By now you have heard of Hamilton, the musical that uses hip-hop to tell the story of its titular Founding Father. It premiered on Broadway one year ago this weekend to near-universal raves. It won a Grammy, several Tonys, and a Pulitzer. But depending on where you’ve been getting your Hamilton news, you may have heard a few different things about Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife and sister-in-law, respectively, and the two most prominent female characters in the show. (Sorry, Peggy.)
The sisters meet young Hamilton early in Act I and are both instantly smitten, but perceptive, quick-thinking Angelica decides to encourage Hamilton to pursue sweet, kind Eliza rather than go after him herself. Throughout the rest of the show the Schuyler sisters weave in and out of Hamilton’s life, reminding him of the world that exists outside of the policy he’s writing. And at the play’s conclusion, a somber Aaron Burr sings, "They say Angelica and Eliza were both at his side when he died."
No one can quite decide what Hamilton is doing with the Schuyler sisters. In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan is happy to announce that the Schuyler sisters are "not politically correct" because they are not "forced to adopt the usual modern scattershot bitterness at their plight." In a New Yorker article on the women of Hamilton, Michael Shulman approvingly calls the Schuyler sisters "almost" feminist. Elsewhere in the New Yorker, Hilton Als writes that the Schuyler sisters are the weakest part of the show, calling them "plot points in silk," while YouTube critics Matt Steele and Matt Palmer (a.k.a. Two Gay Matts) opine that "this show is all about the bitches." New York magazine insists that the show’s treatment of its women "invites questions." The New York Times says, "We love, but love, the assertive revolutionary women."
Part of the reason for this confusion — is the musical making a feminist statement? Being horrifically regressive? Are the Schuyler sisters boring? Are they fascinating? — is that their story arc has the structure of a very old and not very feminist musical theater trope: the two-woman love triangle in which one woman is good and the other is bad. The Schuyler sisters follow that love triangle formula closely, right up until they don’t.
The classic love triangle formula gives us one good woman and one bad woman
Traditionally in musical theater, when two women are points in a love triangle, one of them is sweetly, traditionally feminine and the other rebels moderately and attractively against gender roles. In Les Misérables, Cosette is obedient and passive, while Eponine brawls with her father in the streets. In the film version of The Sound of Music, the immaculately coiffed Baroness watches in horror as Maria exuberantly overturns a rowboat in her homemade dress. Jekyll and Hyde’s Emma is chaste and pure, while Lucy is a prostitute who tells her customers to "bring on the men."
And traditionally, musicals are not shy or subtle about telling their audiences which of the two women is worth rooting for. Sometimes the bad woman turns out to be secretly cold, like the Baroness with her villainous plan to send the von Trapp children to boarding school ("Baroness Machiavelli!" another character exclaims). Sometimes a musical tips the scales by giving the good woman the good song — everyone loves Eponine and her soulful "On My Own," but it takes a rare soul to fall in love with Cosette after her forgettable "In My Life." The subtext is clear: One of these women is good, and the other is bad. The conventionally feminine one is too dull or too passive or too boring, maybe, or the rebellious one is too slutty or too shrill or too angry. Either one of them might be too much of a bitch.
The problem with this narrative structure is that it asks the audience to sort all women into two types and then pick one of those types to hate: This kind of woman is okay, but not this kind. It suggests there are two ways to be a woman, one of which is acceptable and one of which is despicable.
That rarely happens with men. There are musical love triangles with two men in them, of course, like My Fair Lady, where Eliza Doolittle chooses between Henry Higgins and Freddy. But the key difference between two-man love triangles and two-woman love triangles is that Freddy and Henry are not being made to stand in for all men. Surely no man has ever been asked whether he's a Freddy or a Henry, but you can take a BuzzFeed quiz to determine whether you’re an Eponine or a Cosette.
Hamilton avoids the trap of good woman versus bad woman — almost
The trap of the two-woman love triangle is not one that Hamilton entirely avoids. Angelica and Eliza fall neatly into the old conventional/rebellious dichotomy. Angelica, who stands center stage as she raps, "I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine / So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane," is the rebellious one. Eliza, who has, she tells us, "never been the type to try and grab the spotlight," is the conventionally feminine one. And because Angelica and Eliza are the only major female characters in the show — Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds, the other two female singing parts, have one song apiece and are such small roles they're played by the same actress — they stand in for all women. Angelica is not just an intellectual woman in the way that Hamilton and Jefferson are intellectual men; she is the intellectual woman. Eliza is not just a domestic woman but the domestic woman.
But Hamilton does depart from the typical love triangle structure when it comes time to designate one of the women as good and the other as bad. The show has no interest in doing so, and it can be shocking to realize this. Watching Hamilton for the first time it is easy to anticipate, as Als does in his New Yorker review, that because Eliza is "genteel" she must be "therefore dull," or that because Angelica is politically intelligent she must be angry and shrill, as Noonan is pleasantly surprised to find she is not. Instead, Hamilton treats both its women with respect and admiration. It operates on the assumption that both of these characters are important, that the different ways they perform femininity are valid, and that their contributions to history are valuable.
What makes Hamilton unique is that it recognizes the tragedy in both women’s lives
Hamilton recognizes that in the 18th century, both rebellious and conventionally feminine women are trapped. Angelica has the intellect and the drive to make valuable contributions to the emerging republic, but instead she is stuck behind the scenes, "a girl in a world in which / my only job is to marry rich." Her refrain throughout the show is, "I will never be satisfied," because it is her tragedy to live in a world where she cannot do the kind of work that would satisfy her. In contrast, Eliza has the opportunity and means to do the kind of domestic work that she loves and is good at, but she lives in a world where this kind of work is not valued, because it's considered less important than the political work Hamilton does. Eliza is stuck at the fringes of history, whispering, "Oh, let me be a part of the narrative," and her refrain is, "That would be enough," because it is her tragedy to live in a world where she is denied the little respect she asks for.
And Hamilton gives both Angelica and Eliza the space onstage to examine their tragedies. Angelica’s "Satisfied" is widely considered to be one of the best songs in the show — Rolling Stone calls it Hamilton’s "finest moment" — and the musical ends with Eliza in the spotlight and center stage, declaring, "I put myself back in the narrative." In the world of Hamilton, Angelica’s plight is worth more musical attention than the Federalist Papers; Eliza’s domestic work and contributions to history are so important they become the focus of the finale. Neither of the two women is "bad" or "lesser."
Let’s be clear: Hamilton did not invent the idea that two different women can both be okay, even if they’re in love with the same man and even if they’re in a musical. Musical theater has been slowly making its way toward this idea for years. Wicked’s girl-power-heavy theme means that both Glinda and Elphaba are lovable as they compete for Fiyero’s affections. In A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Phoebe and Sibella are both so sympathetic that in the end, the hero opts not to choose between them at all but to live in a trio with both of them.
But both Wicked and Gentleman’s Guide believe the idea of having two sympathetic female characters is deeply hilarious: No scene in Gentleman’s Guide gets quite so big a laugh as the moment that Monty walks off arm in arm with both Phoebe and Sibella, and Wicked has Glinda and Elphaba face off in a girly catfight. Hamilton, by contrast, isn't trying to find humor in Angelica’s declaration that "I know my sister like I know my own mind," or Eliza admiring her sister "as she’s dazzling the room." The Schuyler sisters are not there to make the audience laugh.
Ultimately, the women of Hamilton are part of the musical's larger ambition, which is to reclaim the legacy of the American Revolution, making it no longer the exclusive property of white men. The musical challenges us to see George Washington in a black man and to recognize Alexander Hamilton as an immigrant from the Caribbean. It also challenges us to see the historical work of women as important and valuable and worthy of respect — regardless of which "type" of woman we’re faced with.