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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Comments
  • John Linscott says:

    As one who wrote the book,the music and lyricsI of my own musical ( I (have not,however,played the leading role) it is exciting to hear that another “soloist” has made good.

  • Simply the greatest musical theater experience I have ever witnessed over 44 years of attending Broadway shows. After seeing this the first time (I’ve gone twice) I posted online: “One word review: Wow!; Two word review: Holy shit!”

    I had never seen Lin-Manuel Miranda’s production of ‘In The Heights” as I thought it was over-hyped at the time so much it couldn’t possibly be good. Now, I regret that omission. LMM Is a musical genius that has created a show that appeals to a wide cross-section of the audience. I watched as grey-haired men and women bopped their heads in time with the rap. Amazing.

    It’s funny, the other musicals you mention as life-affecting, ‘Spring Awakening’ and ‘Rent’ are the same for me as well. Now add ‘Hamilton’, a wonderful, incredible, moving, jaw-dropping, gotta buy the CD before you leave the theater experience.

    I can’t wait for the day (likely in a year or so) when I can get tickets to bring my family (one of whom teaches History in the Philadelphia school system) to see this amazing event.

    • Austin says:

      But do you *honestly* feel the live production (NOT the music) is the most brilliant thing you’ve seen on Broadway? As someone who has seen an incredible amount of theater all across the US, this was actually very low on the list of best productions I’ve seen. Not heard, *seen*. I found the show incredibly flat once it was on a stage. There was little to no emotional resonance with the actors, and it was severely over-directed and over-choreographed. When it comes to the score, yes. It’s absolutely brilliant, but it’s brilliant in the way that something like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” are brilliant. Their scores and the scope of what they achieve (specifically at the time they were written) work much better when you listen to them than when you see them. They have been staged well and will be in the future, but it’s much easier to stage them *poorly*. I know I’m one of a very few people who think this way, but I just don’t feel like this was THE production of “Hamilton.” There will be a great one, but that wasn’t it.

      • Ron Casalotti says:

        I stand by my words, but of course “your mileage may vary”. I am born and raised and still live and work in the NYC area and see probably 12-15 shows a year, year after year. This season alone in addition to seeing Hamilton (twice) I’ve seen She Loves Me, An American in Paris, The Humans, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Blackbird, Disaster, Spring Awakening; Cirque’s Paramour, Misery, Encores! 1776 and Waitress. Before Hamilton, my #1 musical experience was Les Miz (orignal and 2nd revival), followed by Rent, and Spring Awakening (original and Deaf West revival). To me, Hamilton sits at the top of the heap.

  • Tim Barden says:

    The other remarkable thing about the show is how coherent the production is. Just one example? The lighting design is the best I’ve ever seen especially in terms of how it served the story. Choreography? Ditto…. Pick an area…. I assume that’s the result of the combination of a fabulous team with Mr. Miranda as the lodestone for the project.

    I managed to see it the week before it opened with my 15 yr old son. I’m proud to say that his reaction as the shows final moments passed by was to turn to me and say “This is probably the best show I will ever see in my life.”

  • Thanks for this post, Ken. I am looking forward to seeing Hamilton. Your 5 points are very helpful to me as an emerging Latina Playwright and Actress. Thank you!!

  • Warren says:

    Excellent, commentary, Ken. My feeling was that Hamilton was an extraordinary spectacle. A tour de force. A remarkable Olympic piece that creates awe. But I have to say, I felt nothing. It was brilliant but my heart was never tugged and there was never a pit in my stomach. It was a brilliant exercise that will win a zillion awards and will run forever. I learned tons of things that they skipped in eighth (I think) grade history books.

    But, I felt nothing.

    • Austin says:

      Yes. Exactly. I concur completely. I feel something when I listen to it, but when I finally saw it, I felt absolutely nothing but disappointment.

  • Craig Manzino says:

    Thank you for this blog. I couldn’t agree more and you help me solidify in my mind all the reason why this is my favorite show. The only thing I disagree on is that I have definitely worn out the soundtrack.

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