Catherine's Learning Journal

Confessions and lessons from a Hamilton obsession

Hamilton CD and book

I confess to a minor (?) and highly improbable obsession with the blockbuster musical Hamilton. I don’t typically enjoy freestyle/rap music, so it’s not an obvious choice for me. (My lame attempt at a line of freestyle in the title of this post is the one and only of my lifetime.) But given that Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has won a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”), a Grammy, and multiple Tony Awards, it seemed that it deserved a closer listen even if I was a bit late to the game.

I bought the CD last Tuesday and have played it through multiple times (yes, I still buy CDs; I won’t bore you with my explanations). I received Hamilton: The Revolution in the mail on Friday and read it straight through in one sitting (a.k.a. the Hamiltome, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, containing libretto and background stories).

Let me just testify: every one of those awards is absolutely well-deserved, the genius award among the most appropriate. Hamilton is inventive, high-energy, magical music that covers deep themes of soaring ambition, conflicting perspectives, opposing temperaments, political intrigue, enduring legacy, tragic love, and untimely death. Just. Wow.

A big part of my intense fascination has been trying to discern the creative energy behind it. How did one man dream up such a wild telling of a 200-year-old story about a guy who has more often been seen as the answer to a trivia question?

You see, I work in a creative field, and so I have long history of interest in the subject of creativity (easily confirmed by perusal of my bookshelves). I am very intent on grasping some of the secrets of creative work, especially since I do quite a bit of coaching and consulting around projects that need an injection of innovation to meet the demands of a rapidly changing environment.

So this admittedly long post is my attempt to describe what I’ve gleaned from binge-watching Lin-Manuel Miranda interviews and reading dozens of stories about the creation of Hamilton along with reading and re-reading the Hamiltome. (Grab a cup of coffee first.)

The 10 Creativity Commandments

# 1: Work in a field that you LOVE.
Lin talks about the fact that his work requires the he be in love with the story he is trying to create – it’s the only way to sustain the years of effort it takes to bring it to the stage. He adds that you have to be honest with yourself about what interests you so that you can see it through, and sometimes you need another job to pay the rent. If you are lucky enough or persistent enough to find those things you are passionate about, your natural creativity will come through.

# 2: Make time and space to think.
Lin has said that it’s “No accident that the best idea I ever had in my life (Maybe the best one I’ll ever have) happened on vacation. With a second to breathe“ (@Lin_Manuel, June 16, 2016). His creative process also frequently involves long walks, where he’ll capture a musical loop to play through his iPod and take his dog out to the park to give himself time to play around with ideas. Lin describes how things will come to him in one rush after it’s been mulling in the back of his mind for a long time. Parts of Hamilton were written during breaks when he took time away from the distractions of New York as well as during his commute from here to there on the subways of the city. One of the lessons of the show is that Hamilton makes some of his worst decisions when he is tired. All minds need regular quiet space and “a second to breathe” to be at their best.

# 3: Gather as much inspiration as you can.
While the storyline is primarily drawn from Ron Chernow’s biography, Hamilton reflects a huge array of musical and cultural references as well. If you look at Lin’s notes on the Hamilton libretto, you can see how he drew from a range of sources: musical theater cannon, hip hop catalog, history books, Google search, chance conversations, random songs on iPod shuffle, and more. Lin has said “To seek to be inspired is a lovely way to live.” It’s also apparently important to be prepared to write snatches of ideas as they come to you – Lin uses both digital and paper recording devices so he can capture seeds that he can nurture when the muse shows up. Some of the elements needed to create Hamilton were researched when the need arose, but many concepts and ideas were already present in Lin’s mind – a rich store of inspiration from which to draw. Creative people are not creative in a vacuum; they are using everything around them as inspiration.

# 4: Find unusual connections.
Relatively few people would have the background to immediately perceive the connection between Hamilton’s life and the foundations of hip-hop – Lin says that Hamilton’s story is “part and parcel with the hip-hop narrative: writing your way out of your circumstances, writing the future you want to see for yourself.” Lin borrowed ideas from the musical soundtrack of his youth and twisted them just a bit to meet his own storytelling needs. According to director Tommy Kail, Hamilton is “a story about America then, told by America now” – a contrast that allows modern audiences to make connections they never noticed in history class. Hamilton and Burr’s lives were thick with unusual connections, and Lin played those up to devastating effect in the musical. (They we both orphans, had their first child at the same time, were characterized by their ambition, and more.)  The show’s double casting makes subtle connections: Laurens and Phillip both special to Hamilton and died young; Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson had a love of France in common. Unusual connections are the spark of creativity and innovation, so it is important to notice and play with them.

# 5: Practice being creative.
Freestyling requires its artists to improvise rap on the spot, often incorporating random words or ideas fed to them by the audience. As a member of Freestyle Love Supreme, and in guest appearances on talk shows and elsewhere, Lin practices this art. As with any endeavor, practice tones muscles, and it no doubt gives Lin the capacity to compose 48 songs that explain the birth of our nation and dramatize the events of Alexander Hamilton’s entire life. Lin’s creative practice extended to the period allotted to developing the show – being unafraid to consider and try out different options to see what worked. It is hard to demand creativity of yourself on the spot so you need to find strategies to keep creative energies flowing.

# 6: Collaborate.
Earlier, I asked how one man could dream this up. But the truth is, Hamilton – and indeed any theater production – is very much a collaborative effort. While Lin is Hamilton’s lyricist, composer, and book writer, the show’s development also required the deep involvement of many talented people: a director, an arranger, a set designer, a costume designer, a choreographer, a producer, and an artistic director as well as all the actors who participated in “workshopping” the piece along the way. The trick to collaboration is to make sure the “best idea wins.” That takes a great deal of trust, openness, and generosity – and no small bit of good judgement to winnow down a million ideas to the one. The value of collaboration is demonstrated in the story of our hero as well – Hamilton was too often convinced he was the “smartest in the room” and was unwilling to even hear out opposing views, no less work on compromises. That got him in trouble more than once. The lone genius is generally a myth; there is great power in collaboration.

# 7: Check in with your audience.
I have been surprised to learn how often a show is played out for a live audience as it is being developed. On the way to Broadway, Lin had the unusual opportunity to showcase Hamilton’s opening song at the White House, before any other songs were even written (the video went viral). Through workshops, retreats, and off-Broadway performances, Lin and his team regularly sought feedback. Whether the audience was a room of knowledgeable theater people or was made up of the typical folks who would come to see the show, noticing their reactions was critical to getting it right. Each opportunity to test run teaches you something about what’s right and what’s needed, and it gives you confidence to move forward.

# 8: Be willing to toss out your favorite ideas.
When Lin was crafting the song that showcases Eliza falling in love with Hamilton, he decided to first share it with his wife, whose reaction was underwhelming. In the libretto notes, Lin says that his wife Vanessa told him that it didn’t “feel like the final thing” – so Lin went back to work (stewing a bit) and came up with an even better approach for that moment in the show (“Helpless”). When previews demonstrated that they would need to shorten the show, one of the first pieces that Lin cut was one of Hamilton’s moments (“The Adams Administration” – you know Lin really liked those cut lyrics because he printed them in the libretto). It’s easy to get attached to ideas, but the bottom line is ensuring that every one of them is in service of your goal.

# 9: Take advantage of the strengths of those who will be executing the vision.
The libretto contains notations about lyrics and musical lines added because of the particular talents of the cast – rapid rapping for Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson), a signature line from Anthony Ramos (Laurens), a perfect musical interval for Chris Jackson (Washington). The libretto also shares the inside story that that director Tommy Kail encouraged the actors to use their instincts to try ideas during pre-Broadway rehearsals – urging them to make “new discoveries, new mistakes” in order to find the right chemistry for each scene. A creative endeavor is greatly enhanced when you can carefully select the people who will deliver the vision, and rely on them to fine-tune the execution.

# 10: Cultivate joy and mindfulness.
“Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” Lin gave that line first to Eliza Hamilton, and he says that it’s something he tells himself every day. I am intrigued by how Lin draws energy from both the urgency of what is in front of him now and the consciousness of limited time on earth. Lin himself comes across as a man who lives life joyfully – on Twitter, in conversation, through Ham4Ham. In Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s desperate need to “not throw away my shot” and Aaron Burr’s long term view to “wait for it” are in many ways their undoing. Lin believes that we all embody a little of both Hamilton and Burr – desire to have impact in this world and careful watchfulness for those perfect moments. But in all, his advice is to “sink your teeth into this life, and don’t let go.” I have to think that the combination of joyful living and intense attention on the moment is part of the secret sauce of remarkable creativity.

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