Songs from Musicals: #24, “Burn,” from Hamilton

Honorable mentions: “Say No to This,” “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”

My original plan was to write this entry from Hamilton about “Say No to This.” Look, I even got this much of it done:

Long version: Okay, so everyone knows that scene near the end of The Shawshank Redemption where Andy has just emerged from the sewage pipe into the water, and he rips off his shirt and he lets the thunder roar and the lightning strike and he looks up into the sky and lets the rain fall on him. That’s all about relief.

Short version: Here’s a gif of Michael Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale breathing fire.

Both of those are intimately related to the feeling I have, every darn time, Jasmine Cephas Jones starts singing. “If you pay,/You can stay” is a solid little couplet. Jones absolutely launches into “stay,” turns it into the vocal equivalent of a knife being twisted into someone’s gut. It’s not Dufresne-relief or Phelps-exultation; it’s Jones-explosion, and it’s awesome. As far as good singing voices go in this musical, she is either first or second after Jonathan Groff. There’s nothing difficult she has to do in the song, not for someone with that level of talent. Everything’s in her range. She probably gets to hold out more notes for longer than anyone singing any other song; the quick-tongued virtuosity that underpins “Satisfied” or “Guns and Ships” is totally superfluous for what she has to do here. That simplicity – for everything Lin-Manuel Miranda rattles off, this is, in context, a fairly straightforward ditty – is the key to the song, which builds the stakes beautifully with a subtly speeding tempo and subtly building volume.

This a song about regret first, sex second. Luther Vandross should have played Maria Reynolds. “Show me how to say no to this” is not the prayer of a man who is tempted, but a man who has gotten himself addicted. Those are the words on a forty, or on a pack of cigarettes. Hamilton (and Burr. and like, most of the other guys Hamilton and Burr know) have been recklessly feeding a sexual addiction for most of the play. Why be surprised, when you’ve already admitted to yourself that you want to have sex with your wife’s sister more than your wife, that someone else could come along, play dumb, and in the end, show you “you made the wrong sucka a cuckold.”

And then Wesley Morris wrote this, and it had context and everything, and Wesley Morris has a Pulitzer, and I don’t, so I’m just going to leave what I said there and mope in a corner and spend a lot more time on one of the other forty-something songs on the Hamilton soundtrack.

If I were making a ranking of songs from Hamilton in terms of quality, I would want to put this one first. (Spoiler: “Wait for It” gets that spot in my cosmology.) There are two reasons I can’t put it first, which are really the same reason expressed in two different ways. (There might be a third reason, but I hope there isn’t, because then people would be using this song to explain how the Godhead is three-in-one, like they do with water.) The first reason is one of sheer clunkiness; there’s an entire verse which is written from the perspective of Ron Chernow (“let future historians wonder…”), and that’s an incredibly jarring listening experience. The second is that we keep returning to conversations that Eliza had with Angelica in the past.

In a song like “Burn,” a sung-through soliloquy that is almost unique in this musical, which privileges (cringe) rap battles and numbers that feature the whole cast and, most commonly, numbers that feature someone for a verse or two, I want to be hearing Eliza Schuyler and not thinking of anyone else besides Eliza and Alexander, the ones who are burning. Angelica is not burning, but Angelica keeps showing up.

There are answers for this pull away from the focus. Angelica is an easier justification to make; she has been part of Eliza’s relationship with Hamilton since the beginning, and it would make sense that she should be there, in some way, at the end as well. My counterargument is that even if Eliza is not “the type to try and grab the spotlight” and her sister is, her sister is not the prime focus of what is one of the two or three most important moments of the play, and that it’s a shame to keep going back to Angelica as a hook. Those future historians have even less claim on this moment than Angelica does; something tells me that people whose marriages have just shattered are not spending a whole lot of time wondering about how people hundreds of years down the line are going to assess said shattering. I like that Eliza becomes the one who lives and tells the story, in large part; what happens in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is foreshadowed here, and this recall of a narrative should take us back to “That Would Be Enough.” There are a bunch of strands that draw themselves into other moments in the play.

If I were to try to explain away the “future historians” line, I would say that Eliza, more than anyone else in the story, controls who tells her story. Ironically, by destroying the words that she said and thus the record of her thoughts and actions, the number of people who can tell her story drops almost to nil by the time you reach our vantage point. Tacitly, the musical is throwing us one heck of a jigsaw: allow someone else to represent you through the lens that they bring to your life, or make it impossible to build the lens at all and never be represented after you die. All that’s going on around “future historians,” and that’s okay, I guess, but those words distract from the most human character in Hamilton, and it’s a shame that there wasn’t a way to phrase it that doesn’t rob her of that stage.

Philippa Soo is somehow underappreciated in this musical, which is a travesty. I get the reasons why: everyone in this musical is fabulous, and Soo is one of two or three people who isn’t responsible for rapping or something more obviously R&B flavored. But she has a sensational voice and equally sensational vocal control (listen to that run from “Take a Break” a few times and feel your spine go “Woo!”), and “Burn” lets her showcase that package in the same way that Daveed Diggs gets to in “Guns and Ships” or “Washington on Your Side,” or that Leslie Odom, Jr. gets to in “Wait for It” and “The Room Where It Happens.” At the very least, it’s worth it to be grateful for four minutes where Soo, whose character takes a back seat, gets to drive.

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