I’ve been obsessed with the Hamilton soundtrack for the past two weeks. I jumped on the bandwagon a little late, and this is regrettably because I used to refuse to listen to anything popular because I was “too cool”. Now that I can clearly divide my life into pre-Hamilton and post-Hamilton, it’s pretty clear that Hamilton is too cool for me.
What can I say about Hamilton? It’s pretty much the most beautiful, innovative, unique lyrical masterpiece that I’ve ever heard. I used to think “I’m not going to listen to Hamilton until I can watch it on stage because I want to be able to see it with fresh eyes and ears.” I have this policy for good reasons, but boy oh boy is it going to be a long time before I’ll ever see it on stage. Tickets have been sold out for months, and I’ll probably retire before I get a ticket!
So I succumbed to listening to the soundtrack on YouTube, and it rendered me helpless. (ay, ay) Within an hour I had succumbed to buying the soundtrack off iTunes. After hours of listening to all 48 songs (48 songs!), I immediately delved into hours of research about Alexander Hamilton’s life and most importantly, stalking Anthony Ramos’ (Philip Hamilton) photos, because he’s beautiful.
And after I could form coherent thoughts about it and after I successfully got the songs stuck in my family’s heads, I really sat down and listened to the lyrics. Then my inner philosopher stopped singing along to the lyrics and started tearing its philosophical meaning apart.
Hamilton is about power. The male characters – Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Washington, King George – quite obviously have political power struggles all the time. Alexander’s story begins with him at the bottom of the ladder, and as time passes, he climbs the ladder quite rapidly. The way I see it, he starts off as wanting power because he wants a legacy. He doesn’t want to be the irrelevant poor orphan immigrant anymore, he wants to prove to the world how intelligent and worthy he is. He gets his wish because his fierce loyalty to his beliefs (which is closely related to the revolution) is in line with everyone else’s. They win the war, but no one realizes how much change needs to take place. Alexander does, but his beliefs start irritating everyone else because they’re just not ready for that much change. Alexander realizes that he can’t convince everyone, he can’t make everyone love him. So his pursuit of power continues, but its intent changes. Now, Alexander wants power because he wants to make a difference.
Aaron Burr, on the other hand, is completely different. He realizes quite early on that his priority is making sure that his family’s legacy is protected. Alexander and Aaron clash exhaustingly throughout the whole musical about Burr’s inability to have integrity. Alexander says to Aaron the first night they meet, “If you stand for nothing Burr, what will you fall for?” but he fails to realize that this is the exact reason why Aaron stands for nothing. He won’t ever fall. He won’t ever crash and burn like Alexander does. If you think about it, Alexander’s extreme dedication to his work is what causes his affair, his distant relationship with his family, his estrangement with Angelica, his son’s death and in the end, his death. Aaron avoids all of this and ends up becoming Vice President, a higher position than Alexander Hamilton ever held. But he’s blinded by his pursuit of his goals, which ultimately leads to history remembering him for all his mistakes.
The female characters – the Schuyler sisters, Maria Reynolds, and briefly Theodosia (both daughter and mother) – have a lot of covert power.
Eliza and Alexander are constantly butting heads because she wants to establish a sense of power in the household, mostly about convincing Alexander to prioritize his family more. Though we don’t hear a lot about Eliza and Alexander’s domestic life or their children’s childhood, I’d imagine that Eliza is the primary artist in sculpting their children. Since Alexander is working so much, it’s Eliza who teaches their children how to sing, play piano, speak French, and implicitly, to have pride in being a Hamilton. In terms of her marriage, I don’t think that Eliza truly takes the upper hand until Burn. At a time when her world and marriage are crashing and burning, she finally gets a grip on her own life and Alexander’s life. At the end of The Reynolds Pamphlet, the chorus sing “His poor wife”, and she initially seems to be utterly broken.
She reminisces about their courtship,
“Your sentences left me defenseless//
You built me palaces out of paragraphs”
and then she gets angry,
“Your sentences border on senseless//
And you are paranoid in every paragraph, how they perceive you//
You. You. You.”,
and then the most poignant part:
“I’m erasing myself from the narrative//
Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart”,
“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”
“You forfeit all rights to my heart”
She burns the letters that prove Alexander’s love for her, and from the ashes, she rebuilds her independence. All she wanted from the beginning was to be enough for her husband, and he repeatedly shows her that she isn’t enough. After Philip gets shot, Alexander finally sees what Eliza’s been yapping on about the whole time, and finally sees the powerhouse that he married, and comes running back to her.
And of course, the show ends with the rest of Eliza’s story. She decides to put herself back on the world’s stage, and she takes responsibility to continue Alexander’s work. Although she doesn’t continue his political work, she continues what she knows was most important to him: making a difference. In That Would Be Enough, she argues that having a legacy isn’t important to her. However, she realizes that having a legacy is a side effect of doing important work, and she does think that making a difference is important. She finally sees what Alexander has been parroting on about the entire musical, and when she lets herself be ambitious, she changes the course of history.
Side note: When I first heard Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, when Eliza was singing, “Have I done enough?” I was shouting at my laptop “YES ELIZA YOU HAVE”. Tears every time.
Onto the other flaming powerhouse – Angelica Schuyler. Angelica has a completely different purpose in life, she prioritizes her duties above everything else. She has duties as the firstborn daughter, and she forgoes true love for those duties. She has duties as an older sister, and she forgoes love again, as well as friendship. She has responsibility as a pretty influential woman: everyone seems to know who she is, she is friends with many powerful men. She’s in tune with what’s happening in politics, and she daringly tells Alexander what to do. However, as dutiful as she is, she isn’t afraid to tell anyone to shove it or to show that she’s angry. It always makes me giggle in Take A Break when she says “Screw your courage to the sticking plate” to Alexander. She’d probably be the only person who could get away with it.
I think that Angelica throws her power around in a good way. She tells Alexander what to do with Jefferson. She travels to London at the drop of a hat to be there for Eliza and seemingly leaves her husband in the dust. Eliza relies on Angelica in the later part of her life and devotes most of her time and wealth into Eliza’s mission. Although she doesn’t do anything particularly scandalous or poignant, she had a lot of influence over the Hamilton’s. It’s because of her that Eliza married Alexander. It’s because of her that Eliza rebuilt her life after Alexander’s death.
The biggest lesson I learned from Hamilton is that there isn’t a right way to live your life. America’s Founding Fathers each had their own fatal flaws, and none of them were perfect. But, despite all the arguments and insults, they collectively formed the most powerful and wealthy nation the world had ever seen. We have to have the right reasons for doing the things we do, and from the characters in this musical, it seems that the most powerful reasons were ones that didn’t have anything to do with themselves. Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Lafayette, Hamilton, Schuyler all had intentions that were separate from personal glory (well, mostly).
Today, in a world where we are disagreeing and arguing more than ever before; where hearts are broken and lives are taken every day; where we can’t seem to decide or agree on what’s right or wrong in any situation; our intentions are more crucial than ever. In the end, the musical tells us that we can’t control who lives, who dies, or who tells our story. It’s true. But I also think that it’s irrelevant: we’re all going to die and oblivion is inevitable, it’s all a matter of time. I think that we need to channel some Eliza into our lives and decide exactly how we want to spend the rest of our days, without worrying about how the exact number of days left. We have to decide what we want to be remembered for, regardless of whether we are remembered or not.
We also have to decide who we want to remember: living or dead. I think that at the end, Eliza is asking the audience, will you remember our story? The story of Alexander Hamilton, no matter how remarkable, wasn’t remembered by the hordes until this musical was written. If you had asked me a month ago who Alexander Hamilton was, I probably would’ve been like: “An American historical person???”. Lin Manuel Miranda’s biggest miracle is probably that he made American history cool, and he also brought someone’s memory back to life.
Alexander Hamilton changed the course of history two centuries ago, and because of someone’s work today, his story has changed Broadway history forever. It’s changed my history, and I’ll be playing that soundtrack for the rest of my days.