Moving on from the English Civil War, we’re now studying the American Revolution – through the eyes of Alexander Hamilton and Company, seen in Lin Manuel Miranda’s music Hamilton. We all chose a song to present its themes, historical context and other components to the class, and I, a little impulsively, chose the song Helpless to study.
I was not disappointed.
This is the 10th song of the musical, meant as a trilogy of sorts with The Winter Ball and Satisfied. Set in 1778 at a ball given by Philip Schuyler, Eliza and Angelica meet Alexander Hamilton. Eliza immediately falls in love with him, and the emotions are reciprocated by Hamilton. As we learn in Satisfied, Angelica also is attracted to Hamilton. The song covers the time span of around a month, from the meeting of Eliza and Hamilton, to exchanging letters, Hamilton obtaining approval from Eliza’s father (Philip Schuyler), and the wedding day.
We meet Eliza for the first time in the musical (she does speak in The Schuyler Sisters, but Angelica is the main role in that song), and she expresses intense love for Hamilton. Something that should not be overlooked is her language and word choice: it’s mostly negative and pessimistic in a fairly upbeat and happy song. Phrases “I’m drowning”, “I’m down for the count”, and “helpless” are all thrown around regularly, and Eliza seems to be a long way away from the end of the musical, where she takes over as the main preserver of Hamilton’s Legacy.
As for the other main character in Helpless, Hamilton, we see him in love. His way with words are put into the spotlight again (just like pretty much every other song he sings in), telling Eliza that “If it takes fighting a war for us to meet, it will have been worth it” as soon as he meets her. It also seems like he truly loves her: near the end of the song, he tells her about his upbringing, something he’s secretive about throughout the story.
Having a fresh start
In the penultimate line of the song, the phrase “In New York you can be a new man” is sung three times, evoking the opening track, Alexander Hamilton. Here, Hamilton is celebrating the fact that he was given a chance to start anew with his marriage, and to forget his childhood in St. Croix.
Forging your own identity
A main theme in Alexander Hamilton is about creating your own identity. Helpless puts a spin on that, where Eliza (as mentioned above) use several phrases with negative connotations despite the mood of the piece. She doesn’t seem to be too confident about standing up for herself and her beliefs, and doesn’t realize she really will be “Helpless” during (spoiler) Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds.
POV matters throughout the play
The narrator of the songs constantly switches during Hamilton, resulting in varying opinions, an example being the Burr/Hamilton rivalry. In Satisfied, the following song, we learn that Angelica also loves Hamilton. However, since Helpless is told through Eliza’s perspective, we think that Angelica’s just introducing Hamilton to Eliza.
Connections to Historical Elements
I found difficulty finding content areas that Helpless included, but one main big idea that figured prominently was “Disparities in Power”. Since being rich was incredibly interlocked with social status in the 18th century, a sizeable factor playing into Hamilton and Eliza’s relationship could be that Hamilton needs to marry into a rich family to elevate his social ranking. Also, when he’s speaking with Philip Schuyler, Eliza is incredibly nervous, possible because Hamilton is too poor and his status is too low for the likes of the Schuyler family.
Another disparity in power is between men and women during the time of Hamilton. Even though it’s not specific to Hamilton and Eliza, women who consented to marry (hence to “I do’s” by Eliza to open Helpless) in the 1700’s often were also agreeing to lose most of their rights, and basically becoming property of their husbands.
Finally, a small footnote that doesn’t have much to do with the big idea is about the courtship process in the 18th century. Back then, it would be considered impolite for a single woman to speak to a man without having been introduced first by someone else. This is why Eliza gets nervous when Angelica directly walks up to Hamilton. However, she introduces him to Eliza, fulfilling her task as the liaison between the pair.
Something I found intriguing during reading through the lyrics was the veiled foreshadowing of Hamilton’s affair during Helpless. He tells Eliza “We’ll figure it out” – possibly referring to how the couple will have to figure out how to move on with their lives after scandal is made public. Another example: “Angelica tried to take a bite of me/No stress, my love for you is never in doubt”. As soon as he suggests his flirtatious nature, Hamilton reassures Eliza that he will always love her, something that comes into question during the affair. Finally, the most obvious occurrence of foreshadowing is by Philip Schuyler. Eliza recounts when he “shakes your [Hamilton’s] hand and says/‘Be true’”. Of course, Hamilton will not be true to Eliza, and Philip’s warning is unheard.
With Helpless, we are introduced to a subplot of the musical (Hamilton’s love life) that doesn’t come into focus until The Reynolds Pamphlet. So with everything I said before in mind, maybe the song will make a little more sense after listening to it again.