What Does That Gasp at the End of 'Hamilton' Mean?
Now that the stage production is in movie form on Disney+, the gasp debate has been revived.
This post contains spoilers for Hamilton.
I, for one, have never been able to make it to the end of Hamilton -- whether that be on stage, on the soundtrack, or in the Disney+ movie -- without sobbing. In the final moments of the musical, Eliza Hamilton, née Schuyler, originally portrayed by Phillipa Soo, takes over the narration describing how she outlived Alexander by 50 years, dedicating her life to both his memory and his causes. When she gets to the orphanage she established, the tears start flowing.
But creator (and star) Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail also close the show on a moment of ambiguity. As the chorus quietly sings "who lives, who dies, who tells your story," Eliza steps forward and gasps, clutching at her heart. The lights come down. Just what Eliza is seeing as she makes that gesture has been the subject of speculation for years now, but there's been renewed intensity around it since Hamilton hit Disney+.
In fact, when Hamilton started streaming last weekend, all kinds of debates started raging online (again) about the immensely popular work: about Eliza's gasp, yes, but also about the musical's political perspective and whether it inappropriately heroizes slave owners like George Washington and minimizes Alexander Hamilton's own complicity which makes him seem far more progressive than he actually was. The fact that the show -- previously accessible only to the lucky few who snagged prohibitively expensive tickets -- is now widely available has opened the floodgates of takes.
But as for that gasp: I always saw it as a theatrical convention. In the last moments, Miranda re-centers Eliza, giving the final moments of a piece about a "great man" to the woman whose story has rarely been told. As she's recounting Alexander's conclusion, she's also describing her own. In that moment, "who lives, who dies, who tells your story" takes on a double meaning. When she gasps, she's experiencing the immensity of what they both accomplished, and is, perhaps more specifically, shocked to find herself in the spotlight. (You can also argue about whether Miranda and Hamilton have actually spent enough time with Eliza outside of the context of her more famous spouse to earn the ending, but that's another fight for another day.)
Miranda has been deliberately coy over the years as to what this moment means. In one 2016 interview with Wired, he explained that the gasp changes based on audience and performer, but that it "traverses time in some way whether that thing she's seeing is Hamilton, whether that thing she's seeing is heaven, whether that thing she's seeing is the world now. I think those are all valid and all fair. I do think she is seeing across a span of time in that moment." Soo has also said there's "transcendence" there, regardless of what exactly she's witnessing, be that God or her husband. "To me, the moment always belongs to all of us in the entire room," she said. "It's a culmination of the entire experience we just had as the audience as the cast as the characters."
On Twitter, following the release of the movie, Miranda has been engaging with the "gasp." In response to one writer's tweet about how Eliza, who earlier declares she is erasing herself from Hamilton's narrative after his affair, "put herself back," Miranda tweeted a cheeky GIF of Bonnie Raitt singing, "let's give them something to talk about." The only theory he has denied is one that argues that he steps out of character as Alexander in the show's last minutes. "It’s a lovely notion...but it breaks down the moment I’m not playing the role...The Gasp is The Gasp is The Gasp. I love all the interpretations."
While the Hamilton movie is a largely successful translation of the stage production to a different medium, the "gasp" does play differently on a screen. In a theater, the exhale feels like a cathartic release for both Eliza and the audience. Both times I saw it on stage, I could feel the room gasp along with her. As depicted through a camera, the gasp feels more pointed, like something to solve, which is why there are so many posts just like this one trying to unpack it. I'd suggest looking at it not quite so literally. Instead, it's a physical representation of astonishment at the weight and magnitude of history.
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