I have become obsessed with Lin-Manuel Miranda and his blockbuster hit, Hamilton, which is up for 16 Tony awards this Sunday. It’s not the same kind of obsession as, say, my two daughters have for the show – wherein they have memorized the songs, chosen favorite characters to align with, and debated plot points. I am obsessed with the creative process that brought the whole thing into being.
I suppose this makes sense, since what I do in my work as a book coach is to enter into other people’s creative process, where I traipse around with them in the muck and in the magic. I’m fascinated by how things get made, by why one idea hits one person in a particular way, and by what drives them spend years of their life trying to bring their vision to life.
I mean, why? Why transform a massive, scholarly biography of a Founding Father into the language of hip-hop? Why turn it into a Broadway show? Why spend a year trying to get the lyrics of a particular song just right? Why that story? Why that format? Why, why, why?
(If you don’t know much about this show, start by reading this HuffPo round up about it...)
I have recently dropped everything to try to get at this question of why. I’ve listened to the soundtrack, watched YouTube videos and interviews, read articles and song lyrics, snatched up the book Hamilton: A Revolution, which is the story of the making of the show, as well as the Ron Chernow biography, Alexander Hamilton, which Miranda famously took on vacation to Mexico and thus became inspired.(I haven’t read that one yet; it’s 832 pages…)
But Hamilton: A Revolution had the kind of answers I needed – the kind we don’t normally get. It is written by Jeremy McCarter, a writer, critic and theater producer who had a front row seat as Hamilton unfolded, and who is a uniquely gifted storyteller himself. The book is a gorgeous physical object – beautiful paper with torn edges, photographs, and a thick, old fashioned binding. McCarter takes the reader into the heart of Mirabnda’s creative undertaking, shining a bright light on his achievement. It features Miranda’s song lyrics, which he annotates in a way that lets you feel like you are there at the keyboard as he is composing. If you care at all about art, or music, or creativity, or genius, or America, you have to get this book. You won’t be able to put it down.
Hamilton the show is literally a story about storytelling. The finale is a song entitled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” There is a lyric that recurs throughout the show – “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” The main character, Hamilton, is a gifted writer who saves himself, and destroys himself, with his words. There are so many powerful lessons for writers in the show, and in the book about the show, that I started a list. I am up to 43. I hope to share them all with you soon
But back to the moment of inception – the question of why anyone would undertake this kind of work. In Fast Company magazine’s cover story on Miranda Rachel Syme writes about what happened on that fateful Mexican vacation: “The idea his him like a sickness: a way to relate Alexander Hamilton’s life to a modern audience.”
On the MacArthur Foundation page – Miranda received the so-called Genius grant from them – he puts it this way: “I fall in love for a living.”
Falling in love, being hit with a sickness. It’s the notion that we can’t help it.
We are creative beings, born to make things, born to put two crazy ideas together to make something new.
It is temping to think that Lin-Manuel Miranda is operating on a different plane than the rest of us, that he is touched with a particular kind of genius the rest of us can only dream about. He is Mozart. He is Einstein. I mean – his music and his words alone are a staggering achievement. And then you learn that while he is performing in his show 8 times a week on Broadway, he is also working on a Disney movie and a record with famous hip hop stars covering his songs and he has made 116 #Ham4Ham vidoes – spontaneous little video gifts for his fans -- and he tweets and he seems to have 72 hours in his day where we have only 24.
It is tempting to think, “Well that’s not me. I can’t do that. I’m no genius. I’m just me.”
But on the website Genius, where lyrics are annotated, Miranda cuts right to the chase of this fallacy.
“And then everyone goes, ‘Oh, my God, he’s a genius! Hamilton’s a genius!’ They conflate the two. I’m not a fucking genius. I work my ass off. Hamilton could have written what I wrote in about three weeks. That’s genius. It took me a very long time to wrestle this onto the stage, to even be able to understand the worldviews of the characters that inhabit my show, and then be able to distill that.”
And you realize that yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda has done something extraordinary. He had ignited the world. But what he did we can all do, too: we can let the idea hit us. We can let ourselves fall in love. We can work our ass off to bring our creations to life.