“First Burn” vs. the final version of “Burn” in Hamilton: A Lesson on Reactivity vs. Resilience
This post is how Lin Manuel Miranda’s final version of the song, “Burn,” in his musical Hamilton, is an example of choosing more mindful empowering thoughts and actions over your “first draft” reactivity, even when you are heartbroken.
As fiery as the “First Burn” draft is, the final version is the most powerful. The final version’s power might first be lost on you if you’re in your feelings siding with Eliza. The power of “First Burn” sung as a quintet by five of the artists who portrayed Eliza Schuyler Hamilton in various productions of the show is especially captivating. “First Burn,” makes some sharp points. If you are feeling betrayed by any “Alexander Hamiltons,” you may be cheering on lines like, “your enemy whispers so you have to scream/I know about whispers, I see how you look at my sister.” You may feel like he deserves to be guilted with lines like, “Explain to the children the pain and embarrassment you put their mother through/When will you learn, they are your legacy?” This version is raw and real. We could call it “brutally honest.”
As compelling as “brutal honesty” may seem because of the “honest” part, most relationship therapists discourage communication in this form. Most of the time the other person deserves to have their feelings considered. Reconciliation is easiest when kind words bring down defenses. That said, at this point in the Hamilton story even I’m going to say that no one needs to measure their words on his behalf. Eliza doesn’t need to maintain her composure, but in the final version of “Burn,” she chooses to. And this is where we take notes from her.
In the scene and song that made it into the Hamilton production, instead of showing some rant that includes Hamilton witnessing her vitriol, Eliza appears alone. I found that choice to be so sad and lonely at first until I realized how, as her choice, it was so much more powerful. In the final version’s lyrics, she reviews the betrayal with keen observations. She reflects on her initial impressions of her husband and how those connect with his betrayal. She accepts the reality that he is unreachable; “your sentences border on senseless, and you are paranoid in every paragraph/how they perceive you, you, you, you!” She realizes there is nothing to be said to him, so she makes a decision about her own rights, “The world has no right to my heart, the world has no place in our bed, they don’t get to know what I said.” She realizes she cannot control him, and how he is not trustworthy, and she lets him go. It’s heartbreaking, but so brave and open.
In my mind, this song is the turning point is where Eliza becomes the main character in this story. The beginning of the play foreshadowed the final events of Hamilton’s life so effectively that the songs depicting them are essentially reprisals of earlier songs and earlier situations. This time around, we are prompted to experience them all from Eliza’s perspective. This is why that last songs and scenes are such tearjerkers. Now connected to Eliza, we feel every loss with her.
So why is it more powerful to be sad and alone than angry and lashing out? Because it takes getting sad and alone to heal. Just like with physical injuries, you cannot get the best care when you are thrashing around. We certainly understand how you might need to initially thrash to survive, but we don’t want to stay in that that. We want to get back to the place of growth. For that we must have a quieter and more reflective, “Burn.”
You might be interested to know I was thinking of Hamilton in this specific instance in effort to “complete the stress cycle,” as Emily Nagoski, PhD, and her twin sister Amelia Nagoski, PhD advised in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. This book goes beyond the nebulous and often glib advice to, “just practice self-care,” to avoid a crushing attack of emotional exhaustion. It explains how the stress cycle works, and how to restore your energy by completing it. The Nagoski sisters detail why consciously seeking out experiences like laughter, creative expression, and crying are essential for restoring your mental health after a you have been in stress mode. Crying is actually one of my favorites. The last part of Hamilton, starting with “Burn” is a great way to get tears out. Listening to “Burn” to prevent burnout seems apt.