‘Hamilton: An American (feminist) Musical’

Sunday, April 21, 2019 - 11:42pm

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda Buy this photo
NOSELL

The most urgent question in “Hamilton: An American Musical” is which character is the true protagonist. Which character claims the story as their story, leaving the audience with the perception that they’re the most reactive, central element of the anecdote by and large? It is common sense when looking at its soundtrack, marketing materials and perhaps most obviously its name to say that the play is Alexander Hamilton’s story. But in many ways, I’d have to disagree.

The musical is born of intellectual genius. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wordy, suave Alexander Hamilton is painted as a “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrant turned American political powerhouse — an 18th century New England celebrity with grit and sex appeal. It is easy to adore the underdog in this story, watching as Hamilton pulls himself from poverty and illness to his seat as George Washington’s outspoken right-hand man. Narrated by Hamilton’s mortal enemy, Aaron Burr, the musical does a nice job of splitting stage time between Burr and Hamilton. The audience sees the light and the darkness in both leading men. But I beg to ask the question — where are all the women? In all the excitement, gorgeous lighting design, intricate orchestrations and high energy pacing of the show, it’s also easy to ignore that the musical completely fails the Bechdel test.

The Bechdel test is a screening test used in storytelling art forms (movies, books, plays) to evaluate the level of realism in depictions of female characters. The test asks that stories are to be evaluated for whether there are at least two named female characters who speak to each other about something other than a man. The show’s three leading ladies: Angelica, Eliza and Peggy Schuyler, all infatuated with freedom and the thrill of exploring New York during the revolution, can certainly be argued, historically, as feminists. However, in the musical adaptation of their lives, their discussions and motivations always romantically surround the subject of a man. Angelica runs away from home with a wealthy man who will take care of her. Eliza, weak and downtrodden, has no choice but to take Hamilton back after he publicly humiliates her by committing adultery. Peggy has little-to-no say in any stakes of the story at all.

The interesting caveat here is the direction of the final scene — a moment in which, Eliza, center stage, rewrites herself into the story, dedicating her life after Alexander’s death to justice, democracy and service in his name. Her heartbreaking, authentic tribute to her greatest love, historically accurate and emotionally fulfilling, is a surprising note to end the musical on. The writers and creatives, by way of giving Eliza the last word and perhaps the most stunning moment of the show, hand her the story –– telling the audience “perhaps we had you fooled all this time.”

I’ve always struggled with this choice. I love that the last moment goes to Eliza — rightfully so, after what Hamilton put her through in their relationship. I’ve always tried to reconcile Eliza’s position throughout the musical with the last moment she gains as her own. The first time I saw “Hamilton,” the choice felt a bit surprising, potentially out of place after the two and a half hour musical had just spent all its time praising the man. The musical sets the audience up to believe that we are supposed to be rooting for Alexander, the man with the agency, amid his laundry list of personality flaws and debauchery. Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing the “Hamilton” tour when it touched down in Detroit for a few weeks. Hanna Cruz, the actress who played Eliza Hamilton, was poignantly the star of the show and, for what it’s worth, made me believe in that last moment so much more.

Her Eliza was angry and punchy: With attitude, she did not allow Hamilton’s misdemeanors and misogyny to go unnoticed. Instead of portraying Eliza as pouty and quiet, she gave her depth. She filled Eliza with gusto and emotional vigor, strength and intellect so that her choice to stand by Hamilton after he’d nearly ruined her felt more like a choice, so that she ensured that he felt the guilt and consequence for what he’d done. In that final moment, which had previously felt like a plot twist to me, I was overcome with appreciation and adoration for this woman — this feminist woman.

Perhaps I was wrong about the feminist implications of “Hamilton: An American Musical.” Though it does fail the Bechdel Test, it specifically frames the story around an empowered woman, and Ms. Cruz in the Broadway tour was able to paint this in a more poignant light. Likewise, the musical works tirelessly to make other feminist comments. With its use of women as soldiers in “Yorktown” executing the same choreography as their male counterparts, the beautiful relationship between the Schuyler sisters, Angelica’s unabashedly resilient personality serves to elevate these women to powerful positions — always knocking Alexander down when he deserves it.

It is perhaps also worth acknowledging that this piece of musical theatre tackles other social comments as its main focus — and for what it’s worth, is stark and successful in its socio-political significance. Not every piece of art can cover all the bases, and it is important to recognize this when analyzing significant cultural phenomenons for the ways they succeed, and potentially, the ways they fail.