It was January 20, 2015, and a brand-new musical was premiering at New York City’s Off-Broadway Public Theater. The production in question was Hamilton: An American Musical, a production based on the life of United States Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. In particular, the play – which was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda – focuses on the legendary statesman’s relationship with his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler. But the historical truth about their connection is much more complicated.
After delving into the Founding Father’s early life and ascent to revolutionary, Hamilton picks up his relationship with the Schuyler sisters later in its first act. The well-heeled female siblings Angelica, Eliza and Peggy – portrayed by Renee Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo and Jasmine Cephas Jones in the original Broadway production – are first shown sauntering around New York City. They are visibly enthused by the prospect of revolution whilst looking for love, as “The Schuyler Sisters” is performed.
The musical then depicts the first meeting between the future U.S. Treasury Secretary and the female offspring of Phillip Schuyler. This occurs at a winter ball put on by the father some time in 1780. Hamilton – portrayed on Broadway by the show’s writer Miranda – soon has his eye on Schuyler’s daughters, and is introduced to the middle sister Eliza by the eldest of the three, Angelica.
Eliza quickly falls for the dashing revolutionary with whom she was acquainted by her older sis. The attraction appears to be a mutual one too, as the pair soon go on to marry. The song “Helpless” depicts the meeting and Hamilton and Eliza’s dating period. According to its lyrics, Angelica took the future statesman by the arm and brought him to her sister, who had eyed him from afar.
However, that particular song also introduces a scandalous notion; the suggestion that Angelica had feelings of her own for Hamilton. The ditty has Eliza singing, “Laughin’ at my sister, cuz she wants to form a harem.” Then the eldest Schuyler surprisingly replies, “I’m just sayin’, if you really loved me, you would share him.”
Anyway, Angelica goes on to raise a toast to the bride and groom at their wedding. But, as Miranda tells it, she is secretly quashing her true feelings for Hamilton, which are evidently more than platonic. The next musical number, the piano-driven “Satisfied,” explores this fascinating issue in some detail.
Indeed, in the song there are explicit nods to Angelica’s lust for Hamilton. She sings, “When I fantasize at night it’s Alexander’s eyes, as I romanticize what might have been… At least my dear Eliza’s his wife; at least I keep his eyes in my life.” There is an evident feeling of sorrow that she led the man of her dreams to her younger sister. This is most explicit when the elder Schuyler sings, “I remember that night, I just might regret that night for the rest of my days.”
Angelica, meanwhile, ups sticks and moves to London with her wealthy new husband. This is referenced in the musical number “Non-Stop,” where the eldest Schuyler sister sings, “I am sailing off to London. I’m accompanied by someone who always pays. I have found a wealthy husband who will keep me in comfort for all my days.” However, she tellingly laments, “He is not a lot of fun, but there’s no one who can match you for turn of phrase, my Alexander,” before imploring Hamilton to write to her.
The musical’s second act begins with more political shenanigans, before the song “Take a Break” dives back into Hamilton’s relationships with both Eliza and Angelica. The lyrics reference the letters Hamilton wrote to his sister-in-law, culminating in the jointly sung couplets, “And there you are, an ocean away. Do you have to live an ocean away? Thoughts of you subside. Then I get another letter. I cannot put the notion away…”
“Take a Break” also references a correspondence in which Hamilton has inserted a telling comma, ensuring the missive read “My dearest, Angelica.” This and previous examples are clear suggestions from Miranda that their relationship was one of heartfelt longing on both sides. The American revolutionary is also informed that his son is now nine years old and he is begged to spend time in upstate New York by both his wife and his sister-in-law, but he refuses.
Hamilton then embarks on an unwise extramarital affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds, which leaves him at the mercy of her husband’s blackmail attempts. After more political intrigue and power struggles among the revolutionaries, Miranda moves on to the pain Hamilton causes his wife when his affair is finally made public. Revealingly, Eliza sets fire to all the written correspondence with her husband, eliminating any hope he had at being redeemed by historians in the future.
Furthermore Eliza’s bonfire of letters, as Miranda tells it, ensured the world would never know how badly she reacted to it all by effectively erasing herself from history. However, Hamilton eventually reconciles with Eliza several years later, after their son passes away from injuries he sustained in a duel. The battle was with a rival of his father named George Eacker, who had insulted Phillip’s old man.
The musical then moves on to the U.S. election of 1800, which found Hamilton backing Thomas Jefferson. His endorsement infuriates Jefferson’s rival for the presidency Aaron Burr, who subsequently goads the West Indies-born statesman into a duel through a number of increasingly antagonistic letters, captured in the song “Your Obedient Servant”. After writing a hurried final letter to Eliza – who questions what he is doing up at such an ungodly hour and implores him to return to bed – Hamilton sets off for his date with destiny.
Hamilton, then, made his way to Weehawken in New Jersey, where the showdown with Burr took place. The musical depicts the Founding Father deliberately firing his gun skyward but being mercilessly shot in the chest by Burr. The latter suddenly has a moment of epiphany, realizing he is going to be portrayed as a villain in the history books: the man who shot the legendary Alexander Hamilton.
The conclusion of the musical’s second act centers around Hamilton’s death a day later from his bullet wounds. The statesman is surrounded by Eliza and his beloved sister-in-law when he passes away. As the cast unite, there is a philosophical contemplation on historical remembrance, and the Founding Father’s wife vows to keep his legacy going. Angelica too chimes in with a few thoughts during the performance of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”
The curtain is then brought down on the performance. The stars of the show join hands and bow to the audience. Hamilton has told the fascinating story of one of America’s most important statesmen in a unique and entertaining way. But just how true to life was the musical’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda being when he devised and wrote the script and songs?
Well, firstly it should be noted that Miranda based much of his story on the 2004 biography of the Founding Father that was written by historian and author Ron Chernow. The acclaimed thespian told The Atlantic magazine’s Edward Delman that, although he’d penned a paper on the statesman back in high school, he knew precious little about his life besides the infamous duel. Furthermore, the New Yorker “was just looking for a good biography to read on the beach.”
Whilst reading Chernow’s acclaimed book on that beach break, Miranda suddenly had visions of Hamilton’s epic story being brought to life as a stage musical. The talented writer and performer then searched far and wide to see if it had been done before. The only thing remotely similar he could unearth was a Broadway play from way back in 1917.
At that particular time, Miranda was still performing in his hugely successful production In The Heights. The New Yorker – who was born to a Puerto Rican couple – wanted to meet Chernow and tell him about his bold idea. And he would get the chance to do so backstage when the author showed up at one particular enactment of the aforementioned show.
Miranda then proceeded to tell Chernow of his unique plans for the musical. The New York-born star reportedly shared with the author how he envisaged “hip-hop songs rising off the page” whilst leafing through his historical work. Indeed, the multi-talented actor planned to go down an unusual route with the musical, one that might well cause a bit of controversy among traditionalists.
Yes, the American thespian planned to cast the musical in a more inclusive way, with minority actors featuring prominently among the lead roles. The production would also feature defiantly modern, hip-hop influenced songs. Miranda’s Hamilton, therefore, was – as he told The Atlantic in 2015 – “a story about America then, told by America now.” The New Yorker wished to “eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.”
Furthermore, in 2008 Miranda managed to persuade Chernow to become a historical adviser for his embryonic production. The appointment of the author as a historical adviser suggests the Hamilton supremo was keen to stick close to the facts. His fellow New Yorker was involved in the protracted writing of the musical, which took over six years.
As mentioned earlier, Hamilton would make its eagerly awaited stage debut Off-Broadway on January 20, 2015, at Lower Manhattan’s Public Theater. It quickly generated a significant buzz and garnered much acclaim. Its immediate success was amply illustrated by the production selling out its entire Off-Broadway run and landing eight Drama Desk awards.
Next, of course, the musical would move on to bigger and better things, namely the brighter lights of New York’s Broadway. The production – which saw Miranda reunite with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, director Thomas Kail and music orchestrator Alex Lacamoire – debuted on the famous strip on August 6, 2015, more specifically at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Once again, it was a gargantuan success.
In short, Hamilton became a bona fide cultural phenomenon; an unstoppable juggernaut mopping up awards and breaking records. To summarize, it garnered a record 16 Tony Award nominations, winning 11 of them. It spawned a national, then international, touring production, generated a multi-platinum CD, received a Disney+ special taping and landed both a Grammy and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In that 2015 interview with The Atlantic, Miranda chatted about a wide range of things pertaining to the show. The discussion included how he took seriously the notion his musical would potentially become the foundation for many people’s understanding of Hamilton and the American revolution. He said, “I felt an enormous responsibility to be as historically accurate as possible, while still telling the most dramatic story possible.”
Miranda also pointed out in the interview that his endeavor for accuracy went as far as appointing one of the principal experts on the Founding Father. He said, “That’s why Ron Chernow is a historical consultant on the thing, and, you know, he was always sort of keeping us honest. And when I did part from the historical record or take dramatic license, I made sure I was able to defend it to Ron, because I knew that I was going to have to defend it in the real world. None of those choices are made lightly.”
Now it’s fair to say that Miranda wouldn’t be the first to take artistic license in a historical film or play. Two notorious examples are the Mel Gibson biopics Braveheart and The Patriot. One historian remarked of the former that it “couldn’t have been more inaccurate if a plasticine dog was added to the cast and the film was retitled William Wallace and Gromit.” But just how much did Miranda deviate from the facts about the Founding Father and his storied life?
Let’s compare, then, the Hamilton of the musical with the real-life version, and attempt to discern just how much artistic license Miranda took. Numerous publications and academics have taken a look at this. The websites Screen Rant, Entertainment Weekly and The Spokesman-Review have all penned articles on the musical’s historical accuracy. But we’ll start with historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who is a professor at Harvard University.
Gordon-Reed pointed out that she enjoyed the musical, and acknowledged that “a Broadway show is not a documentary,” and “artists have the right to create.” However, she also declared that “historians have the right to critique.” Firstly, she took issue with the portrayal of Hamilton as a “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrant, stating he was not this and nor was he pro-immigrant or an abolitionist. “He bought and sold slaves for his in-laws, and opposing slavery was never at the forefront of his agenda,” the historian remarked.
Furthermore, Gordon-Reid stated that Hamilton “was not a champion of the little guy, like the show portrays. He was elitist. He was in favor of having a president for life.” She also disagreed with Jefferson’s sole portrayal as a slave holder in the musical, and pondered whether the mixed race take on the Founding Fathers effectively had the negative effect of both sanitizing and burying the horrors of their slavery advocacy.
Magazine Entertainment Weekly, meanwhile, published an article entitled ‘Hamilton historical facts that didn’t make the musical,’ which was written by Christian Holub. The journalist picked out ten specific things that Hamilton curiously overlooked. These included everything from his health problems, to leaving his family in debt and a potential gay relationship with John Laurens.
But let’s move on to one of the most fascinating and contentious parts of the musical. That is, Hamilton’s relationship with his sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler. Miranda’s production heavily hints at the Founding Father having much more than a half-brotherly kinship with his wife’s elder sibling. But what was the historical truth?
Well, Miranda does deviate from the truth quite significantly, as website Screen Rant and magazines Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, amongst several others, point out. In Hamilton, the New Yorker depicts the Founding Father meeting Angelica at a winter ball hosted by her dad. They warmly engage in a brief conversation before the eldest Schuyler reasons his lack of wealth rules him out as a partner, given her need to marry a rich man and ascend the social ladder. Instead she leads the revolutionary to her younger sister Eliza, who falls for him quickly, leading to immediate regret from Angelica.
Historians, however, have picked holes in this account. Actually, at the time of their alleged meeting in the musical, Angelica already had a husband and two kids. She was wedded to John Barker Church, a British businessman and politician. They encountered one another back in 1776, when the Brit was toiling in an army department run by her old man. Furthermore, Phillip Schuyler had several boys, not only three girls as is made out.
Likewise, it is doubtful whether Angelica led Hamilton to the youngest Schuyler daughter at a winter’s ball. No, historians of this period say that the Founding Father actually met Eliza several years prior to what is depicted in the musical. There has also been criticism about the nature of the relationships between the American revolutionaries. Furthermore, it was not Jefferson, Burr and Madison who pulled up Hamilton about his affair with Reynolds, but James Monroe and two cohorts.
However, there were elements of truth in what Miranda presented in his preternaturally popular production. Yes, Hamilton does veer closer to reality in its depiction of the titular hero’s relationship with his beloved sister-in-law. Screen Rant noted, “Angelica and Hamilton hit it off, and due to the fact that they were in-laws, they quickly reached a level of comfort with one another. That familiarity was on display in their letters, some of which were used as inspiration for the lyrics in the second act song, ‘Take a Break.’”
The line about sharing Hamilton with her sister that Angelica utters in the musical is genuine too, and appeared in a written correspondence with Eliza. A blog by Oxford University Press, a department of England’s Oxford University, commented, “The close relationship between Angelica and Alexander did generate gossip that the two were having an affair.” The blog also noted how Hamilton “wrote to her in 1787 [stating] that “I seldom write to a lady without fancying the relation of lover and mistress.”
So, in reality quite a lot of Hamilton has been exaggerated for effect, and Miranda displays some looseness with the facts throughout. Nevertheless, as the much-loved actor told The Atlantic, “My only responsibility as a playwright and a storyteller is to give you the time of your life in the theater.” And given its widespread acclaim and enormous box office success, it seems that very few of the many millions who have seen it would argue that Hamilton was anything but a total blast.