Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
Frequently pop culture hypes up a song, movie, or show so much that when you finally experience it for yourself, the great disappointment of dashed expectations is all but inevitable. Sometimes, your expectations are actually met. But rarely, something is so objectively incredible that no amount of build-up or praise can possibly describe the brilliance. Hamilton is the perfect example of this phenomenon.
The final words of the hit musical “Hamilton” perfectly encompass the message: we have no control over how we’re remembered. History is written by the winners, jaded by false memories, and severely colored by misunderstands. The only thing we control is what we do, here and now. When we “sit under our own vine and fig tree”, will we be proud of who we were and what we’ve done?
My introduction to Hamilton came through overhearing “You’ll Be Back”, sung by King George III. Listening more closely, I began to understand the Mad King was singing about the Declaration of America… in the form of a modern break-up song. I was hooked instantly and binged the whole soundtrack the next day at work. The result was me sobbing at my desk, having to explain to co-workers that no, everything is fine, I’m just really emotional because the founder of our nation’s treasury system was killed by his frenemy, but also I’m concerned that frenemy was deeply misunderstood.
I have no hesitation stating that I consider Hamilton to be a work of true of genius. In a documentary about the making of the show, a critic compared the lyrical feat that writer and creator Lin Manual Miranda achieved to the legendary prose of Shakespeare. Every single line is filled with easter eggs, obscure historical references, and thematic resonance. Choosing a favorite song is impossible. Choosing a few favorites is still difficult, but I’ve done the best I can.
A whirlwind of romance, missed chances, societal expectations, familial devotion, marriage, and regret, “Satisfied” spans a wide gambit of emotion. Sung by Angelica Schuyler, we explore her perspective of the courtship of Alexander Hamilton and her sister Eliza. From the previous song, “Helpless”, we know that Angelica met Hamilton first, introduced him to Eliza, and encouraged their relationship.
What we learn in “Satisfied” is that upon meeting Hamilton, Angelica was overcome with several powerful realizations. There’s the understanding that her job as the “oldest” child is to support her family by marrying rich, the plain fact that Hamilton is “penniless, flying by the seat of his pants”, and an instant intellectual and romantic connection unlike any she’s ever known. It was purely electric, like “Ben Franklin with a key and a kite”.
Her story reveals that she’ll “regret that night for the rest of her days”, trapped in a classic catch-22. Being around Alexander cripples her with love and hopeless longing. She knows her sister well enough to be confident that if she confessed this love, Eliza would certainly step aside and let Angelica have him. But she also knows her sister well enough to know how madly in love with Hamilton Eliza has fallen, and she cannot bring herself to steal the happiness of the sister she loves so dearly. The only option is to plaster on a smile and fake it. “At least I keep his eyes in my life”, she sadly finishes.
Understanding the depth of pain Angelica is willing to live with to allow her sister a happy marriage makes it easy not only to root for Eliza but also to share in her fury at Hamilton’s later betrayal after this sacrifice.
The war has been fought and, against every conceivable odd, America has won! The nation climbed this seemingly insurmountable mountain, only to realize the work has just begun. “Non-Stop” tells the story of the economic turmoil the young United States is struggling through as a brand new nation.
The ensemble cast takes us through everyone is coping post-war. Burr and Hamilton are naturally at the front lines of political deliberations, Eliza is desperate for love and attention from her husband, and Angelica reveals that she’s married and heading to start a new life for herself in London.
“Non-Stop” takes us through America’s “first steps” as a country in a beautiful, catchy tune. The very first murder trial, the Constitutional Convention, the very first debates on the structure of our government… the most memorable segment for me is always Burr singing about the Federalist Papers. His delivery invites us to join in his utter fascination at Hamilton’s seemingly manic dedication, the way he “writes like he’s running out of time”. Sure, you can ask Hamilton to write 2 or 3 papers defending the merits of the Constitution, but you’re crazy if you think that’s all you’re getting. Because while Jon Jay succumbed to illness and Madison did his best to keep up, “Hamilton wrote the over 51!”
Cabinet Battle #1 and #2
The thing that sucked me into the world of Hamilton was discussing America leaving Great Britain through the narrative of a breakup, so it’s no surprise how strongly I reacted to the concept of framing political debates as rap battles. Both “Cabinet Battles” are hilarious and lyrically dense, but what stands out is the shock that we are having the same debates today as we did back then. Distribution of national debt and military foreign policy are as familiar to us now as it was to the members of the original Congress. What a lesson that as much as things change, they also stay the same.
One Last Time
It’s always been said that the best thing President Washington ever did for this nation was retiring. Utterly beloved by the country, no one would have dared challenge his authority. As Hamilton so eloquently responded to the idea of anyone running against him, “HA! Good luck defeating you, sir”. But Washington understood something more important. Between the long history of warring families battling over the throne of their former mother country and the bloody war they just fought themselves, America had no concept of a peaceful passage of power. A ruler willingly giving up their power was inconceivable to Great Britain, demonstrated by King George’s comically delivered line, “Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away… I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do”.
Washington wanted the “American experience” to thrive long after him, and he knew it would not survive the inevitable power struggle that would follow his death if a leader wasn’t chosen. In response to his right-hand man’s protests, Washington explains “We’re gonna teach them how to say goodbye.” The wisdom, foresight, and selflessness Washington displayed with this choice is arguably the main reason America didn’t fall apart after the Revolution, as so many predicted it would. “One Last Time” draws many lines from Washington’s actual 1796 Farewell Address, sung beautifully by the incomparable Christopher Jackson. You may have a heart of stone if you don’t well up at Jackson singing that all he wants is “a moment alone in the shade, at home in this nation we made”.
“Burn” is probably the most savage and raw breakup song ever written. What’s incredible is that “future historians wonder how Eliza reacted” when she learned of her husband’s infidelity. She truly did burn all of those letters after Hamilton died. So it’s incredibly meta to have her burn those letters on stage, telling us that this action is both her own protection and her husband’s punishment.
Eliza devoted herself heart, body, mind, and soul to Alexander Hamilton. She loved him when he had nothing, defended him against critics, raised his children while he invented the nation’s financial system, and asked only for “a fraction of your time… that would be enough”. And Hamilton repays her by spending the family’s money to a man in exchange for him keeping quiet about the continued affair he is carrying on with (in their own home, no less). Heartbreak, rage,
The lines in this song are some of the most beautiful in the show. “Do you know what Angelica said when she read what you’d done? She said, ‘you have married an Icarus. He has flown to close to the sun'”. All I know is that if anyone ever betrays me, I can’t think of a better parting wish than “I hope that you burn.”
The World Was Wide Enough
Despite the fact that I’ve listened to Hamilton more times than I can count, I’ve only heard to this song a handful of times. I’m not exaggerating when I say I cry every time I hear it. Frankly, whenever it starts playing, my reaction is “Oh, I don’t have time to feel all that right now” and to hit skip. There aren’t enough blog posts in the world to cover all the beauty and meaning in this song. I’m going to focus on one line that, while often overlooked, I feel demonstrates one of the real tragedies of Hamilton.
Sung by Aaron Burr as he and Hamilton prepare for their infamous duel, “I had only one thought before the slaughter: this man will not make an orphan of my daughter”.
In perfect harmony with the overall theme of the show, we rarely have any say in our legacy. Burr’s legacy is that he killed Hamilton in cold blood over jealousy and a series of petty disputes. That’s what the history books say, and it may partly be true. But it doesn’t come close to encompassing the complexity of the situation. It’s indisputable that Burr challenged Hamilton to the duel, who knows what his intentions were. To really kill Hamilton, or to make a statement? The play was factually accurate in its depiction that Hamilton was, in fact, wearing his glasses, which was unusual for a duel. It’s perfectly reasonable to consider that Burr may have been asking himself, “Why? If not to take deadly aim. It’s him or me”.
We’ll never really know why the events in Weehawken played out the way they did that mid-summer morning hundreds of years ago. It’s clean and simple to envision Burr as “the villain in [our] history” who ruthlessly gunned Hamilton down. But when you consider Burr’s most famous act may have been born from a true fear for his life and inability to leave his daughter an orphan, you realize that the reality of historical events is so much more complex than the few paragraphs they get in history books. And when you apply that line of thought to every major historical moment or event… you must consider that our understanding of history is so distorted by perception and that we probably know far less about our collective past than we think we do.