Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Her Story?

Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, drawn by Jen Talley
Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, drawn by Jen Talley

Header image: Redcoats & Rebels Revolutionary War Reenactment by Lee Wright. CC BY-SA.Like nearly everyone else in my corner of the internet, Hamilton has completely gotten its hooks into me.

A musical based on history where the women are as important to the plot as men?

Where they have agency and make their own choices?

It shouldn’t be so revolutionary and yet: here we are!

The way Lin-Manuel Miranda writes about the Schuyler Sisters–especially Angelica and Eliza–is just. It’s hard to put into words what these two characters mean to me.

I’ve been a fan of musicals most of my life and while I know there are Strong Female Characters™ in many of them, in many of the shows I’m intimately familiar with, there aren’t. I came of age during the heyday of Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera, neither of which have female characters that are much more than plot coupons. (This is where I admit that I’m not much a fan of Phantom and have not seen it staged; I’ve only seen the filmed adaptation and I found the plot to be extremely upsetting.)

We did an annual musical every year at my high school. Annie Get Your Gun, Once Upon a Mattress, and Grease. We had field trips to the Fisher Theatre several times a year–Les Miz, Hair, and I will regret to the end of my life that I didn’t go see Starlight Express at the Masonic Temple. I’ve seen touring productions of Jesus Christ Superstar approximately one million times.

And in 2004 I saw Wicked on Broadway. That’s the only show I’ve ever seen in New York: for me, musicals are touring productions and cast albums. Which is actually one of the big reasons why Hamilton is so great: you can follow the entire plot just by listening to the cast album. Like my other two favorite shows, Les Miz and JCS, it’s through-sung. And it’s fun to sing along with.

And unlike those two shows, Hamilton has the Schuyler sisters.

But without those two shows, you don’t get Hamilton.

Like Jesus Christ Superstar, Hamilton uses contemporary music to tell a historical narrative and by doing so, breathes new life into it. Miranda even called the original vision he had of Hamilton his Jesus Christ Superstar in this interview from 2009. It’s even very similar on a structural basis: the first act is mainly concerned with establishing the title character and building him up and the second act ends with the main character dead and everyone else crying.

Both shows are also narrated by the person responsible for the main character’s death: Judas Iscariot and Aaron Burr. But instead of redeeming Burr as Judas is redeemed (I have ~feelings~ about Judas, okay?), Miranda chooses to bring Hamilton’s widow, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton into the center of the narrative.

There’s a paucity of primary source documentation about Eliza, but instead of using this to sideline her–as many writers would–Miranda instead uses this very lack to develop her character and give her both agency and control over her narrative: and the result of this is that she’s the one who ensures her husband’s legacy.

Imagine a Jesus Christ Superstar where Mary Magdalene takes on this sort of role. It would turn the show inside out. I feel like there’s an amazing fan fic in there, actually (it probably already exists in the apocrypha…).

And then there’s the Les Misérables connection. While there are four times the number of female roles in Les Miz as compared to JCS, I feel that Angelica and Eliza Schuyler most closely parallel Fantine and Eponine–or, rather, are in dialogue with them.

Two of the songs most beloved by teenaged girls are “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own”–they’re both wonderful songs, but they’re also songs about being part of someone else’s narrative and show a depressing lack of agency on both their parts. Part of this is social and class limitations, but the Schuyler sisters were also limited on those fronts and Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to find a way to work the story around these constraints.

I don’t think you can have “Satisfied” without “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Burn” without “On My Own”.

In “Satisfied”, Angelica takes one look at Alexander and knows his measure. And then she introduces him to her sister, Eliza. Here is a situation where two women love and respect each other and work together; compare this with the relationship between Cosette and Eponine in Les Misérables, where they are pitted against each other throughout the course of the show until Eponine takes a bullet for Marius shortly after singing “On My Own”—compare that to Eliza’s tour de force in “Burn” where she explicitly erases herself from the narrative as a way of claiming her agency:

I’m erasing myself from the narrative
Let future historians wonder how Eliza
Reacted when you broke her heart
You have torn it all apart
I am watching it

Women have been explicitly erased from history—through lack of education, through limiting their full participation in society, and this is something we’re still struggling with today. So to see women previously forgotten by history to be brought to the forefront like this—it’s a revelation.

Hamilton is a show that is fully in dialogue not only with history and the present, but also with its form and structure. Even though the show is ostensibly about Alexander Hamilton, in the end, without Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, there is no show. They are anything but plot coupons: they are vital and essential. They are part of the narrative.

1 response to Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Her Story?

  1. One reason Lin-Manual Miranda makes Eliza the person to tell Hamilton’s story is the book that inspired him to write “Hamilton” opens with Eliza, at the end of her life, and how long and hard she worked to find a way to tell the story. I think you’d enjoy the book, if you like biographies. I haven’t gotten to Yorktown, yet, though, so I can only critique to that point.

    And I have *feelings* about Judas, too.


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