokes into the far future, only now they’ll be sung?
I inherited a bunch of genealogical ephemera from my dad, who got it from his father; being a WASP comes with heavy documentation. Among the books is a thick tome called “The Burr Family,” self-published by Charles Burr Todd in 1903 and painstakingly tracing every American Burr descendant. The book opens with a few biographical chapters on notable Burrs, leading up to the family’s big kahuna, and let me tell you, this guy is in the tank for Aaron Burr, whom he calls “mentally and physically at least, the most perfect man America ever produced.” (Italics his.)
So what if Burr shot and killed one of the best minds of the Revolution? So what if he tried to carve a personal republic out of the weakly held Spanish lands south of the Louisiana Purchase in the years after his vice presidency? (Thomas Jefferson, his chief executive and political rival, had Burr arrested and tried for treason; he was acquitted by Chief Justice John Marshall himself.) He could have called it Burrdonia, anticipating the Marx brothers’ Freedonia in “Duck Soup.” I’d live there. Especially if Trump got elected.
And listen to Todd on Alexander Hamilton: “Hamilton, on the other hand, was a waif, an estray, an alien . . . as a statesman beneath notice. . . . To him we are largely indebted for the Senate in our National Congress, an utterly useless body” — no argument there — “he was a backbiter, a calumniator, an intriguer, a log roller . . . to say nothing of sundry private vices which do not concern us.” Yowza!
Thus armed with high family dudgeon, I settled into my seat at the Richard Rodgers Theater for “Hamilton.” Which I regret to report is everything they say: brilliantly written to convey complex personal and historical nuances in a variety of modern pop styles (not just hip-hop), ingeniously staged, rapturously acted and sung, dazzlingly choreographed. The racial dynamic — almost all the actors are of color — at last brings everyone into the American experiment; it gives the show joy and teeth. The score is one wall-to-wall earworm. After seeing the matinee of “Hamilton” I went to an evening show of the Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home” — which was really good — and when I came out, I was still humming the songs from “Hamilton.”
It may be the first time I’ve seen a Broadway show that exceeded its hype.
Most interesting to me as a theatergoer — and flattering as a Burr — is that Miranda has written a show about ambitious, complicated men rather than heroes and villains. (Except for Christopher Jackson’s George Washington, who’s the play’s father figure and beloved boss.) The title character is a striver, an in-fighter, an adulterer — a man of great accomplishments and great faults. His opposite number, played with soul and sinew by Leslie Odom Jr., is Aaron Burr, who shares many of the same qualities and receives almost as much stage time. In fact, Burr gets the second-act showstopper, “The Room Where It Happens,” in which Odom turns his character’s primal ache for political power into a song-and-dance tour de force.
(By the way, feel free to while away the months before you get tickets by buying the two-disc original cast album, which contains almost every moment of this through-sung musical — and then go to Genius.com to parse the lyrics and the many interpretations thereof, some written by Lin-Manuel Miranda himself.)
So Aaron Burr is Iago to Hamilton’s Othello, the spur to his downfall, and, as such, as important to the play as the hero. (As written, actually, they’re complementary anti-heroes.) This I can live with. So can Leslie Odom Jr., who mops his brow backstage after the matinee while answering a noodgy Burr descendant’s questions. (Amazingly, he and the rest of the cast will be doing it all over again for the 8 p.m. show.)
Says Odom, “The bad guys have way more fun, in my opinion. ‘Bad guys’ in quotes.” Maybe it’s all the research he has done — the actor has both volumes of James Parton’s 1858 “The Life and Times of Aaron Burr” on the shelves of his cramped dressing room — but Odom believes the man he plays has been misjudged. “There are certainly people who have committed horrific, evil acts in the history of humanity. I don’t think Aaron Burr’s one of them.”
Good to hear. I give the actor a copy of the Todd chapter quoted above and we share a laugh over the biographer’s florid defensiveness. No, Burr wasn’t “the most perfect man America ever produced.” Says Odom, for whom the character remains firmly in the present, “I think his two biggest flaws are that he doesn’t choose a side — he waits too long to say what it is he actually believes — and there’s a willfulness and a pride that’s at play there that can be your downfall.”
Which sounds like a fine subject for a musical sequel, doesn’t it? Call it “Burr! An Empire of His Own.” You should probably buy your tickets early.
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