While Hamilton and Burr competed in the same physical space, social media has brought a sense of comparison into a wider sphere.The Arts
Hamilton is that rare thing, an explosively popular musical. It fuses a catchy rap soundtrack and a thought-provoking take on American history that speaks to modern times and concerns. Now, with Disney+ set to release the Hamilton Movie on July 3rd — a year earlier than initially envisioned — we will soon be able to enjoy his acclaimed musical from a social distance.
I am among the many looking forward to watching Hamilton at home. I was also among those lucky enough to see it in person during its initial Broadway run. The musical was groundbreaking for its soundtrack and casting people of color as the American Founding Fathers, creating, as Miranda put it, "a story of America then told by America now."
Soon we will all get to experience (or relive) the whirling platforms and energetic dance numbers that make up Hamilton’s kinetically charged stagecraft. And those of us who aren’t already familiar with the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, as played out in the musical’s addictive rap soundtrack, might find, as I did, that Hamilton has insightful things to say not just about American history but about the futility of competition and envy.
Let’s rewind, as Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry) does in Hamilton’s song "Satisfied."
I grew up in the countryside of Prince Edward Island, Canada. I wasn’t even in a small town — I lived on a "rural route," with cows for neighbors, and my postal address’ catchment area encompassed about ten houses. Like many kids identified as "gifted" by their teachers, and many Millennials who grew up with high expectations, I relished university but fumbled when real life came knocking. The economic recession made it challenging to find work, let alone fulfill lofty career dreams.
When I eventually got a job, in a different field from the one I’d hoped to enter, the dreams persisted in the background. I tried to make strides toward artistic and entrepreneurial goals, which mostly meant knocking on doors and hearing "no." I began to doubt myself and wonder what I really wanted. I fumbled. I hesitated. Meanwhile, social media kept me aware of friends’ and acquaintances’ successes: publishing books, buying houses, and working in fields I couldn’t break into.
I had always struggled with envy. In the professional world, it only intensified; it burned strongly that day in the theatre.
Let’s set the scene. As Lin-Manuel Miranda bursts onto the stage in his Alexander Hamilton garb, a chorus led by Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) sings the story of a young man whose drive I connect with. Hamilton came from poverty, lived through hardship, and wrote a letter that inspired his neighbors to send him overseas for an education. The character’s posture and energy mark him as a firebrand. Aware that he has already had more time than his loved ones, he’s eager to leave a legacy and desperate to get started.
Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s colleague and eventual murderer, is introduced early as a character foil. While Hamilton speaks his mind and picks fights, Burr values diplomacy and holding back: "Talk less, smile more," he advises Hamilton. Consequently, he sometimes comes across like a used car salesman, putting people off with smarminess as he tries to win them over. His reluctance to speak his mind comes from the same source as Hamilton’s desire to make an impact — an awareness of his own mortality. Burr fears being shot, which seems logical in an era of duels, with the American Revolution imminent.
Like Hamilton, Burr is an orphan. What this means to him is revealed in the song "Wait for It." He feels the weight of his parents’ legacy but doesn’t know how to move forward. While Hamilton sees death as an enemy pursuing him and his own mortality as a call to action, Burr views death as an amoral force that "doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints," and waits for a reason for his continued existence to reveal itself. He expresses envy of Hamilton’s proactive approach, wondering what it must be like to live without hesitation.
How many times had I scrolled through other people’s Facebook updates, wondering the same thing? While Hamilton and Burr competed in the same physical space, social media has brought a sense of envy and comparison into a wider sphere. Today you don’t have to be physically proximate to someone else to witness their accomplishments and wit. And, since most of us put our best foot forward online, our impression of others in our network is often limited to their good news and best selves.
Through much of the musical, Hamilton and Burr share a friendly antagonism. They spar musically, compete for a job with George Washington (Hamilton gets it), and practice law from offices side by side. The rivalry follows a familiar narrative where one person (the gifted, relentless Hamilton) is always ahead. Various levels of privilege (and lack thereof) influence their competition: both characters are male (Angelica Schuyler, an equally brilliant figure in the musical, is not afforded the same opportunities), and although both are orphans, Hamilton is a poor immigrant while Burr is a “trust fund baby,” at times it is implied that Hamilton’s lack of opportunity drove him to fight harder for what he wanted.
Lin-Manuel Miranda similarly created opportunities for himself and other actors of color to be the leading men and women for once, highlighting the role of race in creating an uneven competitive playing field.
Eventually, Burr identifies what he wants — to be in "The Room Where It Happens" — and pursues it opportunistically, joining the political party opposite Hamilton’s and winning a senate seat against his father-in-law. History is written from there: Hamilton opposes Burr’s presidential candidacy due to his lack of principles, they duel, and Burr fires that fateful shot.
The musical humanizes these historical figures and elicits its share of tears. Mine came as Burr reflects on Hamilton’s death: "I should’ve known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me." Suddenly, the resentment I carried toward professional rivals fell into perspective.
Burr and Hamilton (who could, after all, have apologized to Burr and avoided the duel) were so consumed by their standoff and by the pressure to do something legacy-worthy with their time that it proved fatal for Hamilton and destructive to Burr’s future. America could have been enriched by both Hamilton’s rapid-fire ingenuity and Burr’s reflective ambition. History would have made room for both of them. But this was not to be.
My own envy was often so strong that I wished one successful peer or another would disappear, but Leslie Odom Jr.’s melodious voice illuminated how destructive that desire was. Success doesn’t come from eliminating someone else’s opportunities. Fortunately, it wasn’t too late to change the way I interacted with people I saw as "the lucky ones." No one had incited anyone else to a duel. We were all still alive.
I left the theatre with opened eyes. I ran into a professional rival not long after. When anger coursed through me, I told myself, "the world is wide enough."
These words became a refrain for me: they don’t change the feeling, but they alter how I respond to it. I put my most cordial face forward and eventually reconciled with that person. While it still feels bittersweet to witness competitors’ successes, I don’t wish them away. I recognize that they are a part of the playing field, and that without other players, we wouldn’t have a game at all. The twin lenses of art and history showed me something that I had been too stubborn to see myself.
Now I look around a library and see shelves of books — many authors have their place in the collection. I scroll through job ads and see many possible paths for various people. In the years since I watched Hamilton live, I’ve seen the fortunes of most people I know rise and fall. I’ve found that success is largely determined by external factors, and as the cast sings, "you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story."
I’m grateful that more of us will soon get to enjoy the powerful story told in Hamilton. Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda, for delighting viewers and listeners, and for letting me know that the world is wide enough for multiple strivers and dreamers to leave a legacy.
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