A dot Ham v A dot Burr: Narrative foils in the American dream of Hamilton: An American Musical

Always think twice before a murder. That was one of the most profound lessons Hamilton: An American Musical taught me. There is always a chance that the duel between you and your nemesis will become the climax of an internationally acclaimed musical. You will spend the majority of two hours and forty minutes narrating said nemesis’ life while simultaneously getting roasted to bits by the entire show. It happened to Aaron Burr, it might as well happen to you too. In the original Broadway show of Hamilton: An American Musical, the sets, colors, costumes, and songs to convey the juxtaposition of Hamilton and Burr’s belongingness on stage, as their presence symbolized the driving and hindering forces of the American dream.

Hamilton as a character embodied the essence of the American dream: the idealization of an American society where everyone, despite their backgrounds and identities, can be successful with hard work and determination. This narrative is integral to the identity of the United States inside and outside the country. For many people, coming to the US means a better chance at success and an opportunity for a better life. Lin-Manuel Miranda agreed with this idea in his musical: he showed that Hamilton, as an immigrant, belongs in the American dream narratives and those who wants to exclude them (Aaron Burr) are the true outcasts. Here, we should consider Lin-Manuel Miranda’s background as a first-generation immigrant whose parents did find success in the US.  The American dream is, for him, real and attainable. His reality reflects onto his musical, yet his reality is not the only reality. Just as the American dream narrative neglects to consider the deeply rooted socioeconomical inequality within the American society, Hamilton: The American Musical also neglected the messier side of history to fit the story into a pretty mold of heroism and bootstrapped successes.

In Act I, the lyrics of Hamilton: The American Musical was clear on labeling Hamilton in a way that fit the American dream narrative, especially in the introduction of his character. The first four lines of the song Alexander Hamilton established both Hamilton underprivileged backgrounds and his eventual ascend to high social status. The description focused on three aspects of his identity: his parental background, his class, and his status as an immigrant, all of which left Hamilton in the margins of society with little to no resources. The odds seemed so stacked against Hamilton, that the introduction of his story was a question: “How?” How does Hamilton, with all of these difficulties, became a “hero and a scholar”? Aaron Burr delivered the question with incredulity, signaling himself as the doubter and non-supporter of Hamilton’s dream. The answer was in the next verse: Hamilton achieved success through hard work, through intelligence and wit, and through resourcefulness. The lyrics listed out these traits with a repetition of the preposition “by”, emphasizing that they were the most important reasons for success. Hamilton’s marginalized identity, which the audience sympathized with, and his bootstrapper traits, which the audience admired, constituted his symbolism to the American dream. However, by only acknowledging one side of Hamilton’s identity and neglecting his roles as a white person and a colonizer, these lyrics also erased a part of history to fit Hamilton into an archetype. By pushing the narrative of the bootstrapped success, the musical also encouraged the audience to ignore the historical context of colonialism and slavery, just as the American dream encouraged people to ignore the socioeconomical inequality in pursue of personal advancements.

Throughout Act I, the sets emphasized Hamilton’s belongingness, and by contrast Burr’s rejection from the main stage through color, costumes, and choreography. The colors of the show – both in lighting and costumes – usually harmonized with Hamilton’s color palette. In Alexander Hamilton, most characters wore white, including Hamilton. In contrast, Burr was the only one in dark clothes in the song. While Hamilton was accepted into the crowd seamlessly, Burr stuck out with his darker palette. While the gold-colored lights illuminated Hamilton as well as the other characters, Burr seemed to cast more shadows under the lights. As Hamilton appeared on stage, the music went silent for a few second, and the audience was immediately drawn toward him. This emphasis was even clearer in the Disney+ filming of the musical, as the camera zoomed toward his face and the audience could see the emotions in Hamilton’s upturn eyes. From the moment he appeared, Hamilton took center stage and Burr moved either to the side or to the front. Because the Broadway stage for Hamilton was a revolving stage, everything physically revolved around Hamilton: the spotlight shined above center stage to illuminate Hamilton’s works and person in a bright warm light. The choreography also moved in a circle around Hamilton, and as he moved around the stage, the ensemble made space and interact with him. This was also a contrast to Burr, who was both another part of the ensemble around Hamilton and an outlier in color and movements. While he did interact with Hamilton, like handing him his book, Burr didn’t really interact with the other cast members in this scene. Physically and visually, Burr was already excluded from the other characters. As the song progress, Hamilton stood out even more from the ensemble, but his standing out was different from Burr’s difference. Hamilton changed from a white coat to a brown coat, the light made his coat almost golden. Unlike Burr’s dark clothes, Hamilton’s change in color did not take away from his harmony with the other cast and lighting – as his color was still in the same warm tone as the yellow lights – but made him glow and stand out. The cast moved toward the front this time and Hamilton seemingly disappeared into the back. However, the moment was brief, and the audience soon found Hamilton again as the ensemble turned their eyes toward him. Hamilton stood over the crowd: he commanded their attention. Burr stood apart from the crowd: he was casting shadows. Putting this contrast into the American dream narrative: the story did not welcome Burr and what he stood for (skepticism and hindrance of the American dream), just as there was no place for such ideas in the idealized America.

Further down the line of Act I, Hamilton started to have meaningful interactions and conversations with the other Founding Fathers.  Here was where his costumes made clear his status as an immigrant among the American men. Hamilton wore mainly warm color in the first acts, while the Founding Fathers had darker clothes in cool tones (similar to Burr’s clothes). This color contrasts seemingly emphasized Hamilton’s difference from the other Founding Fathers, yet he was a “brother” and Washington’s “right-hand man”. In My Shot and The Story of Tonight, the spotlight still focused on him and its gold tone was still flattering toward his colors. In Right-hand man, the lighting changed into blue to match with Hamilton’s uniform. Furthermore, the spotlight was always on him, while Burr always stood on the side of the light. In the war, in the moment of heroism, Hamilton belonged on that battlefield. Burr did not.

Act II started with a similar motif, but now was a fall-from-grace of Hamilton, seemingly undoing the upbeat, classic American dream story of Act I. The immigrant lauded in the war was now actually ostracized from his comrades. The first song of Act II, What did I miss?, started similarly to Alexander Hamilton with a recap of who Hamilton was and what happened in his life. The same question “how”, but this time, it was how Hamilton lost his success. Burr was now smug, smiling as he sang Hamilton’s misdeeds. He put himself onto a higher position on a stair, but he still had minimum interactions with the ensemble. Eventually, his time in the spotlight ended quickly to give up the stage for Thomas Jefferson. What did I miss? had a similar structure to Alexander Hamilton and served a similar purpose. It (re)introduced a major character who would later gain great success, and had that character surrounded by the ensemble in contrast with Aaron Burr. However, the interactions between Jefferson and the ensemble were still not as profound and immersive as Hamilton’s interactions in the first act. While they still danced around him, there was few moments where the ensemble looked at Jefferson or helped with his movement and narration as they did with Hamilton. This showed, even with Hamilton not present, that the story was still his, and no one could replace his present on stage. Tying this to the American dream narrative and Hamilton’s on-stage identity as an immigrant, we can see that this musical was subtly making the case of the importance of Hamilton and his symbolization of an immigrant’s dream. Even though things went quite dramatically downhill for Hamilton in Act II, the structure of the musical still upheld the same ideas. Hamilton was still the main character, the hero of the story, and Burr was still the person who was not in “the room where it happened”.

The contrasts between Hamilton and Burr once against was stark in the song The Election of 1800. In this song, Burr was at the height of his triumph, while Hamilton was at his lowest. Burr was a successful politician with a family, while Hamilton had ruined his career and put his family in an awful position. Yet, Burr’s appearance on stage was awkward among the ensembles. They might be talking about him, but they didn’t pay attention or interact with him, despite his effort to engage. He ran between them, looking from left to right, yet there was no communication between Burr and the rest of the cast. In contrast, they seek out Hamilton, who completely did not want anything to do with other people, to ask for his opinion. They actively tried to engage with him and pulled him into their circle. They were “asking to hear [his] voice”, while Burr was silent between the people. In the end of the song, Burr lost, again. Hamilton, while not explicitly on stage, was the winner of that battle.

The only battle that Hamilton lost was also the last battle of this musical. However, the musical did not end with his death: it ended with how he lived. Who lives, Who dies, Who tells your story was a celebration of Hamilton’s life. The musical ended with another emphasis of Hamilton’s story. Before then, Burr expressed regrets of killing Hamilton, saying that he was the one who “paid for it”. He, with self-awareness, identified himself as the “villain to [the] story”. Indeed, in a story of the American dream, hindrance of that dream was the villain, was the outlier. Burr was self-aware, yet the American dream narrative itself was not. It wants to pretend that hindrance was a personal matter, that the United States itself is void of structural hindrance, and it distances itself from the villain of the story. Hamilton fell into that narrative, and therefore, the musical itself has erased a big part of the immigrant’s story and the struggle they faced against the system that worked to ostracized them. By celebrating Hamilton and distancing Burr, Hamilton actual offered a divisive view of America: it focused on personal advancement, instead of criticizing and speaking out against a system that forced people to compete against each other to not be pushed to the margin.

-By Rose Nguyen.

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