On “Hamilton,” Grief, and Forgiveness.

I’ve already told you how much I adore Hamilton. It is still played every day around here and I’ve gotten the kids hooked on it. Nikki won a bet with her teacher at school based on her new knowledge of the founding father and got to call her teacher Alexander Hamilton all day as a prize. I’ve used my interest in this musical to drive investigations into lives of other characters like Eliza Hamilton (who is my favorite, by far) and Theodosia Burr and her relationship with her Father (which oddly, reminds me a lot of my own).

But the part that I’d like to talk about today is the one song that – no matter how many times I listen – makes me sob. I mean, SOB. And it’s because it’s such a perfect commentary on grief and forgiveness. And I need you to remember something: I HAVE NEVER SEEN THIS SHOW. And also? I’m not a musical theater expert. I’m just a Mom in Alabama who has never seen a Broadway show. I’ve seen some amazing high school productions and some decent traveling productions, but my knowledge of musical theater is minimal and I’ve NEVER seen this one at all. This is how powerful the song is, I have the pictures of the actors in my head, I’ve seen clips of their performances of another song from the Grammy’s so I know the costumes and the general stage setup. I can imagine this song playing out but I’ve never seen it. I feel all of the emotion I describe JUST from listening to it and to me – that is the power of this show. You don’t have to see it. I want to with all of my heart, but my heart has already seen it because it’s written and performed so well on the cast album.

Let me set the stage. Eliza and Hamilton were probably not on speaking terms as he had publicly humiliated her with an affair. The song where she expresses her grief over that is just 3 songs prior in Burn, so you are still, very much feeling her broken heart over that tragic scandal. Then, in Stay Alive (Reprise) you listen to her and Hamilton at the bedside of her eldest son Phillip as he dies post-dual. That song will rip out your soul and I encourage you to listen to it by clicking the “play” button on the top hand of this page. It will rip out your heart because you can hear the pain in Eliza as she sings Phillip to his death reciting the scales they use to play on the piano when he was a child.

But the NEXT song – It’s Quiet Uptown – is the one I want to talk about. You can listen to it on the genius page here if you’d like. So, they’re still in the post-infidelity heartbreak and they’ve now just lost their son. Eliza’s sister Angelica – a close friend Hamilton’s as well – opens the song with this verse:

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down

And that broken rhyme after “unimaginable” – your brain fills in the rhyme with “pain.” This pause after “unimaginable” repeats through this whole song and destroys my heart. That unspoken pain – of the heart from the recent infidelity and the new and much deeper pain of the loss of their child – that pain is never spoken of in the entire song. That word “unimaginable” is hanging at the end of every line in song. Because some pain…some grief…some heartache…it just can’t be described and my heart breaks with that line and I spend the rest of the song sobbing.

But it gets worse.

So the family moves uptown and the song first walks us through Hamilton’s grief, how he spends time alone is garden and walking alone in the city and everyone pities him. He even talks out loud to his dead son at one point, telling him he’d like it where they’re living now, and if I had a dollar for every time I talked out loud to my Dad I’d be rich.

Then we move on to he and Eliza grieving together. But remember – she has removed herself from his narrative using these lines from Burn

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

Her heart was already frozen where he was concerned but now, now they are grieving together in a way only they can each understand. No matter how much she might still hate him, imagine her broken heart over losing her son and knowing the only person who knows that pain is this man who broke her heart.

So…we now see them grieving together and he sings to her…

Look at where we are
Look at where we started
I know I don’t deserve you, Eliza
But hear me out. That would be enough

If I could spare his life
If I could trade his life for mine
He’d be standing here right now
And you would smile, and that would be enough
I don’t pretend to know
The challenges we’re facing
I know there’s no replacing what we’ve lost
And you need time
But I’m not afraid
I know who I married
Just let me stay here by your side
That would be enough

He’s just basically saying he’s sorry but that he needs her and if he can just grieve next to her, that would be enough. I can’t imagine how hard that would be because my brother and I grieve together constantly over my Dad and I don’t know what I would do without having him and knowing he’s feeling my same pain. Eliza and Hamilton need each other to get through this but there’s so much pain already there.

So then we see them together a little bit. The ensemble narrates that he’s now talking to her as they walk around uptown (as opposed to earlier when he was talking to himself) and you imagine her there, listening politely, but not talking back.

He is trying to do the unimaginable
See them walking in the park, long after dark
Taking in the sights of the city

Here I like to think that the unimaginable thing he’s trying to do is earn her forgiveness. He needs it to allow himself to grieve. He needs to grieve with her. And then Angelica harkens back to the lines that she opened the song with here but now we’re talking about grace of forgiveness instead of the pain of grief.

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is a grace too powerful to name
We push away what we can never understand
We push away the unimaginable
They are standing in the garden
Alexander by Eliza’s side
She takes his hand

That moment…she takes his hand. In that moment, they begin grieving together. She says the only line she says in the whole song, and it’s the same line he sang to his dead son earlier:

It’s quiet uptown

The ensemble sings

Forgiveness. Can you imagine?
Forgiveness. Can you imagine?

And then they begin really healing together. Healing over the heartbreak of his infidelity and over the pain of losing a child. I dug into Eliza’s history and she really was a champion for him for the 50 years she outlived him. She fought to have his letters published and she maintained a respected standing in society and with members of the government. She opened an orphanage – as her husband had been an orphan – and she raised their giant family without him, still managing to keep them all educated and fed. She was an amazing woman and knowing that makes this song even more powerful. She truly did forgive him but more importantly – she loved him. And she carried on his story and his legacy even after his death.

THIS SONG, y’all. I hope you listened to it. This is the best page to listen to it on because you can read who is singing as you listen so it helps a little with understand what might be happening on stage. Basically the entire second act is just one sob fest after another with a few rap battles over legislation thrown in.

Some day I’ll see the show on stage. Some day. And I’ll sob like I have never sobbed in my life, I’m certain.

7 thoughts on “On “Hamilton,” Grief, and Forgiveness.”

  1. Some days I can get through the entire recording with nary an emotion, and others I feel like I need therapy to learn how to breathe again.
    This musical. I can’t even begin to describe how much I have needed these words and these emotions. I’ve been listening to nothing but Hamilton since October. My ENTIRE family is obsessed with Hamilton. I’ve enjoyed my children’s performances in things, my daughter can sing like no one else I’ve ever heard, I’ve seen a few traveling productions of big shows like Cats and Les Mis, but… I’ve never loved musicals.

    This one though, this one has torn out my heart, rebuilt it and put it back in with completely different wiring. I’ve used the songs to help me grieve and to empower myself to do something hard.

    I agree, that the pause after unimaginable, that is just so heartbreaking.

  2. Oh. There is a facebook group for talking about Hamilton, if you’ve not been invited yet.
    Let’s talk obsessively about Hamilton.

    It’s amazing.

  3. This is a great post because I do the same thing. However, I’ve seen the show and had an interesting thought.

    In the show, I totally sobbed during this song (actually, Burn was my biggest sob-fest because of Phillipa Soo’s acting) and in some ways it’s worse watching the show because you see Phillip die, and you’re watching and seeing them struggle through the song in their black mourning clothes and they act out basically as you describe it above.

    BUT – I get MORE emotional listening to this song on my own, especially if I’m by myself in the car. Because in those moments, I apply the song to ME personally and it resonates with my losses and the emotion that pours out of me is 10x worse. I lost my sister when she was 14 and I was 19, so my parent’s lost a young child and it is, indeed, unimaginable what my mom went through as now I’m a mom and I can’t even. My heart shatters when I hear the word unimaginable in those quiet moments alone completely because of my own grief and how it applies to my own life.

    So my point to all of this is to say, that I think Hamilton serves a dual purpose. It’s a great and modern play about our history that celebrates diversity and struggle. But the songs themselves resonate with us all in our lives in different ways, independent of the stage show. It’s why you see that the soundtrack is #1 on various charts and has stuck with people who may not even care for musical theatre. It’s why it’s become as big as it has.

    I love to talk about Hamilton!

  4. Yep. All of that. It’s fascinating (and sad) that Hamilton chose to duel in the same spot that Philip died a year prior. I often wonder if Hamilton never really recovered from Philip’s death and WANTED to die, in the duel. He must have been so depressed. I can’t imagine.

  5. Broke down during Washington’s “One Last Time” the other day. Even though I’ve heard it a hundred times before. The whole play is outstanding and glorious. And it gives me hope for our future.

  6. I hadn’t heard about Hamilton til I read your post but then after I read it, it seemed to be everywhere (I guess I just hadn’t noticed before), so I downloaded the cast album. I love it!! I’m sure it will be a traveling show in a few years and then I can see it. Thanks for writing about it!

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