As the curtain falls on Hamilton, the cast repeats one saying in a mysterious voice: who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Indeed, this is the main question the musical embarks to answer; however, while 1776 does not attack this question with the same veracity, it helps us better understand how the stories we tell about our founding fathers shape our understanding of our history. By examining two differences in the productions, we gain an understanding of how our story telling changes with time (the two films were made almost 50 years apart) and how that shift changes our perception of our leaders.
The first difference between the two films is noticed in the introduction of each film’s first female character(s): Abigail Adams and the Schuyler Sisters. When John Adams converses with his wife via mail in the opening number of 1776, her interests are strictly domestic. Her concerns include her children, her out-of-state husband, and clothing pins. While she does stand up to John and demand the pins, her wishes are still restricted to the domestic sphere. In juxtaposition, the Schuyler Sisters’ opening number in Hamilton reveals Angelica Schuyler, the oldest of the three, to be an empowered woman with a knack for critical thinking. She confidently rejects suitors before proudly declaring women as political equals to men. The shift from 1776’s portrayal of Abigail Adams to Hamilton’s Angelica Schuyler shows how the author of each musical will attempt to tell a story about their female character in the next few hours. In 1776, Abigail Adams’ depiction tells the story that women in Colonial America were focussed solely on their husbands and family, a story furthered by Martha Jefferson’s depiction. Meanwhile, Angelica Schuyler’s intellectual pride tells a story that reminds us of how women were excluded from contributing their ideas in Colonial America. While most of Hamilton will focus on the ideas, conversations, and actions of men, it does not let you forget that women could have played an equally important role had they been permitted to transcend the domestic sphere.
Thomas Jefferson’s depiction in the two films also reveals how two different story tellers from two different decades attempt to understand the founding fathers. In 1776, Jefferson is first introduced as a reluctant member of John Adams’ council to write the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, Jefferson wishes only to spend time with his wife and play violin. This depiction shows the third president in an extremely flattering light. In typical American fashion, Jefferson is glorified in 1776 as a reluctant leader who writes the declaration because he is begged. This version of Jefferson is incredibly likable. The issues of slavery are never touched on while his political leanings are hidden. In contrast, the Thomas Jefferson of Hamilton is introduced with a flamboyant musical number that exudes confidence. As the musical continues, Jefferson is beaten in political theater again and again, eventually avoiding an electoral upset to Aaron Burr by the thinnest of margins. This sharp contrast between the two musicals’ depictions of Thomas Jefferson shows how two story tellers can tell two different versions of the same story. In 1776, Jefferson is depicted as an ideal hero, while Hamilton attempts to make the third president’s flaws obnoxiously noticeable. Again, Hamilton attempts to tell a different story than the myths of national creation that preceded it.
Like Zinn, Hamilton is keenly aware that a historian’s perspective can shape the way a history is told. In the plays final number, characters — like Elizabeth Schuyler and Aaron Burr — live while characters such as Alexander Hamilton die. Indeed, the musical answers the questions “who lives?” and “who dies?”; however, by telling a different story of history, Hamilton makes the viewer think about the final question in more detail. Careful observation will reveal to the viewer that who tells the story is just as important as the story itself — the story itself being represented by the first two questions. Thus, the Hamilton’s finale truly focuses on one thing only: the story.