‘Hamilton’ and the Great American Romance: Act 5

The last act of Hamilton‘s romance ended with the Hamilton family in desperate straits. Alexander was out of office and out of favor with the public after exposing his own affair. His wife, Eliza, had left him, and his close friend Angelica chose Eliza over him. Finally, his oldest son, Philip, died in a duel trying to defend Alexander’s ‘honor’. The Hamiltons are struggling, and it’s all Alexander’s fault — and now they are left to grieve.

“It’s Quiet Uptown” holds an honor as the song most likely to make me burst into tears. In it, Alexander deals with the death of his son, learning to appreciate isolation and quiet in a way that he never had as a younger man. He finds religion, he mourns — and, slowly, he and Eliza come back together. After “Burn,” Eliza had written herself out of his story, but, to me, “It’s Quiet Uptown” is when the show fully becomes their story. For much of the show, there’s been a fundamental conflict in the worldview of the two characters, but here, we finally see them meet somewhere in the middle.

The move from mourning to forgiveness over the course of the song is slow, and, intriguingly, Lin-Manuel Miranda opts to give much of the song over to Angelica leading a chorus, keeping both Alexander and (especially) Eliza’s feelings relatively private. It’s a canny move, one that strongly hints at a deep well of longing and grief without having to get histrionic and submerge ourselves in the feeling. Indeed, Eliza’s contribution to the song is heartbreaking — and is a single line. It’s not much, but it’s enough to suggest forgiveness.

After that, we get back to politics, with Alexander trying to stay out of the spotlight, only to find that people want to hear his opinion during the contentious election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson ran against Aaron Burr. Hamilton is so disgusted at Burr’s naked ambition and campaigning process that he endorses his old foe, Jefferson, and give shim the victory. So, Burr challenges him to a duel, and Alexander accepts.

We didn’t talk about “The Ten Duel Commandments,” but the song has at least a few crucial references to it – and to Eliza and Alexander’s entire musical history. A callback to Philip’s death – “I know,” and “Shhh,” – should help audiences prepare for what’s about to happen to Alexander in his own duel. Eliza wonders yet again why he writes like he’s running out of time, but now we know the answer. The vocal pattern from “That Would Be Enough,” is repeated, but with “Stay alive,” replaced by “Come back to bed,” subconsciously telling us what coming back to bed means — an invitation that is particularly warming after Eliza specifically banished him from their bed in “Burn.” We even get a callback to their flirting “Hey,” in his very last line to her.

Before Alexander goes to his death, Phillipa Soo and Lin-Manuel Miranda give us a 45 second tour of Eliza and Alexander’s entire relationship. We’ve been primed subtly and not-so-subtly in a hundred different ways to understand that this is where they part ways, each to their own separate end.

Alexander goes first.

As we get older, we look back more and more often. To our youth, to old friends, to the good times, and the last three songs of Hamilton manage to capture that feeling well. Those reminiscences can be warm and welcoming, as in “Best of Wives and Best of Women,” but they can just as easily be maudlin. In “The World Was Wide Enough,” Alexander comes face-to-face with his first friend in America, now his enemy, but their enmity is barely acknowledged. Instead, both men get stuck in their own heads. For Burr, this means a hyper-vigilance to Alexander’s every move, a realization that Alexander is a better shot, what he’s wearing, where he’s standing, what it means. For Alexander, though…

The song culminates with a heartbreaking 80-second long spoken word monologue by Alexander, his thought process as he stares down what may very well be his death. There are a hundred callbacks to the show as a whole here, but the most important thing to realize for our story here is this: Alexander has finally grown up. The self-reflection he learned in “It’s Quiet Uptown” has fully taken root. His concern about legacy and power is not something that he actually has any control over.

Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me

Alexander knows he can’t kill the Vice President, and he knows he would never be able to survive to see what legacy he might have come to fruition. His best friend is dead, his son is dead, his mother is dead, his mentor is dead – in his youth, he fought tooth and nail to survive, but, finding religion, he is no longer quite so scared. Only Eliza remains, for him – and it’s important to note, despite his long-running infatuation with Angelica, it is Eliza who is in his mind at the end.

I catch a glimpse of the other side
Laurens leads a soldiers’ chorus on the other side
My son is on the other side
He’s with my mother on the other side
Washington is watching from the other side

Teach me how to say goodbye

Rise up, rise up, rise up
Eliza

My love, take your time
I’ll see you on the other side

And then he’s gone.

Almost ironically, it is Eliza who preserves Alexander’s reputation after his death. She lives another fifty years, and dedicates herself to the preservation of the memory of the Revolutionary War’s heroes. In “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” we see Alexander’s dream of a legacy come true thanks to the wife he almost lost in pursuit of that very goal. Eliza puts herself back in the narrative, not just returning to Alexander’s story but taking her own agency within it. It is Eliza who interviews surviving soldiers of the war, who raises money for the Washington Monument in D.C., who speaks out as an ardent abolitionist. It is Eliza who starts New York’s first private orphanage, a beautiful moment that suggests some sort of redemption both for the pain of Alexander growing up an orphan and a way to deal with her own son’s death.

And all along, she is plagued by a question: “Have I done enough?” She knows that Alexander was brilliant and driven, someone who wrote constantly and pushed boundaries, and as a woman, she had less political and social capital than he did. It could sound like a moment of modesty or defeat.

But to me, this is the crucial moment in Eliza’s story. Because for a long time, Eliza’s refrain was, “That would be enough.” Eliza began the story as a passive character, unable to even introduce herself to the boy she liked without her sister’s intervention. She knew what she wanted, but she didn’t know how to work for it. In “Burn,” she learned to take control of her own story, but only out of anger. In “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” though, Eliza is in control. She is doing the work that Washington, Laurens, Philip, and Alexander could not, and she is telling the stories she believes deserve to be told in the way she thinks is best.

I wrote recently about Warcraft, a movie that had a kinda-sorta love interest subplot. But, as with so many stories with a romantic subplot, the story just kind of sat there. Two pretty people met, they felt something about one another, they parted. That’s it. In Hamilton, Alexander and Eliza’s story is in the background for much of the show, but, as I have (hopefully) illustrated, it’s still a dynamic, vital story. What’s more, in order for “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” to work as the show’s closing song – one in which we never hear Alexander’s voice – we need to understand how Eliza went from the passivity of “Helpless” to the dynamism of this number.

And Lin-Manuel Miranda shows us that. He gives Eliza and their relationship and complete and complex arc, enough for, as I’ve argued here, a five act structure. We saw the two of them as they were when they were young give way to the complications of Alexander’s ambition and Eliza’s passivity. We saw those traits curdle and lead into an affair, and that affair give way to anger, separation, and, ultimately, the death of one of their children. If adultery helped Eliza find her agency, tragedy helped Alexander find his own passivity, and the two could finally meet in the middle, on equal footing, with equal desires. Finally, Alexander’s death forced Eliza to come fully into her own, to take control of the idea of legacy and history that had so obsessed her husband in his youth. Tellingly, though, Eliza makes it more expansive and more personal. The big political stuff is shared around in a way I don’t think Alexander ever could have done, with monuments to surviving soldiers and Washington, but none to Alexander. Instead, Alexander’s is private and personal, an orphanage that means something intense to those involved, but little to the wider world.

The end of Hamilton is heartbreaking – I had to pause from writing this three or four times to wipe away tears – but it’s not because of Alexander’s death. It’s because we care, deeply, about this relationship and these people. Not because they’re the protagonists, but because Miranda took the time to make us care, to show us why we should. A great relationship subplot should be seductive, drawing the audience in, showing us what the relationship means to the people within it. It makes us feel like a part of an intimate circle of friends, gives us an emotional stake in its success.

The reason writers are told to show rather than tell is the difference between the audience knowing and the audience feeling. So much of our lives, our politics, our relationships finds us doing things we know on some level are wrong or bad for us in some way, but that feel right. That’s the sense that great stories take advantage of. Not a logical progression of plot points but a naked, gut-deep feeling that what you’re seeing matters in some way.

And that, to me, is why Hamilton works, both in its relationship and as a larger story. Rather than a procession of facts, the show is deeply felt. Its characters are emotional creatures, driven by motivations we can understand and feelings with which we can relate. And yeah, there are some for whom that very earnestness can invite mockery, but for most of us, well-executed earnestness can bridge incredible distances, can make stories taking place hundreds of years ago or thousands of miles away – or in a fantasy world – feel immediate and understandable. The success of Alexander and Eliza’s relationship is, in a way, the success of the show as a whole.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I hope you enjoyed yourself.

You can find all my Hamilton articles here.

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