2016 has proven conclusively, once again, that art can change the world. The most obvious evidence? Hamilton, the Broadway musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant who went on to become one of the most important founding fathers of the United States.
Even in the midst of all the buzz, Hamilton is not overhyped — it really is that good!
But beyond the show itself, there is so much about the Hamilton saga to appreciate and admire, most of all that it was one guy, Lin-Manuel Miranda (LMM), who…
- came up with the idea,
- wrote all of it!,
- starred in the show, and
- engages meaningfully with his fans on a daily, if not minute-ly basis
And here’s one more awesome thing:
In the spring of 2012, I took a class in law school called Creation of the Constitution, in which we read the transcripts from the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Our professor, a prolific legal scholar, lamented the fact that Alexander Hamilton, one of our nation’s greatest founding fathers would soon be taken off the $10 bill. “They should remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 instead!” he said.
Who — who? — could have predicted that a Broadway musical, of all things, would change our country’s currency plans and keep Hamilton on the $10?
That, my friends, is art having a highly tangible, demonstrable impact on the world.
However, art’s most powerful impact is intangible and invisible — the impression it leaves on the people who consume it.
Can you think of a work of art or a piece of music that fundamentally changed your life?
As artists, we know that the music we hear, the performances we witness, the words we read, have the potential to leave an imprint on us, like a stamp.
Art can change the way we see the world. It can implant images or ideas we devote ourselves to — or wish we could forget (hi, Game of Thrones).
Most of all, art can change the way we view our own personal potential by witnessing the impact of others.
And this is what I believe is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s biggest gift to the world: He has changed what is possible for creators by showing a new way forward.
How can you follow LMM’s lead in your own musical career? Here are the top five things music entrepreneurs (and all creators) can learn from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton.
1. Defy Definition & Self-Limitation
There is no question that Lin-Manuel Miranda is some kind of crazy genius. (And the MacArthur Foundation agrees.) Who else writes AND performs in their own show on Broadway?
The bigger question is, who says you can’t?
How often are we limited by our own definitions of what we can and can’t do? How often do we rely on the opinions of others when it comes to what we are good at?
I don’t know if LMM has experienced self-doubt, fear, or resistance but since he’s a human, I’d wager that he has. Rejection and criticism from others? Very likely.
What would you do if you gave yourself permission to really listen to yourself and your ideas? If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you attempt? Or, looking at it differently, even if you knew you would fail, what would you attempt?
I believe that LMM’s success should be an inspiration to creators to go bigger and bolder as you shape your artistic vision.
2. Don’t Withhold Your Unique Gifts
We often have conversations with artists about the challenge of finding their uniqueness.
When we work with emerging and seasoned performers, we encourage them to use project development (as opposed to repertoire/program development) as a strategy for highlighting what sets them apart.
How can you create something bigger than yourself and your repertoire? And how can your project be driven by your passion and curiosity?
Both Hamilton and LMM’s previous show, In the Heights, are clearly driven by his passions, his interests, and his musical tastes.
Did millions of Americans know they needed to see a hip-hop musical about the founding fathers? No.
But, LMM’s unique vision for the show is largely expressed through a hip-hop vernacular perfectly suited to Alexander Hamilton’s style and life events, which proves to be magical.
Through his eyes, a musical, staged adaptation of Hamilton’s life makes perfect sense to others too. His skill and ingenuity, bolstered by a supportive team of collaborators and producers, made this show something that everyone is craving to see.
Don’t be afraid to follow your artistic vision (even if it feels outlandish)
Broadway is a commercial medium. While (we assume that) creators and performers for Broadway care about making good art, they are also trying to turn a profit. This explains why so much of Broadway is either Disney-driven, an adaptation of a movie (Rocky the Musical, anyone?), or featuring a big star — all concepts that are expected to sell well.
Hamilton doesn’t fit into any of those categories. It was entirely driven by the curiosity and passion of one man.
Your uniqueness matters, not just for your own fulfillment, but because art is not inevitable. It was not inevitable that in 2016, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Hercules Mulligan, and the Schuyler Sisters would capture hearts around the world. Just think about how much poorer the cultural landscape would be if Hamilton had not been written.
What great ideas and concepts are you withholding? What moments of inspiration are you writing off as too crazy? What art do you want the world to experience? It’s not going to happen without you!
3. Geek Out — Then Help Audiences GET IT
Hamilton is a work of incredible detail and nuance, something classically-trained musicians should appreciate. Just check out the lyric annotations on genius.com to get a taste.
In the concert music world, there seems to be a dichotomy between good art and the stuff that audiences like. Artists often feel frustrated that what is popular is not actually good art.
Hamilton may or may not be to your taste, but one can’t deny that it is immensely well-crafted and artistic to the core.
Hold yourself to a strong, artistic vision
LMM has an undeniable passion for hip-hop and rap, which are known for complex, saturated lyrics. Hamilton has more words than any other musical ever.
This both serves to underscore the character of Alexander Hamilton, a prolific writer, as well as the fact that the show has a lot of history to cover. The show explores serious (i.e. boring?) issues, such as Hamilton and Jefferson’s disagreement over a new financial system for the country, and puts them into dramatic, suspenseful contexts.
Each character’s motivation is painted clearly, and each word is meaningful. The show is layered and motivic, much more so than most musicals, with numerous musical and lyrical themes repeating and building, creating internal coherence and mirroring.
The songs convey information (tons of it) as well as emotional depth and psychology, often at the same time. Take a listen to Satisfied or the Room Where it Happens. Form and substance intertwine in service of portraying each of the characters with a unique voice.
To sum it up, this was a show crafted over many years with an incredible amount of love and care.
Keep your audience in mind so that they love it as much as you do
While LMM and his team went deep into the rabbit hole of their process to create a show to suit their tastes, it has succeeded because they had an eye towards the audience.
They wanted to make it easy for people to fall in love with this show. And they nurtured fans’ enthusiasm by opening the doors, sharing about the process, and creating a feeling of community between creators/performers and audience.
At the same time, the show wasn’t formulated to pander to an audience. It requires the audience to pay attention, and challenges them to appreciate detail and nuance. It pushes the audience to engage with big ideas about history and identity. It does so with love, warmth, and open arms for the audience.
Many concert artists speak of a desire to “challenge the audience” with new music. To a less sophisticated audience member, that often means feeling confused, disengaged, and bored in a concert that has no roadmap. In my view, musicians should help audiences “get it” — invite them into the experience so they can feel engaged.
Go deep into the music, the subjects, the art that gets you excited — even if you worry that you might be the only one who cares about it. But then, your job is to be the translator, to help others take on your curiosity. Share about the process, your emotional connection to the work, and your inspiration. Let your passion ignite you and the work. It’s contagious!
4. Participate in the Celebration
Social media lends itself to powerful fan reactions. It begs the question of how the creator should react, participate, and nurture the energy.
At every turn, LMM and the Hamilton team encourage and appreciate fans’ excitement for the show. They’ve innovated to respond to fan excitement, specifically with the #Ham4Ham show, which is revolutionary in and of itself.
These mini-performances are delivered weekly as a thank-you to the thousands of people who enter the lottery to win a precious $10 front-row ticket to the show. Ham4Ham is remarkable contribution of love and time from the very busy Hamilton creators and company.
Natalie Fisher put it best in her very touching contribution in Hypable’s tribute to Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda:
“You’re everything a fan could ever want from a creator — so compassionate, so generous with your time, so earnest with your emotions, and you understand fan culture better than 95% of other creators out there — you share your own experiences of what it is to be overwhelmed and obsessed and immersed. It really shouldn’t be headline news that a creator actually cares about their own work — they should care about it more than anyone, surely! — but there’s often an odd distance present when writers discuss their work, a sense of removal, jadedness or even a bit of scorn or laughter towards fans who take it so seriously.
A divide between those who create, and those who are fans, as if one could not bleed into the other. Approaching your writing as a workaholic or a perfectionist is one thing. Approaching it as a fan is another, and that’s rarer than it should be. We all know that you are unashamedly fannish, that you can’t help it, and the mere fact that you admit to crying when researching or writing your own characters is manna to all of us who have ever felt a little crazy for caring so much about stories or songs. …
Most importantly, you encourage us, you value us and you love us. Your work may be raising the bar, but you’re gleefully challenging others to jump over it with you. Some geniuses have the unfortunate issue of shining so bright that they blind others. Your light shines on us and illuminates us too, instead of blotting us out. Your intellect is the type that doesn’t intimidate. It invites us in, makes us feel comfortable and we feel smarter and more inspired for being a part of your conversation. You seem to see the potential in every single person you engage with, you do not underestimate what any human being has to offer, and it isn’t just lip service – you put it into practice constantly.”
5. Step into Joy
I was very fortunate to see Hamilton recently, in LMM’s last week of performing the title role. I wanted to see him in the role because he truly is something of a legend, a national treasure of our time.
He was wonderful, totally wonderful. There is something unreal about seeing a show’s creator in the title role (because that usually never happens!). Still, separate from that, LMM brings something very special as a performer.
What stood out most about his performance was an underlying vibration of joy.
Granted, he has a lot to be happy about right now. But as an audience member, experiencing a performer’s embodiment of a character with commitment and focus, while also exuding pure joy at being able to do this, to have this moment and appreciate everything wonderful about it, created a parallel feeling of joy in me. Joy for him, for this show, for everyone involved in it, for the success and impact it has had, and for myself too — for the honor of getting to experience it.
The moment reminded me of a blog written for our site several years ago by soprano Lindsay Feldmeth, about what it means to experience the joy of performing.
How can you connect with gratitude and joy in your artistry more regularly? How can you bring that quality to your performances?
As an audience member, a performer’s experience of joy is infectious and strengthens the connection.
What Do You Want to Be Known For?
We live in a deeply troubled world, as the news reminds us every day. And, as artists, we face considerable challenges, personally and professionally.
But the success of Hamilton reaffirms something very important: the possibility of art to defy convention, expectation, and even definitions of success. As the Schuyler Sisters sing, “look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda and company for showing us what is possible. Everyone, let’s make the most of it. Think about the mark you want to make on this world. What message do you want to shout from the rooftops? Don’t wait to make it heard.