In the first act of almost every musical, there is at least one tender, genuinely felt moment where the protagonist goes off by themself and sings about the thing that the most desperately desire. Usually called the “I wish” song, or the “I want” song, it sums up the ultimate ends that the character wishes to achieve, and helps us to better understand who they are and where their motivation comes from.
Because it is typically a lilting, optimistic number, the “I wish” song usually concerns itself with ends, not means. This is also a contrivance of the plot; most of the musical will follow the protagonist as they work to achieve their desired ends, facing troublesome obstacles or compromises to their morals in the process. In many cases, the bulk of the musical itself concerns itself with the “means” the protagonist must engage in, so that they might attain their desired “ends”.
Hamilton does quite a bit to shake this up. Sure, we get a resonant, exhilarating “I wish” song in the form of “My Shot” — but even before that, we see Hamilton be tempted to attain his goals through questionable ends. In the very second song of the show, after the tour de force introduction to Hamilton, his history, and the legacy that will unfold before the audience, we see a stuffy Aaron Burr instruct Hamilton to “talk less, smile more” and basically obfuscate and pander his way into greatness. We haven’t even heard what Hamilton wishes for yet. But already we’re hearing the temptation to take dubious means to achieve his as-yet unstated ends.
After that first interaction, we understand both Hamilton and Burr’s attitudes about ends and means pretty well. Hamilton wants to elevate his social status and leave a historical mark; he believes in achieving that end through bravado, candor, and hard work. Burr believes that the best way to achieve goals is by placating and waiting out conflicts…so from the outset, we know his desired means, but what about his ends?
What does Burr want? This question is asked again and again throughout the musical, mostly by Hamilton — and until the second act, we don’t get an answer. Later in Act I, Burr elaborates on his preferred means to an end — “Wait for It” is a paean to patience, and an oddly energetic and uplifting number considering it’s about biding one’s time and lurking on the fringes of history. But still Burr’s desired ends are unclear. They remain unclear for roughly another hour of show time.
Finally, in the middle of Act II, we finally learn about our chief antagonist/foil/narrator’s deepest desires, the potent “I wish” that drives his recalcitrant nature. And it’s frustratingly hard to describe. Burr wants to be “in the room where it happens”; he wants to sit in a position of power and influence, specifically a relatively hidden one. He wants to have a say in political machinations. He wants to matter. Not for any specific outcome to be achieved, but simply for…what? The feeling of importance? Of security? It’s unclear, but the desperate yearning is palpable in his voice. Burr doesn’t know exactly what he wants, really, but he wants it badly.
Being a decision-maker in a dark room is his desired end. And to attain that influence, he will employ a variety of means, including duplicity, vagueness, and passivity. But mostly just passivity. That and fascination/resentment of those who use other means.
This is a fascinating subversion of conventional musical tropes. Here we get an antagonist with an “I want” song that’s just as compelling and relateable as that of the protagonist — but it comes near the end of the show, long after the character has happily coughed up the means he is willing to resort to in order to achieve his unstated, confusing desired ends. In fact, this slow unveiling of Burr’s motivation, coupled with Hamilton’s repeated demands to know what Burr stands for, combines to create a frustratingly, fascinatingly confused figure, one whose goals and means are almost inextricably linked in their covertness and cowardice.
By the time we get to hear what Burr desires most, we’re salivating for it. And Miranda does not disappoint. “The Room Where it Happens” is one of the most musically complex pieces in an already sonically dense show, and it pulsates with longing and resentment. It’s the key that unlocks the two-foot thick, solid metal door that separates Aaron Burr’s psyche from the rest of the world. And what’s most powerful about that reveal is that once we have finally pried the door open…we find very little inside. A lot of longing and a growing cloud of bitterness, but that’s it. There is no there there. The man’s “wish” is as inscrutable as the man himself.
No wonder Burr is so fixated on the hard-driving, outspoken Hamilton. Alexander is more than a foil. He’s the only mirror that allows Burr to see any semblance of self. And he doesn’t like what he sees, but he can’t seem to look away.
Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.