5 Things I learned from seeing Hamilton on Broadway.
I finally saw it.
It took me a while, but it finally happened. (Getting my Tony Voter Tickets was a struggle, so I can’t imagine being a regular Joe and wanting to go.)
If you haven’t been lucky enough to see it yet, well, yeah, believe the hype. Hamilton is the greatest theatrical achievement of the last . . . long, long time.
Slight disclaimer . . .
If I’m baring all, and what’s the point of a blog if you’re not, the original production of Rent, which I was lucky enough to see in previews, may have moved me a bit more. Most likely because the time and the place of the tragedies of Rent were something I was living through, as were so many of my friends (my “Angel” was a man named Robert Jenkins, who helped guide me towards a career in the theater – and I will never forget him ushering me into the local Baltimore theater community at a time when I felt very much alone). And obviously a little more time has passed since the American Revolution.
Still, Hamilton is a work of genius. It’s an opus. A masterwork. It’s an Eiffel Tower. Or a Sistine Chapel . . . if Michelangelo had not only painted the ceiling, but also built the damn chapel itself.
See, part of the reason why Hamilton is a such a feat is not just because of the work itself. I’ve seen some brilliant, jaw-dropping, heart-crushing, boundary pushing shows over my 2.5 decades of Broadway theatergoing, including Spring Awakening, Fun Home, etc. And again, some of those shows had me pretending-I-wasn’t-crying-when-I-was-crying even more than Hamilton did. And honestly, I’ll probably wear out the recordings of some of those shows before I wear out the Billboard-toppin’ double CD of Hamilton.
What makes Hamilton an ever greater artistic accomplishment is that it was written by one person. You can’t help but think about that when you’re watching the show . . . especially watching that author absolutely destroy the title role. (Imagine if Jonathan Larson played Roger or Tony Kushner played Roy Cohn.) Are we watching Hamilton’s story? Are we watching Lin-Manuel’s? Both? Certainly there are similarities (which is probably why he was drawn to the material). Boom. Mind explosion.
So there. It’s brilliant. And if ever there was a show that had Pulitzer written all over it, this is it. (Especially since the Pulitzer Prize is given to “a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.” I mean, come on, already.)
I could end this blog here.
But whenever I see anything that I respect this much, I have a post-mortem with myself to search for any takeaways to remember as I continue on with my own career. And then, I share them with you. Because wouldn’t we all want a Hamilton? (I’d take half of one, myself.)
So, with that, here are the 5 Things I Learned (or was rapped-in-the-face reminded of) when I saw Hamilton on Broadway:
1. Long Live The Underdog
The opening lyrics of Hamilton are . . .
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman
dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence,
impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
In the first fifteen seconds of the show, you’re rooting for this guy. He’s poor, parentless . . . and we know he’s going to grow up to do great, great things, overcoming all these obstacles and more.
Audiences of all types of entertainment love underdogs, or people who “shouldn’t” achieve success, who do. Want to know why? Because it gives them hope that they can do anything too. We’ve seen this time and time again through the entire history of storytelling from David and Goliath to Rocky, from Joan of Arc to Les Misérables (an ex-con becomes a Mayor and practically a saint!). From the moment Hamilton begins you know he’s got an uphill battle. And instantly we’re behind him. We want him to achieve his want. Make sure your hero is one we can get behind, and it helps if they’ve got a Mount Everest-like uphill battle.
2. Give ‘Em Strong POV
The story of Hamilton isn’t just laid out for you like it is in a history book. It’s not, “This happened, and this happened, and then this happened.” Oh, no, the story on the stage is played out for you through the very specific lens of a certain storyteller. Who? It’s the man who utters those first few words and the guy who (spoiler alert) kills Hamilton, Mr. Aaron Burr. Now that’s a unique perspective, don’t you think? Why sure, Hamilton has moments when he sings soliloquy-style at times, but from the beginning the show is set up as the life of Hamilton through Burr’s Point of View. And that makes the story that much more fascinating. (Oh, and like only LMM can do, he addresses the perspective issue in the finale when Washington sings, “You have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” And then he twists it and tells you who gave us the POV on Hamilton’s life after his death.) As you write your show, decide who’s behind the camera of your story.
3. Turn The Story Upside Down
Hamilton is the story of Alexander Hamilton and the founding fathers . . . told through rap. Oh, and there ain’t a white face playing any of those founding fathers.
Gets your attention, doesn’t it?
Lin-Manuel chose to tell this story in the exact opposite way you’d expect it to be told. And before the audience even hears a note or a word, it sounds interesting. It’s unique. It stands out. It’s classic Seth Godin “purple cow” theory.
And then on top of that innate marketing sexiness, he made it great.
Let the big movie studios spoon feed audiences with what they expect to see. If you want to create your own Hamilton, tell the story in a way that only you can tell it.
4. Remember The Classics
As unique as the show is, it reeks of classic story structure. I’ve heard so many people say, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” and I agree. But if you look closely, you’ll see the classic monomyth blueprint and the essence of some of the greatest dramas of all time, including Othello, Amadeus, Julius Caesar and many more. If you’re stuck with how your show should flow from plot point to plot point, go back to those classics. There is a reason they still enthrall audiences to this day. Oh, and speaking of classics, if you want to have some fun when you’re listening to the Hamilton CD, count the number of references to Broadway musicals within the lyrics. My fave, “Sit down, John!” Lin-Manuel has great respect for the great works that have come before his own, and you can see that in his story. And you should consider them when writing yours.
5. Sometimes We Like When Bad Things Happen to Good People
In that classic story structure referenced above, the hero often has to make a great sacrifice in order to achieve their life’s goal. And often, that sacrifice is his or her own life. They become martyrs for their own personal cause, which, throughout the show, has become our cause. And our heart breaks when it happens. We get it, but we hate it. And usually that’s when the first tears start to come. Now, where musicals are different, is that we usually don’t end there. West Side Story doesn’t end like Romeo and Juliet. In R&J, they both die. In WSS, just Tony dies. And Maria lives on, delivering a firestorm of a speech that brings the Sharks and Jets together to carry Tony’s body offstage. There’s a ray of sunshine that shines on the darkest of situations. There’s joy, and hope. Hamilton is a perfect example of the audience watching a tragedy befall its hero (one that we know was coming, btw), and then watching how it turns into the story of his wife, telling his story to the world, and establishing his legacy (which is what Hamilton always wanted). And when she creates that orphanage in his name? Go ahead, try not to cry. (An underdog giving more underdogs their “shot” – the circle is complete.)
Your hero is going to have to give something up they don’t want to give up in order to achieve dreams. What that is, is up to you, just make sure you leave your audience smiling with the thought of what the future holds.
Speaking of the future, shows like Rent, Spring Awakening, and yep, Hamilton get me excited about what’s next. Because there is always another one. The next Hamilton is out there. It’s just the right combination of keys on the very keyboard I’m typing on right now. It’s just the right combination of keys on the piano sitting in the corner of my office.
And by learning from turning point musicals like this one, maybe you could be the one to write it.
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On my morning commute, I scoot past a giant hole…
Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.