Let me clarify something: structurally, Hamilton is as much Aaron Burr’s story as it is Hamiton’s. There’s a Vulture article that lists 20 inspirations for Hamilton and Jesus Christ Superstar is number 4. That might even be too low. The beauty of Hamilton is how well crafted the parallels are between the title character and his friend/rival Burr.
The first thing that is important to realize is how Hamilton and Burr’s stories intentionally mirror each other. Both are orphans (creating an immediate bond between the two), both fight for their country, both are interested in moving up Washington’s ranks to become war heroes, and both eventually get into law and politics after the war. The aspirations for the two men never differ.
The differences come in how they pursue these goals. Burr follows the rules while Hamilton breaks them. Every step of the way sees Hamilton a hair in front of Burr or above Burr because of his willingness to take a chance. While the interest in Hamilton’s plot comes from how he’s willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, Burr’s equally interesting story thrives on the budding jealousy within Burr. This is where an article like Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker article starts to bother me. The plot, or any analysis around the plot, of Hamilton cannot be discussed without Burr. He’s essential. Burr and Hamilton are foils to each other and their successes and failures mean more because of each other.
If Hamilton’s life is the equivalent of the American (or Immigrant) Dream, Burr’s life is the American Nightmare and a much more condemning look at society. Burr is well educated, hard working, and ambitious, but seeing the brash Hamilton consistently surpass him drives him insane. The song “The Room Where It Happened,” while being the most manic of Burr’s songs, indicates a major shift in his goals. He’s tired of following the rules when Hamilton doesn’t. He hates seeing Hamilton getting to be the one who makes major decisions. This eventually drives him to kill Hamilton.
With this, Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to simultaneously throw shade on those who feel entitled simply because of their background and upbringing while shining an overlooked light on the other end of the minorities-in-the-workforce spectrum. Hamilton represents the immigrant (in terms of the musical, a POC) who works hard and shows how great minorities and immigrants are for the country. Burr, on the other hand, represents the minorities still being slighted by the system. Burr is the black kid who does everything right, works hard in school, never gets in trouble, who is still passed over for a job because of the color of his skin or the sound of his name. Aaron Burr represents the frustrations felt by minorities when they feel like they just can’t win. He takes that frustration out in the form of a bullet.
Which, finally, brings me to the JCS parallels. Judas didn’t have to hate Jesus to lead him to his death, just like Burr didn’t have to hate Hamilton to pull that trigger. In both cases the men were friends and trusted allies at least at some point in their histories. In both musicals, the ‘killer’ (Judas and Burr) is the first voice heard by the audience (an intentional parallel by Miranda) and their thoughts/insights are used as framing devices throughout the shows. They double as characters and narrators. In both cases the popularity of their counterpart is both concerning and a bit bewildering. Both Judas and Burr see themselves as doing the right thing. Judas is just frustrated in Jesus’s hoopla and Burr is frustrated in his own lack of success compared to his counterpart. Both men, in impulsive, emotional moments, make a choice that directly leads to the death of their friend. Judas can’t live with himself afterwards while Burr spends the rest of his life trying to live with his choice.
But the most interesting parallel between the two musicals is found in answering Hamilton’s final question: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” I’ll entertain arguments that the answer (and potential protagonist) is Hamilton’s wife Eliza. Considering how much of the show she’s not in during major events, it’s hard to actually agree, but there are valid arguments that after she decides to “put myself back in the narrative” she does actively make it her life’s mission to talk about and spread the legacy of her husband. I get that. But structurally, the answer is Burr.
Maybe it’s just because I listened to the album on repeat too much when the music came out, but hearing the soft, unison, full-cast line of “who lives, who dies, who tells your story” right before the sharp, punctuated hits of the top of the show and Burr’s boisterous voice starting to tell the tale of a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” it’s easy to see that Burr is the one who is telling the story.
Miranda’s question to end the show becomes a reflection on Judas. Judas, one of Jesus’s closest friends, kills himself rather than live with what he did. Judas dies. Burr, on the other hand lives. In looking at Burr as the one who lives and who goes on to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton, it becomes clear that the entire musical is actually Burr’s reflection on his relationship with Hamilton. It’s Burr’s guiding hand that leads the audience through the historical events and (now here’s a real tell) shows Hamilton’s faults. Burr’s story shows how Hamilton’s impulsiveness both gave him great success, but also led to angering a lot of people, indirectly causing his son’s death, and having an affair. Sure, it’s possible that Eliza would have kept Hamilton’s flaws in her telling of the story, but Burr paints a picture that is much more critical of Hamilton, while showing himself as someone who just couldn’t catch a break—just as Judas paints a picture of Jesus that showed the fanaticism of Jesus’s followers as Judas saw them while Judas paints himself as someone who just didn’t know how to love Jesus.
All of that is to say that you can’t talk about Hamilton without Burr the same way that you can’t talk about Jesus Christ Superstar without Judas. They are both crucial to their respective plots and their perspectives give each story extra depth that’s missing from a simple view of Hamilton and Jesus as the protagonists of their respective musicals.