Book, Lyrics, and Music by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Original Cast Directed by: Thomas Kall
Genre: Golden Fleece
It’s always interesting to dig into a story and see how it’s put together, and more often than not we find that stories hit the beats — when we’re looking at movies. But what about a Broadway musical?
Hamilton, a musical about the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, inspired by the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by historian Ron Chernow, has achieved both critical acclaim and box office success.
It’s structured in two acts and it’s a different medium, so information is presented differently than it would be in a movie. But it’s undeniably a story that resonates, and good stories work because the beats are arranged to lead us through a narrative and elicit emotion. Let’s see if and how Hamilton’s beats match up.
OPENING IMAGE: The first song, “Alexander Hamilton” orients us by summarizing Hamilton’s childhood as an impoverished orphan in the Caribbean, and providing an overview of the story. It also gives us the…
THEME STATED: This show is about legacy, who controls your story, and how your actions are viewed now and in the context of history. The whole song is built around this theme, but particularly: “When America sings for you will they know what you overcame? Will they know you rewrote the game?”
SET-UP: Hamilton arrives in New York City and seeks out Aaron Burr, who Hamilton admires and who offers some prophetic advice: “Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.”
We meet the people who will matter most to Hamilton as he chases his goals: friends Lafayette, Mulligan, and Laurens, and – in “The Schuyler Sisters” — the women who will love him.
In the midst of setting up the major players, the song “My Shot” helps further establish Hamilton the character. He is ambitious and determined to do something notable, to make his mark on the world and create a legacy. Later he sings he would, “rather be divisive than indecisive.” We also learn the context of the time, the coming revolution and Hamilton’s feelings about King George.
CATALYST: While I’m not sure there is a single catalyst to this story, King George singing “You’ll Be Back” does seem like a call-to-action — King George isn’t going to back down, so if America wants freedom its citizens are going to have to fight for it. Since this is a cause Hamilton believes in, and it’s how he intends to establish his legacy, it functions as a catalyst for his story.
DEBATE: Will Hamilton get a chance to take his shot, make his mark, and leave the kind of legacy he desires? His efforts to aid the revolution bring him to the attention of General George Washington. Burr offers his services to Washington, only to have Washington pick Hamilton as his “Right Hand Man.”
But we also see Hamilton meet, court, and become engaged to Eliza Schuyler, whom he falls in love with but also sees as an opportunity to raise his station since she’s from a wealthy, respected family. She will come to represent another type of legacy for Hamilton — a family of his own.
BREAK INTO 2: The Set-up now complete, we move into “second act” escalation territory. Although I don’t see a definite turning point in the narrative, I do think it’s interesting to note where the brief musical number “The Story of Tonight” is used. It occurs a few times, and feels as if it marks sections of the story.
It’s used here, and transitions us away from the wedding and back to the war as Hamilton tells Burr he’d “rather have his command instead of manning Washington’s journal.” Hamilton wants to be in the action, not serving as Washington’s aide-de-camp. The much less daring Burr tells him not to be foolish.
B STORY: The major subplot is the story from Burr’s perspective. We begin to see his side of things as we learn Burr is seeing a woman who is married to a British officer. Hamilton advises him to take action, to go after what he wants. Burr, however, prefers to wait and see what life has in store for him, as he sings in “Wait For It.” This difference in philosophies is what will bring Burr and Hamilton into conflict later.
FUN AND GAMES: The “fun and games” of the revolution and of Hamilton trying to make his mark on the world. The situation is dire, but Hamilton and friends continue to fight, to further the war effort. Yet Washington still won’t entrust Hamilton with a command. Charles Lee is promoted to General instead, but he botches a battle and starts publicly badmouthing Washington.
After Hamilton challenges Lee to a duel to “answer for his words,” Washington reprimands Hamilton and sends him home to his wife, where he learns Eliza is pregnant. Eliza doesn’t care if they have money or a legacy, she just wants him, alive and around to see his son. Her hope is that Hamilton chooses them over making his mark via the war.
Meanwhile, Lafayette has a plan to end the war at Yorktown, and he tells Washington they need Hamilton to do it. Lafayette finally convinces Washington to give Hamilton the command he’d been asking for.
In “History Has Its Eyes On You,” Washington tries to pass some hard-won wisdom on to Hamilton: “You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” What Hamilton does now will be remembered.
Hamilton and Lafayette work together at the battle of Yorktown. Hamilton leads his men into the fight. The British forces surrender.
In “What Comes Next?” King George poses the question — do they know what happens now? They think they’re free, but they still have the biggest challenge ahead of them; it’s not easy to lead an entire nation.
MIDPOINT: As we approach the midpoint, the A & B Stories intertwine in a few ways. In “Dear Theodosia” both Burr and Hamilton sing about their love and hopes for their respective children.
Both men also become lawyers after the war. Hamilton has found some of the success he’s sought, but there’s more to do and achieve and he presses on, determined. Burr is amazed and irritated at how Hamilton collects achievements so quickly.
Hamilton feels called to public service because the economy is “increasingly stalling.” He’s chosen as a junior delegate for the Constitutional Convention, where he proposes a plan for a new form of government. Hamilton asks Burr to help by writing a series of essays, anonymously published, defending the new U.S. Constitution to the public. Burr refuses. So Hamilton joins forces with James Madison and John Jay to write the essays, The Federalist Papers.
Finally, Washington, now president, asks Hamilton to run the Treasury Department, and Hamilton leaves Eliza behind to do so.
BAD GUYS CLOSE IN: The second half of the story raises the stakes with a strong new source of opposition to Hamilton: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson returns from his post as ambassador to France and is appointed Secretary of State. He has his own ideas about how the nation’s government should be shaped (which is part and parcel to Hamilton’s legacy). Jefferson will soon challenge Hamilton and create the two-party system. Jefferson learns from Madison that “Hamilton’s new financial plan is nothing less than government control.” Hamilton’s reputation — how he’s perceived in the world, and by us in the audience — and, by extension, his legacy, starts to take a turn for the worse.
Things get heated as Jefferson opposes Hamilton’s plan to assume state debt and establish a national bank. Washington warns Hamilton that he needs to get the votes to get Congressional approval for the plan, or he’ll likely be removed from his position.
In his personal life, Eliza tries to convince Hamilton to take a break and go upstate for the summer, but he is focused on his work.
While his family is away, Hamilton is seduced by Maria Reynolds. A month into their affair he gets a letter from her husband — blackmail. Hamilton agrees to pay, and continues the affair.
Behind closed doors, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson come up with a compromise: the nation’s capital moves from NYC to Washington, D.C., and Hamilton gets the votes he needs for his new financial system.
Burr criticizes Hamilton for giving in, but Hamilton sees it as a way to “build something that’s gonna outlive me.” Burr realizes he can no longer wait — he needs to act or everything he wants will pass him by. Burr beats out Eliza’s father for a Senate seat, and Hamilton accuses him of switching parties solely for personal gain.
Meanwhile, France is on the verge of war with England; should the U.S. provide aid and troops? Jefferson defends honoring their treaty. Hamilton is against it. Washington sides with Hamilton.
In “Washington On Your Side,” Jefferson sings that the cabinet is fractured, thanks to Hamilton, and Hamilton’s lucky to have Washington on his side because it allows him to get away with everything. Burr, Madison, and Jefferson are all aligned against Hamilton and want to bring him down, determined to “follow the money and see where it goes.”
Jefferson resigns his position so he can run for president. Washington tells Hamilton he’s stepping down as president and will not run against Jefferson. Instead, John Adams is elected and quickly fires Hamilton, who publishes a scathing response. Hamilton’s position is weak, and Jefferson, Madison, and Burr are ready to make their move.
ALL IS LOST: When looking at the beats of this story, the natural assumption might be that the All Is Lost occurs later, when Hamilton’s son Philip dies, because that’s truly the lowest emotional point. But I’m going to challenge that assumption. I think the “second act” of this story begins to wrap up here, as everything that Hamilton has worked for is going down the tubes. This is where Hamilton is furthest from what he thinks is his goal. There’s much more to come, and it gets much worse, but he doesn’t know it yet.
Jefferson, Burr, and Madison confront Hamilton with the check stubs paid to Mr. Reynolds, and accuse him of embezzlement. Hamilton explains the affair and the blackmail, but insists he never misappropriated money from his office, and asks if they can keep this quiet. They agree.
DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL: Hamilton is too uncomfortable with anyone having that kind of leverage, and decides the only way he can protect his legacy is by being completely transparent, and doing what he’s always done to take control of his situation: writing his own story.
BREAK INTO 3 / FINALE: With this plan in mind, Hamilton now moves into the “third act” of the story.
Hamilton writes a full, public confession of his affair. It’s a scandal. Public opinion is that Hamilton “will never be president now.” His legacy is cut short. Eliza burns their correspondence to erase herself from the narrative of his life. She tells him, “In clearing your name you have ruined our lives.”
Some years later, Hamilton’s son Philip, now 19, confronts George Eaker for disparaging his father’s legacy. Philip challenges him to a duel then asks Hamilton how to proceed. Hamilton advises Philip to aim into the air, thinking the other man will follow suit out of honor. But George shoots and kills Philip.
Hamilton and Eliza move uptown and essentially withdraw from the world in their grief. Hamilton ponders his regrets and tries to make amends. Eliza forgives him.
“The Election of 1800” arrives. Burr runs against Jefferson. Hamilton maintains that Burr doesn’t truly stand for anything and he backs Jefferson, who wins and then changes the rules — denying Burr the expected VP position.
Burr is now resentful of Hamilton, blaming him for his life’s failures. Burr challenges him to a duel.
In “Best of Wives and Best of Women,” Hamilton says goodbye to Eliza before he leaves.
Tension mounts in the moments before the duel. Each man considers his life, his legacy. Hamilton fires into the air, expecting Burr to do the same. But he doesn’t.
As his life slips away, Hamilton ponders, “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Meanwhile, Burr laments that this is now his legacy — of all the things he’s done, he’ll be known as the man who shot Alexander Hamilton.
FINAL IMAGE: The final number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” reiterates the theme.
Hamilton won’t see or know how his legacy lives on, that Jefferson and Madison finally give credit to the financial system he created, or that Eliza goes on to carry out work that Hamilton would be proud of. In the final moments, she wonders if she’s done enough as her legacy.
About the Author: Guy Thompson co-wrote this beat sheet. Guy has been an editor and writer for over 20 years. He has co-hosted the Save the Cat! podcast with José Silerio and, in 2014, was a Nicholl Fellowship semi-finalist.
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