They go through the requisite amount of hey, this doesn’t look like heaven, this looks like a theater!, which takes… more time than you might think, especially since they aren’t all speaking to each other. Hamilton is refusing to acknowledge anything Jefferson says, Jefferson wants to be addressed as Mr. President, and Eliza keeps deliberately stepping on Burr’s foot. Madison is just glad to not be coughing. He breathes in and out. Nudges Jefferson. Smiles.
It’s Angelica who finds the books.
Some time after that, John Laurens finds the first playbill.
And, well, there’s nothing else to do.
Pity them: they can’t even make the obligatory Waiting for Godot reference.
The first time around, they have to do it all script-in-hand. Eliza plays her husband. Being him, singing and rapping his lines, is like learning a new grammar. By the end of Act One, she’s flushed pink. Everyone has been chanting her name—the longer they say “Alexander,” the more it sounds like “Eliza,” as if all of this is for her—and she’s been moving so quickly, her skin burns, as if she will tear through it, step out, take flight.
In Act Two, she moves on Maria Reynolds—played by Burr—with a kind of ruthlessness. She says he’s left her helpless.
He sings, “I didn’t know any better.”
She says she’s ruined.
Here’s the kicker: he agrees. “Yes, yes,” they both sing in tandem.
Lafayette plays Jefferson; Jefferson plays Lafayette. No one can tell the difference. They finally compromise, so that Jefferson plays Lafayette with his hair undone and Lafayette binds his back to play Jefferson. Also Jefferson will stop trying to do Lafayette’s accent, because it makes everyone uncomfortable. They spend hours in the wings practicing “Guns and Ships” and “Washington On Your Side” together.
They all like their doubles because they have all, at one point, been lonely.
(Washington, without wife or family, still is.)
Hercules Mulligan is pretty impressed with himself, having a real-life eventual president lookalike. He and Madison collectively decide they need more on-stage time, and so they bribe—with buttons pulled off their costumes, with favors—whoever is playing them that time to sneak into the backgrounds of scenes.
Peggy impulsively kisses Maria; Maria less impulsively kisses Peggy. It’s awkward in close quarters, but no less awkward than literally everything Alexander Hamilton does, or ever has done. Eliza is at some pains to establish their fingerprints are different, and that Peggy still has a scar on her knee from when they were children.
Peggy plays Alexander and Maria plays John Laurens. Sometimes, at least. It depends what’s on the playbill for that night.
Burr plays Eliza. When he sings that he stops wasting time on tears, that he lives another fifty years and it’s not enough, the lights reflect off sweat and tears on his face.
Hamilton, playing Hamilton, promises not to ever make Burr feel helpless. Burr, either breaking character or playing it superbly, looks doubtful about that.
“Oh, they’re in some shit now,” Jefferson gleefully says. That particular night, he is playing Madison and Madison is playing him: he likes those nights best. He is uncomfortable when the playbill puts him into the chorus, especially when he has to move his own staircase across the stage, strain his muscles, watch the spotlight fall on someone else. Death has made him aware of some irony about his person that he never could discern before. Sometimes, he moves his hand back and forth in front of the light or looks at Lafayette, and he can almost tell something about the meaning of being human. About who is allowed to be. He holds his breath every night waiting for the casting decisions to be read.
“You could have done so much more if you only had time,” Burr sings, and his voice cracks. Eliza, next to him, singing her sister’s part, falters for a moment in her hatred of him, and never entirely recovers it.
The next night, she plays Burr, and moves them all to undignified sobbing.
The king insists on playing himself or not playing at all. He stamps his foot.
Night after night—no one is sure how long—he gets assigned to the chorus. Then Samuel Seabury, whom he plays with relish and tragic ineptitude, because he’s unwilling to be outshouted by that night’s Hamilton (a brash Hercules Mulligan). Then the chorus again.
“My theory is it’s a purgatorial process,” Seabury says to him. “Once we are refined, we will fade away into whatever comes next.”
“I am refined,” the king pouts, twisting his toes into the floorboards. “I have always been refined. They should refine.”
“I think,” Seabury says doubtfully, “they are?”
Samuel Seabury is very kind to the man he politely addresses, still, as “Your Majesty.” But he has been playing the king’s part night after night, and his head aches from the weight of the crown, and he is starting to hear how shallow and empty all the words sound on his tongue. He means it, when he says he will go mad. There has got to be a limit to all this.
He takes King George III’s hand in his and he feels—what?—the strange fragility of flesh. There was never any divine right there after all. And he feels compassion for this man, for not understanding that.
The next night he plays himself, and he yields the stage to Hamilton.
King George plays his own part to perfection. He is petty and madly whimsical. Some strange alertness glitters around him, but perhaps it’s just the lights dancing off the jewels.
Angelica plays Hamilton, and feels ascension. Then she plays Washington, and feels the weight of achievement, the boulders on her back that threaten to weigh her down before she can even get off the ground. She scowls at the lights and tells the next playbill, before she opens it, that if the lesson here is that the cost of power renders power not worth wanting, she will refuse to learn it. She will die not knowing it. She has died not knowing it.
She opens the playbill.
She is playing Thomas Jefferson. Yes to the strut, yes to the flaunt, no to everything else, but they are gonna carve her face into mountainsides, she knows it.
Eliza plays Madison. “Why she even brings the thunder,” she says gleefully to Angelica’s triumph over that night’s Hamilton—a somewhat out-of-his-element Charles Lee—not even noticing she’s flubbed, to some extent, the line.
Angelica doesn’t care. She is the lightning.
After that, she’s never again assigned only to the chorus: she burns too brightly for the background, and the playbills seem to understand that.
Laurens never gets assigned to play Eliza. He knows why: he has always understood her part of the story.
“I was not brought up to believe I deserved any part of your affections,” he said to Hamilton. “So I do not need to be taught sympathy with her—I have it.”
This is in between shows, when they’re all sitting with their feet dangling off the stage, eating the craft services food that intermittently bestows itself upon them like manna: animal crackers, excellent cheeses, sparkling white grape juice, slices of green apple. Eliza is talking with Burr—they have these polite conversations now, where they talk about weather that they can’t see and don’t know for sure exists—and she hears, briefly, and turns her head. The perfect seashell of an ear catching forever the sound of the ocean. What to do with it?
At the next performance, Eliza plays Laurens and Hamilton plays Hamilton. There’s something about having her Alexander at the end of the words she sings to him that makes her reconsider what they mean.
“You’re the closest friend I’ve got,” she says, her forehead against his. And he is, truly. He always has been her dearest friend, and now, for some reason, playing Laurens, she has to watch him walk away. She has to say a toast at his wedding.
She finds Laurens after the show. “You were a really good Washington,” she says a little awkwardly.
Laurens wrinkles his nose. “I can’t ever get him right. It’s like every time, I don’t listen to myself, and every time, I have to get into character and think I’m doing the right thing? What am I supposed to get out of that?”
“You’re supposed to live into Act Two.”
His mouth quirks. “Maybe.”
“This is a strange place,” Eliza says, looking around at the lights, the polished and scratched floorboards, the carton of warm orange juice in Thomas Jefferson’s gesturing hand, her husband trying on the king’s crown. “Every night, we seem to find beauty in the unspeakable, or some truth inside a lie.”
“And we can all sing,” Laurens offers. “I couldn’t, before.”
She smiles. “Yes. And we can all sing. So perhaps—since this place is so strange, and since we are in it—there are things that could happen here that could not happen somewhere else.”
“My husband,” she says. She finds herself holding an animal cracker, an elephant, and bites into it: the taste is sweet and crisp, like honey. “Your Alexander.”
Laurens nods once, twice, three times. His eyes are immense.
Eliza offers him an animal cracker.
“Here. We can share.”
Washington plays John Laurens for six shows straight before he plays himself once more. When he gets to his farewell address and sings that he is unconscious of intentional error, the words stick in his mouth; Lafayette, amiably playing Hamilton (and struggling with lines where he must insist he isn’t Washington’s son), helps him through it by grabbing onto his hand. This, Jefferson points out, is not in the script.
But they hold each other’s hands very often, lately—Jefferson shouldn’t even talk. He’s clingier than ivy.
Later, Washington plays Hamilton, and Hamilton plays Philip, and everyone cries, which is the only thing they’ve all been doing as much as they’ve been holding hands.
Philip thinks it’s all sort of cool, honestly. He doesn’t really know why he’s there, and he cycles through roles at random and learns very little from them. No one is close to his age, even though some of them really should be. But Hercules Mulligan—in loco parentis—plays cards with him in-between shows, his mother and father both cry into his neck, and Lafayette teaches him how to rap in French.
George Eacker mends fences with him pretty early on—“I guess I’m sorry I called your dad a scoundrel and then shot you? You’re the only person here I actually know, so…”—and then spends the rest of the time giving a wide, wide berth to Philip’s parents. Sometimes they eat peanuts together in the box seats when they aren’t on stage.
“Piss off,” Eacker says, when Philip elbows him to point something out. “I’m watching this show now.” This is early on, and his smile is tentative and unsure. They hear this line every night.
Philip grins at him. Forgiving your murderer is another part of being a Hamilton with pride. He has got this down.
Jefferson plays Hamilton with obnoxious vigor—
“No,” Burr says, “vigorous obnoxiousness.” He is sitting on Jefferson’s staircase with one of the prop pistols in his lap. Hamilton is sitting several steps above him. If you asked him, he would say he’s thinking deep thoughts about the problems affecting them all: democracy, judgment, forgiveness, why Burr’s hair hasn’t grown out even though they don’t have any razors. The last one is closest to being true.
“It brought home to me, somewhat,” Hamilton says, “that I may not always have been the easiest person—”
“No,” Burr says, and this time his tone is sharp. It’s louder than the shot he fired just an hour ago. “Don’t apologize to me, Alexander.” He folds his hands together. His fingers are shaking.
“My first friend,” Hamilton says. He doesn’t complete the line. He stands, moves down, and shares Burr’s step. He is willing to sit there for as long as it takes the trembling to stop. Playing Burr, Eliza, and Washington, Alexander has acquired patience.
This playbill is different:
HAMILTON: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL
“Yo, what the eff is this?”
“Just wait,” King George III says, miffed, “now we’ll be down to nothing but animal crackers and oral sex.”
“No one make eye contact with him,” Burr says. “Just—continue to look at the paper.”
It’s the most straightforward set of casting decisions they’ve seen yet: everyone will be playing themselves. The only oddity is that they’re all cross-listed with the ensemble, which means that in their downtime, instead of chilling off to the side with, well, animal crackers and whatever, they will have to stay on-stage. Also, the list of musical numbers is missing, which is strange, but certainly not a problem: they all know all the parts backwards and forwards by now. Jefferson has had “My Shot” stuck in his head so many times that when someone finds him beating his forehead against the wall, they just nod in wry understanding and leave him alone.
“Okay,” Alexander Hamilton says, climbing up on the table.
“Oh no,” Laurens says, “don’t get into character yet.”
Hamilton righteously ignores him. “We may not know what will happen after tonight—”
“I just said,” George whines, eating animal crackers off his fingers.
The music cues up out of nowhere.
“GREAT SHOW, EVERYBODY!” Hamilton yelps, and jumps down off the table.
That night, they are all brilliant, effervescent, bewitched. It isn’t lighting or posture that makes Philip so young in “Take a Break,” it’s something else; Hamilton feels it too, feels the strength and flying-out-of-his-body whirlwind scariness of once again being nineteen, before feels it once again slip away. They are gems in some tumbling kaleidoscope. Briefly consigned to the chorus, they twirl past each other, slip their hands into each others’, hold on, let go. Hold on again. Odd mistakes that aren’t mistakes make their way into the production—Hamilton kisses Laurens, Jefferson cries at the end of “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the king actually sounds sincere, George Eacker brings Eliza a bouquet made out of past playbills.
Then, the way they do every night, they find their way to the duel. The third duel.
(“The next person to sing ‘most disputes die and no one shoots’ is getting punched in the face,” Hamilton says one day, very loudly, to no one in particular.)
Half Burr’s lines in “The World Was Wide Enough” are deformed by the way his mouth keeps twisting; his breath comes out in ragged pants.
Then comes the moment. “Wait!” he calls to himself, to his past self, across the years, across the realities, even, because who knows where they are, who knows what this is?
But nonetheless, as he always does, as he always must, he pulls the trigger. And—
The prop gun is jammed.
The ensemble lapses into confused silence. This has never happened before. Their costumes have never been torn, their hair has never grown, variety has never shifted their infinite custom. And night after night, this has closed their play.
But now there is nothing.
Hamilton looks at the pistol in Burr’s hand, which is stubbornly refusing to uncoil its plume of suggestive smoke, or uncork its sound, and says, awkwardly, “Well, it’s good that you waited. I was—I was aiming at the sky.”
“Yes,” Burr says. “I can see that now,” but he’s lying, he can’t see anything at the moment. His eyes are blurred: everything is a flood of disordered lights. The music—the food of love—is playing on and on from their invisible orchestra, but it’s playing a medley, and he cannot pull the songs apart. He thinks about offering to let Hamilton shoot him, but Hamilton has already dropped his weapon and is crossing the stage to him. The spotlight trails after him, as obedient as a puppy, and Burr, for the first time, does not mind that, does not mind that fame and glory, even here, seem to be Hamilton’s part.
What he sees is Hamilton bringing the light to him.
“What do we do now?” Burr whispers.
“I don’t know,” Hamilton says, and just like that, the house lights are starting to rise. “I guess we ad-lib.”