WTW – Same Event, Different POV: As Shown in Hamilton: an American Musical

Last week I discussed how different characters will have different perceptions of the same event, how the narrative from their points of view will change. I mentioned using the concept as exercise to delve into character, but didn’t really think that all of the perspectives on the event would be in the final product. Don’t tell that to Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose Hamilton: an American Musical (yes, a musical, because great writing transcends the borders of media) uses this device in successive songs to spectacular effect.

The songs “Helpless” and “Satisfied” both tell the story of Alexander Hamilton meeting, falling for, and marrying Eliza Schuyler. The first is told from Eliza’s point of view, and the second is told from the point of view of Angelica Schuyler, Eliza’s sister.

In “Helpless,” Eliza notices Alexander from across the room at a party. She immediately tells us that he’s caught her eye (“Then you walked in and my heart went boom). She narrates watching Angelica speak to Alexander. The sequence is notable for what it lacks, information not available to Eliza at the moment. She doesn’t know what Angelica and Alexander are talking about, and this inspires a profound anxiety (“My sister made her way across the room to you And I got nervous, thinking ‘What’s she gonna do?’ She grabbed you by the arm, I’m thinkin’ ‘I’m through’). Then, we bring the actors together and get this sequence, which we will revisit in a moment:

[ELIZA] Elizabeth Schuyler. It’s a pleasure to meet you

[HAMILTON] Schuyler?

[ANGELICA] My sister

[ELIZA] Thank you for all your service

[HAMILTON] If it takes fighting a war for us to meet, it will have been worth it

[ANGELICA] I’ll leave you to it

In the next song, “Satisfied,” Angelica tells the story of how she and Eliza met Alexander. First, we get a touchstone of “Hey audience, we’re flashing back in time here” with the “Rewind – Rewind” lyric, which helps everyone keep straight what’s happening (the choreography of people replaying their movements in reverse is pretty sweet too). Then Angelica, who was in a place where she had access to information Eliza did not when she sang “Helpless” shows us what her interaction with Alexander was just prior to introducing him to Eliza. It fills in the missing space that Elizabeth’s point of view couldn’t provide to the audience. We also get to see her internal narrative as she agonizes over her decision to pass Alexander on to her sister. And then, they tie the two scenes back together with the same touchstone lyrics:

[ELIZA] Elizabeth Schuyler. It’s a pleasure to meet you

[HAMILTON] Schuyler?

[ANGELICA] My sister

[ELIZA] Thank you for all your service

[HAMILTON] If it takes fighting a war for us to meet, it will have been worth it

[ANGELICA] I’ll leave you to it

Only after that point, Angelica continues on to provide her reaction to watching her sister and Hamilton hit it off. The writing goes out of its way to demonstrate that it’s the same event (Eliza meeting Hamilton) from two different points of view.

In what should surprise no one, Lin Manuel Miranda executes this flawlessly. He uses the different perspectives to maximal effect, demonstrating the greatest amount of Eliza’s character and her relationship with Alexander, in “Helpless,” while likewise doing the same for Angelica’s relationships with both Alexander and Eliza in “Satisfied.” He did so by portraying a critical moment in the characters’ lives, and doing so in a novel way that makes the two songs very different from each other. It’s a hard trick to pull off, however, and I’m not sure how easy it would be to replicate in a novel.

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