Track Two: ‘Aaron Burr, Sir’
For those who have listened to the recordings or witnessed the stage show of Hamilton, there are two names that stand above the rest: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The former, our star of the show, is memorable for obvious reasons; the latter for being the hand at which Hamilton fell. In ‘Aaron Burr, Sir’, we are introduced to an historical figure whose fate could so easily have been swapped with Hamilton’s own. Instead, he is “the villain in our history,” the foundations of which are clearly laid in this second track.
Our protagonist and antagonist are polar opposites from the start. Hamilton — overeager, exuberant, oddly endearing — practically unleashes a soliloquy on poor Burr the moment they meet. He approaches him, uninvited, to ask, “Are you Aaron Burr, sir?” With a reluctant confirmation from Burr, Hamilton propels himself into a barrage of information overload, jumbling questions with anecdotes as he looks for some way to make a connection. Soon enough, one arises.
“You’re an orphan — of course! I’m an orphan.
God, I wish there was a war then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.”
Hamilton finds a common ground instantly and is quick to group himself with Burr as “we”, much to Burr’s displeasure. For every hopeful question Hamilton throws his way, Burr is less than impressed with where the conversation is headed. It soon becomes clear that the the version of Burr which Hamilton idolises doesn’t live up to his lofty expectations. While the idea of Burr seemed like the perfect mentor, the reality of him as a person did not match the carefully designed picture in Hamilton’s mind.
When Burr interrupts Hamilton’s speech to offer him a drink, we notice the hierarchy set in. Hamilton — awestruck, spilling his words so quickly Burr can hardly get in a breath — suddenly seems small. Burr, on the other hand, claims his high ground with a simple directive:
“Talk less … smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
It’s here we recognise the shift in Hamilton’s perspective. Finally, the reality is setting in. Confused, he asks, “You can’t be serious.” Before Hamilton can expand on his newfound uncertainty or reconcile this disinterested, fence-sitting Burr with the idol of his imagination, we are introduced to a few more key players of the musical.
The introduction of John Laurens, Lafayette, and Hercules Mulligan acts as an example of the kind of “fools” Burr refers to when declaring “fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.” Each verse is both fluid and sharp, achieving the monumental task of capturing a new character in only a few short bars. They contrast perfectly with Burr and depict the kind of people that are more akin to Hamilton’s values and mindset. Unlike Burr, their melodious stylings are energetic and uplifting. We root for them instantly; we want to be them. But with Burr, whose monotonous tone is delivered so brilliantly by Leslie Odom Jr., we find that this is a character we will struggle to love.
Once our newest trio finish their verses, they implore Burr to join in the fun. Here, our suspicions are confirmed: Aaron Burr is not exactly a barrel of laughs.
“Good luck with that, you’re taking a stand.
You spit, I’m’a sit,
We’ll see where we land.”
In just one song, the character of Aaron Burr has been defined. He is careful and safe. His decisions are calculated to avoid any chance of standing on one side of the fence; he is firmly in the middle. His approach to politics is to maintain a steady course. In essence, he is the opposite to everything we know of Hamilton. This is proved when Hamilton’s quiet suspicions that this Burr isn’t quite as amazing as he had hoped evolve into a statement so bold it captures the attention of Laurens, Mulligan, and Lafayette.
“If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”
The way this line is delivered is perhaps one of the most telling elements of the entire song. “If you stand for nothing, Burr,” begins with a subdued frustration, the kind that comes from discovering the person you idolised isn’t so remarkable in person. It also indicates that Hamilton’s moral compass is pointing in an opposite direction to Burr. He can’t begin to fathom how someone won’t take a stand when faced with something that is so clearly divided into right and wrong.
But the final words of this line — ‘…what’ll you fall for?’ — are where we hear Hamilton’s preconceived notions of Burr finally shatter. His voice is undeniably resigned, with a hint of disappointment lacing every syllable. He disagrees with all that Burr has said, for everything he chooses not to stand for, but above all, he is disheartened to find his faith has been misplaced.
The track closes with our new favourite trio appraising Hamilton anew, asking, “Oh, who is this kid, what’s he gonna do?”
To that, I can only say: just you wait.