I figured that having killed off both Philip and Alexander Hamilton that we were through the sad parts of the musical. I could not have been more wrong. We had more tears today than ever!
George Washington introduces the finale with a reference to “History has its eyes on you,” so I began by asking the students if they would behave differently if they thought history was watching them. One student offered that it was the birth of her younger sister when she was in high school that made her clean up her act, but the rest of the students felt that they either were already proud of how they behaved and had nothing to change or that the knowledge that they would be famous would have no impact. Since there have been a number of high profile men who have been fired for sexual impropriety recently, I asked if those individuals might have behaved differently if they had known what would eventually happen to them. The students stuck to their guns that nothing was likely to change the power trip these men were on. I chose to round out this segment by pointing out the persistence of social media even if you try to delete information and that people have lost job opportunities because of photos and posts in what they might think of as their private accounts. I’m not above a little moral philosophy when I can throw it in.
Back to the song, Angelica sings, “Every other founding father story gets told. Every other founding father gets to grow old.” I asked the students who were the founding fathers, and the whole class jumped in with rapid fire, “Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jay, John Adams, Franklin.” Yes, they definitely couldn’t have done that at the start of the semester. (I was particularly impressed that John Jay got air time.) Anyway, other than Washington who died at age 67, the rest all died over the age of 80. Hamilton died at age 49. Imagine what kind of legacy he could have created with 30 more years to write!
Burr, strictly in a role as narrator, then asks, “When you’re gone who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame?” Hamilton has progressed through various fire images throughout the show, and I liked this final image of a gentle fire to be nourished. I asked about flames as monuments, and the students went for the Olympic flame and another example that is currently escaping me. I pointed them toward the eternal flame on John F. Kennedy’s grave, and that was news to most of them, even the ones who had visited Arlington National Cemetery. I googled a few images, supplied a little JFK history, and to my surprise realized that JFK was like Hamilton in having a wife who burnished his image posthumously. Consistent with the general attitude of the group, JFK also got judged negatively for his infidelity.
Wrenching the discussion back to Hamilton, I pointed out that although Burr’s next line, “Who tells your story,” has been asked multiple times throughout the show, it is only answered in the finale. Eliza tells the story. As one student observed, Eliza becomes her husband to some extent by working to deal with her grief. She no longer asks, “Would I be enough,” but instead questions, “Have I done enough?” She interviews the soldiers who fought alongside Alexander and tries to process and understand all his papers. She raises funds for the Washington Monument, prompting Washington to proudly announce, “She tells my story,” only to hang his head in shame when Eliza follows up, “I speak out against slavery.”
Until her death, Angelica works with her sister to tell the story. Angelica is buried in Trinity Church burial ground where Alexander and Eliza were also laid to rest, but sadly she is on the other side of the church from them. Always close, but always a little apart.
Eliza also went on to co-found the first private orphanage in New York City to help hundreds of orphan children like her husband grow up. The tears were already flowing freely by this time, so I just glanced off this detail. If I weren’t laughing so hard at my students, one of whom was hiding under her scarf by this point, I confess that I might have shed a tear at this touching part.
For the finale, nearly all the players are now back in parchment-colored costumes including Washington and King George. Burr and Hamilton stand out in their black from the duel, and Eliza is in a pale version of her robin’s egg blue. Through a piece of fan art I stumbled upon while googling, I found a lovely parallel that Who Lives is Burr, Who Dies is Hamilton, and Who Tells Your Story is Eliza. (More tears ensued.)
I have heard at least one of my friends comment that he or she was disappointed that rather than ending on a huge crashing chord like the ending of Les Miserables, the last note of the musical is all in unison on a single pitch. Perhaps that person might be satisfied to know that the ending represents the motto of our country, E Pluribus Unum.
Out of many, one.