Just a few months after I professed vows as a Jesuit, I was sitting at dinner in the Bronx. It’s considered a minor infraction to look at your phone at table, but curiosity got the better of me when I felt a notification buzz. My hands shook as I read it, and I ran to another table to ask my housemate what he was doing tomorrow. Confused, he started telling me his plans before I interrupted him with “No, you’re not. We’re going to see Hamilton.” I’d won the daily ticket lottery, which not only made them available at all but reduced the price from around $800 to a mere $10 (“Hamilton for a Hamilton”), perfect for a freshly vowed man of poverty.
My housemate ran upstairs and came back wearing a Hamilton t-shirt and an enormous smile; he was already a superfan. I, on the other hand, barely knew it at all. This was unusual — I’d grown up as a musical theater kid, and even studied theater as one of my undergrad majors, but missed out on Hamilton because it premiered just as I became a novice. Typically when I see a musical, especially a big notable production, I’ve already memorized the soundtrack and formed an image of it in my head. But apart from the demo of the opening number that Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire performed at the White House Poetry Jam in 2009, I hadn’t heard one note of the music, didn’t know the story beyond my knowledge of the American Revolution, and had absolutely no idea what I was getting into.
Hamilton is dense with homages and callbacks to both theater (Shakespeare, Wagner, The Pirates of Penzance, Les Misérables, etc.), and hip-hop (Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Mobb Deep, Notorious B.I.G., Beyoncé, and others), but I quickly realized that this was so much more than simple self-indulgence. Miranda is clearly as big a theater nerd as I am, but takes ownership of these ideas, blending them with hip-hop in a sophisticated musical feat. The show is somehow able to pull all this together and flow at a breakneck pace without sacrificing accessibility. It’s beautiful even if you don’t know that it’s referencing Ja Rule and South Pacific.
That was my reaction to Act I, a very intellectual appreciation. This sort of brainy response is how I usually experience theater these days, even very good theater. It’s hard for me to switch off the part of my brain that analyzes performance, design, and writing. I’m almost never emotionally affected when I’m sitting in the audience.
So I was completely unprepared for Act II. I knew the broad strokes of Hamilton’s public life, but what ultimately got me was the culmination of his personal mistakes and tragedies in “It’s Quiet Uptown.” Hamilton becomes estranged from his wife Eliza after a very public infidelity that also ended his political career. When their son is killed, Alexander and Eliza struggle to mourn their child while there is still such a gulf between them.
Hamilton hits bottom, and lets go of his pride. He pleads with Eliza, reprising a song from earlier in the show, but now singing her melody and recognizing that he’s unworthy of her. She stands, expressionless and motionless, as Alexander finally meets a problem he can’t talk his way out of. His words can’t fix these things. Nothing can. If she would just let him stay, let him be with her, that would be enough. He commits to doing the work.
Eliza’s sister Angelica narrates the moment as the couple stands forlorn in their garden. It’s perhaps the quietest moment in a show that can approach frenetic. Without changing her empty exhausted expression, Eliza subtly takes Alexander’s hand as the chorus, in lovely harmony, simply intones the word “forgiveness.”
And that’s where I lost it. I watched the rest of the show through tears, an emotional wreck just floating wherever they wanted to take me.
Forgiveness is a hard thing to feature in a work of art because if it’s real, it often seems irrational from the outside. Unjustified. There’s so much work to be done to get the audience to an emotional place where the need to be forgiven is so strong that reason disengages and they can experience the relief and peace alongside the character. Watching Hamilton break into tears as Eliza finally returns his line of “it’s quiet uptown” doesn’t make any sense. Forgiveness often doesn’t. It goes against every instinct we have. That’s what makes it so beautiful.
Angelica says of that moment, “there’s a grace too powerful to name.” Eliza may not believe Alexander’s pleas, but in that moment, she knows that she still loves him. Her forgiveness comes from love, not restitution. Freely given forgiveness to the undeserving is the essence of grace, and whether you want to name it or not, it can still crack through the cynical theatergoer who thought he was so smart.
Hamilton is now streaming on Disney+. If you are interested in an educational breakdown of how brilliant the musical structures of the show are, Howard Ho’s “How Hamilton Works” series is well worth your time.