‘Hamilton’ and the Great American Romance: Act 1

One of the easiest tropes in the world to scoff at is making a female character in a non-romantic story into the stock romantic subplot. In a century of adventure filmmaking, from Gunga Din to Avengers: Age of Ultron, women are typically given a small chunk of the story in which to fall prettily in love with one of the male leads. It’s typically a meaningless gesture, something that steals time away from the story and forces the underdeveloped female character into a role more befitting a treasure chest than a human being.

And yet, I contend that the half the problem with the romantic subplot is not that the romantic subplot is bad, just that it is often done badly*. For instance, in Hamilton, which is currently passionately smashing every expectation on Broadway, there are really only three women in the show: Angelica Schuyler, Eliza Schuyler, and Maria Reynolds. All three of them are related to the show’s male lead, Alexander Hamilton, romantically. Indeed, at the conclusion of the show’s intro song, “Alexander Hamilton,” when the various cast members state their roles in the story to come, all three actresses share a single line: “Me? I loved him.”

In most stories, this would be a shallow, unforgiving part. Thankfully, writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda understood that drawing and keeping top-tier talent involved creating strong, interesting roles for them to play. The romance running through the entirety of Hamilton isn’t just good, it’s the heart of the play, a phenomenal 5-act romantic drama that is entertaining, character-driven, and absolutely heartbreaking.

So, I hope you’ll all join me in this dissection of the epic American love story in Hamilton. I’ll cover Act 1 today, then tackle Acts 2-5 in separate articles in the weeks to come. As a note, while I will be posting YouTube clips of the songs in question, I highly recommend you go buy the Original Cast Recording** on iTunes (or wherever you buy music), as it is flat-out the best album I’ve heard in years. The bits I’ll be isolating are great, but are given much more power when heard in context of the entire show.

Act One

Meet the Schuyler Sisters.

Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry)is the leader of the trio, a quick-witted, sharp-tongued young woman with passionate opinions about America’s impending political situation. Eliza (Phillipa Soo) is adventurous but caring, concerned about the individual people. Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones) is daddy’s girl, more reserved than her two sisters. “The Schuyler Sisters” introduces these three, particularly Angelica and Eliza, as young women who are driven, intelligent, ambitious — and on the prowl, as it were.

But, smartly, Miranda throws out one or two twists that help give them that extra bit of characterization. We are told that the women are in town to ‘watch all the guys at work,’ which suggests wealthy women scoping out blue-collar beefcakes. But we quickly learn that, while that’s the assumption made by Aaron Burr and the men of the city, what they’re actually looking for is a little bit different: “I’m looking for a mind at work.” Angelica and Eliza are smart as hell, and that’s what they’re looking for. They understand that revolution is coming and they know what it means to their city and their family. But Angelica is hungry for new ideas and Eliza is concerned for the people.

In a very real way, you could cut “The Schuyler Sisters” from Hamilton and not really change the story at all. You don’t need it. But by introducing them on their own, as a family unit, rather than an object of seduction for Hamilton himself, Miranda reinforces that these are characters with distinct motivations whose paths will cross Hamilton’s, but they are not solely defined by his journey. Angelica and Eliza are, we will come to see, very different people… but they’re still sisters, first and foremost.

Oh, and Peggy.

They find themselves at a ball with Hamilton, Burr, and a bunch of other soldiers, and, well…

Eliza falls hard. “Helpless” is the show’s most swooningly romantic song, one that I played at my own sister’s wedding very recently. In it, Eliza spies Hamilton across the dance floor and instantly falls head over heels in love. She implores her sister to go speak to Hamilton on her behalf, and then we flash forward to their courtship, the letters they exchange, and Hamilton asking her father for her hand in marriage.

“Helpless” is a gorgeous song, wonderfully sung by Phillipa Soo, but it is also important in helping to set up Eliza’s arc throughout the show. Because, while this is the song where she and Hamilton meet, fall in love, and get engaged, we actually get almost no actual dialogue between them – just a single, two-line exchange, and then a segment at the end where Hamilton talks at her. It isn’t even speaking to him that sets her off; merely seeing him walk in makes her heart go ‘boom’ – language that lands very differently coming out of earlier song “Right Hand Man,” in which ‘booms‘ signify cannon fire. Hamilton’s entrance obliterates her heart.

“I have never been the type to try and grab the spotlight,” are among Eliza’s first words in the song, and the song bears this characterization out. Hamilton and Angelica are constantly given the active voice here, while Eliza waits in the background and desperately hopes that her sister and her love can make things work out in her favor. Eliza is, essentially, a passive character here. Over and over again, Eliza establishes that she is good, and smart, and beautiful, and… that should be enough. She is, in many ways, the stock romantic love interest.

And then, the turn:

If you’re like me, you probably didn’t expect the turn “Satisfied” takes roughly 45 seconds in, when we rewind from the Eliza/Alexander wedding back to the Winter’s Ball, to see Angelica and Alexander’s conversation. And that conversation is electric. It’s everything Eliza’s “Helpless,” was not. Angelica and Alexander have a great back-and-forth, quick and witty. It’s a conversation.

More importantly, while Eliza is content with what is, Angelica is introduced to us as a character who imagines what could be, someone who takes an active role. Indeed, the mere act of introducing Alexander to Eliza is based upon how quickly she sees through him and his motives. After the brief conversation, we dive deep into Angelica’s thoughts in a Nicki Minaj-inspired verse that matches Hamilton’s quickest rhymes beat for beat:

So so so—
So this is what it feels like to match wits
With someone at your level! What the hell is the catch? It’s
The feeling of freedom, of seein’ the light
It’s Ben Franklin with a key and a kite! You see it, right?
The conversation lasted two minutes, maybe three minutes
Ev’rything we said in total agreement, it’s
A dream and it’s a bit of a dance
A bit of a posture, it’s a bit of a stance. He’s a
Bit of a flirt, but I’m ‘a give it a chance
I asked about his fam’ly, did you see his answer?
His hands started fidgeting, he looked askance?
He’s penniless, he’s flying by the seat of his pants

“Helpless” takes us inside Eliza’s head, and it’s a sweet-natured place to be, but Eliza even sees herself as a passive character. In “Satisfied,” we see inside Angelica’s head, and it’s a much wilder place to be. Much like the works of Shakespeare, which characters rap – and how they rap – often denotes things like intelligence and class, and Angelica can go with the best of them. But beyond that, Lin-Manuel Miranda gives us a phenomenal portrait of overthinking, what it feels like when you are analyzing everything as it hits you and making snap judgments as you go.

But as Alexander, Angelica, and Eliza are going to learn, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes. For now, though, Alexander and Eliza are together, with Angelica left longing for Alexander while looking for a husband of her own. I hope you’ll join us next week for Act 2 of the Great American Romance in Hamilton.

*The other half, of course, is that this is often the only kind of plot given to women. This is a much larger problem, but it can only be solved at the level of producers and studios.

**No, I haven’t seen the show, only heard it. It’s sold out for forever and I don’t have much money. One day, perhaps.

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