Hamilton: How Genius Work Happens

Hamilton: How Genius Work Happens

Hamilton: The Revolution is the third post in a series on Individuality. Read the first and second.

 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. If you hear someone saying these famed words with a beat, then you’ve come across someone who has been bitten by the Hamilton bug. I’m talking about Hamilton, the Broadway musical that is making waves in the theatre world with ripples in contemporary American culture.

 

As someone whose day job is as far away as it can be from the Arts, I am immensely fascinated by the artist’s mind. How do artists create? How do they think? What thought process occurs when they work? What is it like to operate with the right brain in dominance?

 

These questions, of course, are decidedly left-brained, which, I suspect, miss the whole essence of artistic endeavors. It seems to me that the Arts involve more nonlinear processes, merging divergent thoughts and feelings that may at some point converge into a masterpiece. The actual work from the blank canvas to a painting may take a short time, but the process of creation has likely started long before that moment of inspiration.

 

Which is why I’m crazy about one of my latest reads, Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, that unveils a little of the creative process, the story of how this revolutionary Broadway musical came about. There’s a marvelous story of individuality here.

 

Individuality: An Asset in Creative Endeavors

 

Hamilton is about the life of Alexander Hamilton, the guy on the $10 bill (of which I was completely ignorant before this musical), one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and the first Secretary of the Treasury. It traces his life during the American Revolution and the early years of the nation, to his death.

 

Sounds like a bland historical statement? Yes. But, Hamilton is anything but boring.

 

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and creator of the musical, said in an interview, “We take it as a given that hip-hop music is the music of the revolution.” That’s right. This is a hip-hop musical, a sound that is not typical Broadway. It’s fast-paced, energetic, delivering high words-per-minute density that covers vast amount of information in mere minutes. Cabinet debates are performed as rap battles, with contemporary language that makes these idealized Founding Fathers accessible to the 21st century audience.

 

“This is my brain and unless I express it, it’s only going to stay in my brain. It’s more about personal expression than imposing a will on the world. It’s more about…if I don’t get this idea out of my head and on to paper, it dies with me.” – Lin-Manuel Miranda

 

Lin-Manuel is a master wordsmith. There are 4 dozens of songs in this musical, much more than typical Broadway shows, and he wrote them all. I love the story of how it began, how he connected Founding Father to hip-hop.

 

About to go on vacation in 2008 from his first musical, In the Heights, he picked up Ron Chernow’s doorstopper book, the biography of Alexander Hamilton. (What kind of person does that? A nerd. Read about Lin’s relationship with books here.) Within a few chapters, something clicked in his mind: this was a hip-hop story. Needless to say, not very many could make this kind of connection! Hamilton, an outsider, an immigrant, wrote his way out of his doomed life in the Caribbean, rose with ambition through his skills with words, and helped build the country. This connection was so obvious to him that he Googled whether anyone had done a musical on Hamilton. (That would be a no.)

 

As I went through the creation story in the book, it became abundantly clear that Lin was probably the only person on the planet whose brain could birth this breakthrough musical. The marriage of an avid reader, history learner, writer, hip-hop connoisseur, rapper, freestyler, and musical buff in his personhood, plus the friends who collaborated with him, are what made this possible. If that’s not a story of individuality, I don’t know what is.

 

Lin said something profound about individuality in the last 1 minute of this interview.

The book Hamilton: The Revolution traverses the 7 years between Lin’s first moments of inspiration in 2008 to the show opening on Broadway in August 2015. It tells the stories of how the songs came about and what inspired them. The complete libretto is reproduced here (on gorgeous papers) with Lin’s annotations, plus snapshots of his notebook pages when he first wrote the lyrics. In other words, it’s a little peek into his brilliant mind. It also tells the stories of the many collaborators that built the masterpiece, that even though Lin’s name has the strongest association with the musical, the revolution did not happen just because of one person.

 

Need more reasons to read Hamilton: The Revolution? Keep reading.

 

Lessons on History

 

The biggest reason why I love this book is because of its profound insights on history. It does not treat history as a list of facts, but as stories. Stories of people, real people with real ambitions, emotions, and flaws. The Revolution here is meant to refer both to the American Revolution of the 18th century and the show itself, “a musical that changes the way that Broadway sounds, that alters who gets to tell the story of our founding.”

 

The book touches upon the fallacies through which we see history, how in hindsight revolutions may look obvious and inevitable, but in fact at the moment, they were “unprecedented and all but impossible to imagine ahead of time.” It’s hindsight bias. There’s also our faulty memory and how unreliable it is in reproducing sequence of events, something they experienced in putting this book together. If we couldn’t keep our recent facts right, how are we expecting something from 240 years ago to be entirely solid.

 

The book is a precious record of the experiences of the artists today as they are living through them. It is contemporary, and thus can capture thoughts and feelings more accurately. We know how hard it is to piece together something from the past, to capture the atmosphere and essence of the events, even in the presence of evidence. In a way, this book too is a piece of history.

 

Lessons on Collaborations

 

Even though Lin wrote the musical, the creation of Hamilton involved many bright minds. Genius work is often a collaborative effort. My favorite story is of Alex Lacamoire who was in charge of orchestrating the music, tweaking each part of the 10-person band to get the music exactly right and tell the story as best as they can. I’ve been listening to the cast album for a few days now, and I am simply blown away by the incredibly layered composition of the music.

 

There was also the stage director, stressing over little details to reproduce 18th century New York. These are things that the audience may never notice, but contribute to the feel and atmosphere of the stage, which help the actors get into their stories more.

 

With each piece, the revolution becomes less of a mythical story into a story of community, of hard work, and of ingenuity. There are iterations, false starts, and revelatory moments. But most of all, it’s a composite of individuals, with distinct individuality and gifts, pushing for something that has never been done before.

 

Quoting Lin in the video above:

“I think that’s what we do as artists. What’s the thing that only I can contribute? It’s not about the confidence to like, “Hello, world, here is this idea that never existed.” It’s… This is my brain and unless I express it, it’s only going to stay in my brain. It’s more about personal expression than imposing a will on the world. It’s more about…if I don’t get this idea out of my head and on to paper, it dies with me.” – Lin Manuel Miranda

 

Previous posts in this series on Individuality:

Individuality: What Makes You, You

Individuality and Creativity: A Christian Perspective

See also this NYT article: Why ‘Hamilton’ Has Heat

 

More Amazing Grace

More Amazing Grace

The longer I am a Christian
The more I find out
How much of a sinner I am
How incapable I am
To be like Jesus
My understanding increases
My nature struggles to catch up
Still wretched, still poor
Thus I fall shorter, shorter of the mark

The longer I am a Christian
The more I desire to be real
In the heart, not just on paper
In the flesh, not just in debates
But it’s easier to be an intellectual Christian than a real one
And when I go home to my mirror
The light of God shines
In my reflection I see two faces

The longer one is a Christian
They say one sees his sins even more
Because Jesus is closer
But for me that is often questionable
And it is very distressing
To be seen more pious than I really am

The longer I am a Christian
The more desperate I become
Because I am helpless
And powerless to obey

But the longer I am a Christian
The more I know the all-sufficient grace
That covers me just the same
The more I know of me
The greater I need my Savior
And He saves me
Yes, even today!

And that is why
The longer I am a Christian
This grace is just more amazing
Than when I first believed

My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things; That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour. – John Newton, author of the hymn Amazing Grace.

Sunset In My Rearview Mirror

…is the view I get when I head home from campus. I have come to associate it with the peace of homecoming, the quietness of a day’s end, and the coming rest. It is especially precious on Fridays. On this particular Friday, this certain poem seems to match the mood of my day, my week.

Intimate Hymn

From word to word I roam, from dawn to dusk.
Dream in, dream out — I pass myself and towns,
A human satellite.

I wait, am hopeful, as one who waits at the rock
For the spring to well forth and ever well on.
I feel as bright as if I tented somewhere in the Milky Way.
To urge the world to feel I walk through lonesome solitudes.

All around me lightning explodes sparks from my glance
To reveal all light, unveil faces everywhere.
Godward, onward to the final weighing
overcoming heavy weight with thirst.
Constantly, the longings of all born call out, “Is anyone around?”
I know each one is HE, but in my heart there writhes a tear;
When of men and rocks and trees I hear;
All plead “Feel us”
All beg “See us”
God! Lend me your eyes!

I came to be, to sow the seed of sight in the world,
To unmask the God who disguised Himself as world–
And yes, I wait to be the first to announce “The Dawn.”

– from “Human, God’s Ineffable Name,” by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Happy Sabbath.

Captivated by Music

Captivated by Music

I’m a bit of a musical junkie. Ok, not a bit… a lot. I think the most enchantingly talented individuals are the musical theatre people. The sound that comes out of these human beings is just marvelous. When they’re on stage, it’s like the human anatomy become an instrument, with sound waves traveling through the biological cavities, all working together for a single purpose: to make music. They sing with all their being and the artistic creation that comes out of this process is simply amazing.

The thing that’s interesting is, say an actor or actress performs some of the songs in a concert, in a setting that isn’t within a storyline, but it’s the same song, same tune, and same lyrics. Somehow, the performance isn’t as powerful as when they’re in character and in the story (source: casual observations from a bunch of YouTube videos). It was quite a curious case.

So perhaps to say the obvious, I think the difference is exactly that – the storyline. When they sing at some function, they’re not as much in character and the song becomes just a nice song, a mixture between lyrics and notes. But when they’re in character, all the expression and emotion blend in, adding another dimension to the music, and giving it a certain transcendence that can create goose bumps to those who witness the performance. The words come from the heart and from the experience of the character, and the music communicates both to the conscious and the subconscious.

Basically the point is there’s a difference between a song that is sung and a song that is experienced; the quality of the music is noticeably distinct.

There’s a verse in Revelation that I always think kind of cool. “And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder, and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps. And they sing as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders, and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.” Revelation 14:2-3.

There’s also a hymn that says the following:

Holy, holy, is what the angels sing

And I expect to help them make the courts of heaven ring

But when I sing redemption’s story, they will fold their wings

For angels never felt the joys that our salvation brings

(Hymn title: Holy, Holy, is What the Angels Sing. All the lyrics are relevant to this thought)

Could it be that in heaven, singing something that one hasn’t experienced is not allowed? Could it be that singing something without meaning it is akin to lying?

The song we sing is and should be closely related to our experiences. Our songs of praise are distinct from one another’s. When David said that “He hath put a new song in my mouth” (Ps 40:3), it meant that He has given him a new experience with Him.

Which brings me to a source of bewilderment when I’m in a church with a congregation that is so timid during singing time. Have we not experienced the goodness of God?

The most beautiful songs are the ones sung with the heart and with the whole being. I’m sure those are the songs God likes to hear as well.

Les Miserables in Grand Rapids, MI

Me with Les Mis cast member - Marius Pontmercy

The Elias, who are all pretty much musical junkies

Living for Jesus

A hymn by Thomas O. Chisholm, 1917

Living for Jesus, a life that is true,
Striving to please Him in all that I do;
Yielding allegiance, glad-hearted and free,
This is the pathway of blessing for me.

Refrain:
O Jesus, Lord and Savior, I give myself to Thee,
For Thou, in Thy atonement, didst give Thyself for me;
I own no other Master, my heart shall be Thy throne;
My life I give, henceforth to live, O Christ, for Thee alone.

Living for Jesus Who died in my place,
Bearing on Calv’ry my sin and disgrace;
Such love constrains me to answer His call,
Follow His leading and give Him my all.

Living for Jesus, wherever I am,
Doing each duty in His holy Name;
Willing to suffer affliction and loss,
Deeming each trial a part of my cross.

Living for Jesus through earth’s little while,
My dearest treasure, the light of His smile;
Seeking the lost ones He died to redeem,
Bringing the weary to find rest in Him.

Acts 17:28 “For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.”

Music by Eden Symphony Orchestra