By the time I saw Hamilton, a little more than four years ago this week, I had committed the cast recording to memory—every note, every inflection, every pause—to the extent that seeing it was like experiencing three hours of déjà vu. But there was one moment that caught me utterly by surprise, one that the millions of people who know Hamilton only as an album and not as a stage performance will be able to experience for the first time when the filmed version of the show arrives on Disney+ on Friday.
Watching the Hamilton movie, which was directed by the stage production’s Thomas Kail and filmed with the original Broadway cast in situ at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, you might catch a few pieces of the show that didn’t end up on the album. Most famously, there’s the “surprise scene” in which Alexander Hamilton learns of John Laurens’ death, which features the longest exchange of spoken dialogue in the through-sung musical, and there are some brief interstitial cues that help usher Jonathan Groff’s King George on and off the stage. But the most significant moment that’s only in the stage version comes all the way at the end—in fact, it’s the very last thing you see, the moment when Eliza Hamilton lets out her dying gasp and goes to join her husband on the other side.
Hamilton closes with “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” which provides an answer to the apparently rhetorical question that’s been threaded through the show. Hamilton is dead, killed in a duel by his rival Aaron Burr, and he’s survived by his wife, Eliza, who spends the 50 years after his death guarding his legacy. Up until that point, Burr has served as the musical’s narrator, an awestruck chronicler of his bitter frenemy’s inexplicable success. (Kail’s movie largely keeps the camera on the audience’s side of the proscenium, but it gets close enough that you can see the pained grimace on Leslie Odom Jr.’s face as he recounts how Hamilton has once again managed to come out on top.) But in the finale, Eliza takes the baton from him and tells not only her late husband’s story but her own.
Throughout the show, Eliza is the character most concerned with Alexander’s legacy, and questioning whether she even has a place in it. She begs him to “let me be a part of the narrative, in the story you will write one day”—and, after he violates her trust by having an affair and disgraces her by making it public, decides that she’s taking herself out of the story altogether, striking back by destroying the thing she knows he values most: his words. They reconcile after their son Philip is killed in a duel, but it’s only after Alexander’s death that Eliza puts herself back into the narrative, not as a passive subject hoping for a brief mention, but as its author.
It’s a huge shift, and one that Hamilton, for all its scope, is barely equipped to handle. The go-girl feminism of “The Schuyler Sisters” aside (work!), it’s a show in which women are muses and love interests, and occasionally just ballast. The incandescent luminosity of Phillipa Soo’s performance notwithstanding, Eliza’s role boils down to a variation on what Emma Thompson memorably summarized as “Please don’t go and do that brave thing.” “Who Lives, Who Dies” doesn’t remedy that problem, but it does acknowledge it, and one way to read the show’s final moment, when Soo steps to the lip of the stage, lifts her eyes, and lets out an astonished gasp, is as a sundering of the fourth wall, a reminder that there is a world outside the play, and more stories to be told. (To those who feel it’s already past time for history to center figures like Eliza, Hamilton echoes George Washington’s answer to the question of whether the Black soldiers who fought to free the U.S. should be emancipated themselves: Not. Yet.)
Interpreting that final gesture became something of an obsession for Hamilton fans who’d actually seen the show. In interviews, Soo kept its meaning open, saying only that it had something to do with “transcendence.” For me, it felt like a way of definitively shifting the focus from story to storyteller, because the show survives Hamilton’s death, but it ends the instant that Eliza dies; she ascends into the light, and the audience plunges into darkness. In the movie, with the proximity that only a combination of deep pockets and good timing could previously have afforded, you can see the way Soo lifts her eyes upward every time she sings to her husband’s memory, so that when she gasps and, in an exquisite close-up, seems to glimpse something in the light, there’s little question who it is she’s seeing. Alexander promised to be waiting on the other side, and as she crosses over, you can tell that he was true to his word.
There’s so much packed into that instant, not least the short, sharp shock of it, a sudden cry that pierces the company’s final note, like the last blip before a heart monitor flatlines—and it’s all the more surprising if you’re expecting the show to end as the album does, with the chorus gently fading out in unison. Telling his story has been Eliza’s way of keeping Hamilton alive— not just his memory but the ideals for which he stood, even when he failed to embody them. In taking the pen from his jealous rival and writing Hamilton’s history as an act of love—the kind of love where you see your subject’s faults for what they are—she becomes a proxy for Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, offering a new vision of U.S. history to people who have long been denied their rightful place in it, and claiming his own place in history as well. Eliza loves Hamilton the way Miranda loves America, by embracing its best and fighting to keep it from being overtaken by its worst, leveraging its past as a tool to brighten its future. When she finally sees what she’s wrought, it’s almost more than her mind can bear. But just before the lights go dark, her expression passes through confusion and fear to something that looks most like joy.
For more of Slate’s Hamilton coverage, listen to a spoiler-filled discussion of the movie.