Burr-fect Together: No Musical for History’s Villain

Alexander Hamilton’s slayer died in disgrace. The latest insult: He never got a musical.

Illustration by Michael Witte

It’s the talk of the theater world: Hamilton: An American Musical.

I say, “ugh.”

Sure, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop biography is a Broadway blockbuster—but what about New Jersey’s own Aaron Burr?  Where’s Burr: The Musical? While Hamilton’s rags-to-riches biography is compelling—and many of the key moments in his life took place in New Jersey—I’d argue that Burr’s story is even better, with plot twists that would defy the imagination of the most inventive playwright.

The curtain rises in Elizabeth, the New Jersey city where Aaron and his sister, Sally, are newly orphaned. People adore orphans in musicals (see Oliver! or Annie—or Hamilton, for that matter). The young Burr begins to sing “Woe Is I” until the servants enter to serve tea and remind him the Burr family is rich.

Flash-forward to the precocious Burr, now 13, on his first day at the College of New Jersey, the school founded by his father and later renamed Princeton University (song: “My Daddy Was President of Princeton, Huzzah”).

1775: Burr signs up for the Revolution. He and future traitor Benedict Arnold fail to conquer Quebec (“Gee, Maine’s a Big Place to Walk Through”), but Burr is rewarded with a job on General Washington’s staff—and promptly quits (“Bad Decisions”). Hamilton later takes the position and rides it to power.

Burr is given command of a regiment, but after losing the Battle of Monmouth, he resigns his commission to study law. He moves to New York, marries, and has a daughter, Theodosia. Cue sad music, foreshadowing the death of Burr’s wife when Theodosia is 10.

Burr rises quickly: assemblyman, U.S. senator, and in 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s vice presidential pick. Due to an oddity in the Constitution, Burr almost becomes president (“It Shoulda-Woulda-Coulda Been Me!”) until Hamilton swings the vote against him. Bumped from the ticket in 1804, Burr runs for governor of New York but—again—Hamilton stands in his way. Peeved at a remark Hamilton probably didn’t make, Burr challenges his rival to a duel in Weehawken. Shots are exchanged,  and Hamilton is mortally wounded (“Reprise: Bad Decisions”). Facing criminal prosecution, Burr flees to Theodosia’s house in South Carolina. Curtain.

Burr is approached by conspirators to be president if New England secedes from the Union; when they find out about Hamilton’s death, the plan collapses. Instead, Burr begins raising an army to invade the Spanish territories (“I Hear It’s Nice in Texas This Time of Year”). Burr is arrested, stands trial for treason (“Reprise: Bad Decisions”), and is acquitted. Still, he can’t overcome this latest disgrace.

In New York, Burr awaits a visit from Theodosia, but her ship is lost at sea (“Pirates, the Brits, or Bad Luck?”). Burr is devastated. Running out of money, he marries Eliza Jumel, a wealthy former madam, but they soon separate (“Reprise: Woe Is I”). Burr suffers a stroke, moves into a hotel on Staten Island (“Exile”) and dies in 1836, remembered as the man who slew Alexander Hamilton (“If Only I Had Known”).

On second thought, no one’s going to believe this. Let’s make it an opera instead. Those things never make sense.

James Nevius’s most recent book, Footprints in New York (Lyons Press, 2014), examines the shootout in Weehawken.

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