‘The Story of’ That Night: A Hamilton Experience


Courtesy of Lauren Altermatt

Wildcat A&E Co-Editor Melea Altermatt and her mom, Lauren, at L.A.’s Pantages Theatre in L.A. before viewing Hamilton on Sept. 11.

It all started in Gustavo Trujillo’s eighth-grade history class in room G-35 at Brea Junior High.

Mr. Trujillo explained to us that we were going to learn about American history through the song lyrics from the Broadway musical Hamilton.

We were skeptical. How could a musical teach us facts about history?

We soon discovered the answer to that question.

From Mr. Trujillo’s CD player atop his desk, Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs about a few of the Founding Fathers, America’s fight for freedom, and the love triangles that formed in between, reverberated throughout the room.

The songs “The Battle of Yorktown” and “You’ll Be Back” played, and we hurriedly annotated the printed lyrics Trujillo had provided with historical facts. 

But as I was taking notes on Aaron Burr, King George, and the election of 1800, I was mesmerized by the lyrics and energy of songs that ranged from hip-hop to rap to power ballads. Each day of the unit, I left Mr. Trujillo’s classroom already excited to be right in the same position the next day, dissecting yet another of composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs.

Since that day at BJH when Mr. Trujillo pressed “play” on his CD player, one of my dreams has been to watch Hamilton live. And on Sept. 11, I was able to realize that dream when my mom and I attended a performance at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. 

Being able to experience the musical with my mom — who had also fallen in love with the 2015 musical — was another dream come true. I would live for those moments when I could sit with my mom at the countertop in our kitchen, examining the lyrics of our favorite songs. (One of our favorite stanzas, from “The World Was Wide Enough”: “America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. / You let me make a difference. A place where even orphan immigrants / can leave their fingerprints and rise up.”)

Finally, after six years of memorizing every lyric, from “Alexander Hamilton” to “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” I was, on that Saturday afternoon, sitting side-by-side with my mom at the legendary Pantages Theater.

(Even though I already had every song from the musical memorized, I still spent the entire week prior to the show re-listening to the original soundtrack so that I would really be prepared for this big day.)

Playbill in hand, merch (a pair of shirts) tucked under our seats (bottom level, to the right of the stage), my mom snapped pictures — of the set, of me, of us together — to document this once-in-a-lifetime experience.    

I took a second to admire the stage and the set: plain wood and brick adorned with scaffolding, ropes, and staircases. (There is a purpose behind its simplicity: Just as this musical depicts “the birth of a nation,” the set reflects the continuous work being done to the country throughout Hamilton’s “rags-to-riches” life.)

As the lights dimmed, the voice of “King George” commanded us to take our seats. The show was about to start, and I shared an excited glance with my mom. 

Nicholas Christopher, who plays Aaron Burr, appeared center-stage. His voice — quiet, dominant –silenced the audience. 

Then the singing began.

The first number — “Alexander Hamilton” — made me feel alive, with the thundering orchestra and expressions of passion on the performers faces as they sang:

There would have been nothin’ left to do for someone less astute
He woulda been dead or destitute without a cent of restitution
Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and all the things he can’t afford
Scammin’ for every book he can get his hands on
Plannin’ for the future see him now as he stands on
The bow of a ship headed for the new land
In New York you can be a new man.

Other songs, like “Right Hand Man,” “Non-Stop,” and “Guns and Ships,” were intricate, obviously tirelessly rehearsed, and perfectly executed for the live audience. Highlights were the rapid-fire raps; runs (when a singer starts at a high note and “runs” through the scale very quickly, down to a low note, or vise versa); and the actors Carvens Lissaint (“George Washington”), Jamael Westman (“Alexander Hamilton”), and Joanna A. Jones (“Eliza Hamilton”), who achieved believable and moving chemistry, and who told stories, not just with their voices, but with their faces as well. 

I felt most affected by the song “Satisfied,” a beautiful example of musical storytelling. In the song, Angelica Schuyler (played by Sabrina Sloane) sings from when she fell in love with Hamilton as he fell in love with her sister, Eliza. One of the first things she sings is “I remember that night I just might (Rewind),” referring back to the evening when Hamilton and Eliza were married. Then, with help from the ensemble and the set design team, the actors reenact every dance move in slow motion, making the audience feel like they are “rewinding” time to experience the song “Helpless,” now from the viewpoint of Angelica. (“Helpless” describes the relationship between sisters Angelica and Eliza as Angelica chooses to let Eliza “have” Hamilton, while internally fighting her desire for him.) 

I was also deeply moved by “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” the closing number. The song chronicles Hamilton’s life and describes everything that his wife Eliza Hamilton accomplished before she died in 1854. The core idea of the tune is legacy, and how we will never be able to choose how people remember us, but what we achieve in life is what represents us. Jones (as “Eliza”) sings, 

In their eyes I see you, Alexander
I see you every time
And when my time is up
Have I done enough?
Will they tell your story?

Hamilton — a musical introduced to me, unexpectedly, through a CD player on my eighth-grade history teacher’s desk — brought my mom and I even closer that day. The opportunity to witness the stunning singing and acting of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is something that neither of us will ever forget.