Don't throw away your shot! Staton Rabin shares 10 things all writers can learn from the truly 'revolutionary' career of the genius who created Broadway's Hamilton.
As a writer and script analyst, I’m fascinated by Lin-Manuel Miranda and his blockbuster Broadway show, HAMILTON. It's won 11 Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize, has achieved overwhelming popularity with critics and audiences, and will eventually be adapted for the screen. Americans may not agree on how to vote in the upcoming presidential election, but Red State or Blue State, black, white, Latino or Asian, straight or gay, young or old, everyone loves HAMILTON.
Every day, gaggles of 13-year-old girls wait for hours outside the stage door at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, hoping for an autograph or even a glimpse of HAMILTON's stars. They hold copies of the HAMILTON book, and, in unison, rap the show's score--which they've memorized word-for-tricky-word (there are nearly 24,000 of them in the show). Like the girls who mobbed the Beatles a half-century ago, it's a teenage hormone-fueled frenzy of squeals when any of the show’s stars appear. But fans of HAMILTON also include old fuddy-duddies of both sexes, and many people who occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum, such as Dick Cheney and President Obama.
With his fresh and original work and non-traditional casting, Lin-Manuel Miranda has done CPR on the musty, oxygen-starved institution known as “the Broadway musical,” which has had a bad case of "revivalitis" for years.
There are many lessons that aspiring screenwriters, playwrights, novelists, librettists, and composers can learn from Mr. Miranda's stellar work and career. But I’ve always believed that talent is just one of many factors in a writer’s success. There are other qualities that matter as much-- and probably much more. Here are 10 things I’ve noticed about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s approach to his career, which contain lessons for all writers who don’t want to throw away their shot.
1. IF YOU GET A TRULY GREAT, ORIGINAL IDEA FOR A STORY, MOST PEOPLE WILL THINK YOU’RE NUTS-- UNTIL YOU PROVE THEM WRONG. By the time Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote HAMILTON, he’d already had a big success with his previous hip-hop musical, IN THE HEIGHTS, and other projects as a writer and performer. Still, until recently he was known mostly just to Broadway fans and insiders, and theater critics. His name was not yet a household word.
In 2008, after starting to read Ron Chernow's lengthy HAMILTON biography, Miranda told an acquaintance, Jeremy McCarter (who was then the theater critic for New York magazine), that he wanted to write "a hip-hop concept album about the life of Alexander Hamilton." But even McCarter-- a fan of IN THE HEIGHTS who believed that hip-hop could save American theater-- has said that when he first heard Mr. Miranda's "Hamilton" idea, "for a second, I thought we were sharing a drunken joke."
McCarter's initial skepticism was only fleeting. And several years later (in 2011), when he took a job at the Public Theater, McCarter became a strong advocate for producing HAMILTON there-- not as a concept album, but as a musical play, which by this time was what Miranda had in mind.
Still, it took two more years for McCarter's boss at the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, and Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer of HAMILTON, to agree to develop the show there. And the rest, of course, is history.
Back in 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda had performed in an "Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word" at the White House for an audience that included his hosts, President Obama and the First Family. When, just before launching into his song (the first one performed in public from what would eventually become HAMILTON), Mr. Miranda announced to the audience: "I'm actually working on a hip-hop album-- it's a concept album-- about the life of someone who I think embodies hip-hop, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton," there were polite, nervous chuckles from the crowd. They probably thought he was kidding.
Nobody is laughing now.
And, in truth, even on that fateful night back in May 2009 at the White House when Miranda began singing "Alexander Hamilton," skeptical amusement quickly turned to awe and delight, and they gave him a standing ovation-- led by President Obama himself.
After a sold-out run at the Public Theater, HAMILTON opened on Broadway on August 6, 2015-- to rave reviews. HAMILTON is expected to rake in at least $100 million dollars a year, just from the theater’s sales of tickets for the Broadway production alone (recently, scalpers were selling tickets to Miranda’s July 9, 2016 final Broadway performance as Hamilton for as much as $20,000 each). Other productions of the show in Chicago and London are coming soon, and there’s also the cast album and a popular book based on the show.
But in the more than six years it took to develop HAMILTON and get it to Broadway, I can only imagine the puzzled and skeptical reactions Lin-Manuel Miranda must have gotten when his show was pitched to various people who had the power to invest in it, and to others. It probably took a lot of courage and persistence for him and his collaborators to soldier on.
The moral of this story? Be brave, be bold in your own writing. If you have a clear vision for the script you plan to write, and are sure the concept and story are structurally sound and will draw a large audience, don't let anyone deter you from doing it. Chances are, if what you have in mind is something fresh and new, it will go against many people's grain—especially if they haven’t seen the finished product. Wild horses couldn’t drag my 87-year-old aunt into a theater to see a rap musical, even one as brilliant as HAMILTON.
And to be honest, I’m not a fan of rap either, and didn’t want to go see the show till I got interested enough—based on what was being said and written about it-- to open my mind and set aside my preconceptions.
You may be the only person on the planet who can successfully execute your vision of the story you want to tell-- which may be one reason why nobody else “gets” why it’s going to work. Always keep perfecting your story, as Miranda did with HAMILTON. But don't abandon it permanently unless you can’t make it work (even with expert advice), nor give up on finding powerful producers who share your faith in it and will fight to make it happen.
It's one thing if professional story analysts read your script and think your plot or characters need work or your story is conceptually flawed. In that case, they're probably right and you should listen to them and follow their advice.
But what if people reject your idea or story not because it's structurally unsound, but simply because your approach is fresh and new, they don't approve of your vision, they have biases against the genre you've chosen, or they can't quite "see" it or relate to your unusual “take” on the story? They aren't necessarily right (especially if they haven’t read your script) and you might actually have captured lightning in a bottle: the perfect confluence of creativity and the Zeitgeist.
You know yourself better than anyone else does. If you know you're good and have an idea you’re certain will work because you have a clear vision of how you’re going to make the story and characters come to life, and you’re sure audiences will love it too, don't let anyone discourage you. In fact, you may want to stop telling your ideas to people close to you who are unlikely to "get" what you have in mind, at least until you've actually written it.
All writers must be open to criticism. But if somebody is opposed to your idea simply because it's "different" ("What?! You want to do a Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton, told in rap?! And you’re casting actors of color as Hamilton, George Washington, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson???") and not because the story or characters don't work, I would ignore that kind of criticism. In the end, all that matters is your story and characters, and whether they really engage an audience’s emotions.
Seeking pre-approval from the wrong people-- however well-meaning they may be-- is a major occupational hazard for writers. Your family might be so nervous about your ability to support yourself in a creative field that they will be blinded to the importance-- and even the money-making potential-- of what you're doing. Keeping your day job is vital for a lot of reasons. But, for your writing ambitions, you may never have the approval of certain people you're close to, and that's something you simply have to accept. If their disapproval will take the wind out of your sails, or damage your ability to finish a new work, don't show it to them. Most people have a very limited ability to envision what something creative is going to look like when it's finished. It may also be difficult to describe to others what you're seeing in your head until you actually write it. Try to find people who are supportive, even if they don't quite understand you and what you're doing. Find like-minded people in the arts who are at least as talented and focused as you are.
It's important that all writers face the fact that nobody (except perhaps others who are in the arts) is ever really going to "get" how you think, where ideas come from, or why you feel so compelled to do what you do. People in your life-- even family members-- may not understand that when you're staring off into space, or simply going for a walk, you are actually working. But, hopefully, the final product you create will "speak" to almost everyone-- even the naysayers. And that's the beauty of it. But if the people in your life can't encourage you-- or at least not discourage you-- you may need to find new friends, even if you can't find a new family. No point in getting annoyed with people who don't understand you.
2. IF YOU SUCCEED, SHOW APPRECIATION TO THOSE WHO GOT YOU THERE AND PAY IT FORWARD. Lin-Manuel Miranda hasn’t allowed his success to go to his head. He always makes sure to credit his castmates and other collaborators for their contributions to HAMILTON’s success, treats his fans with kindness, attention, and respect, and promotes the work of other performers and writers too. During one Broadway performance of HAMILTON, while singing a song Miranda winked and pointed at an 11-year-old child in the audience, because, he later said (when the boy's father Tweeted to thank him), that he remembered that, when he was a kid, the actor playing Rum Tum Tugger in CATS winked at him, and he was paying it forward. Screenwriting, too, is a collaborative art, and the more successful you are, the more you should give credit to those who’ve helped and appreciated you along the way. Don’t become a jerk.
3. EVEN WHEN YOU REACH THE HEIGHTS, DON’T LET IT STOP YOU FROM GOING EVEN HIGHER. After Miranda's IN THE HEIGHTS won four Tony awards, and he had starred in that Broadway show for a year, he might have simply rested on his laurels and figured he'd already reached the pinnacle of his career. He'd already been invited to perform at the White House, and might have figured that there was nothing further to be accomplished in his career. Instead, he went on to create HAMILTON. He not only wrote the show—book, lyrics, and music-- but also starred in it. Obviously, Lin-Manuel Miranda-- the child of Puerto Rican immigrants-- never set limits on how big a success he and his work could become if he gave it his all. The same was true of Alexander Hamilton himself. You shouldn't set limits on yourself, either. But always remember that talent and hard work must go hand-in-hand with ambition and dreams of fame and glory.
4. NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS, KEEP WRITING AND DON’T WASTE TIME. During the period of time when Lin-Manuel Miranda was busy writing and/or starring in HAMILTON, he also wrote the score for Disney's upcoming animated film, Moana; signed to play a lead role in Disney’s Mary Poppins sequel; wrote some cantina music for Star Wars; etc. Colleagues say he never stops writing. Miranda, who is just 36 years old, told Rolling Stone that he’s nonetheless conscious of his mortality, especially now that he and his wife have a baby, and that he’s very aware that “an asteroid could kill us all tomorrow.” So he has always written pretty much non-stop, as if each project might be his last. You should too.
5. GET ENOUGH SLEEP AND STAY HEALTHY. Frankly, I have no idea how Lin-Manuel Miranda got the energy he needed to perform in HAMILTON seven times a week, and also do all the other things he was doing at the same time. In addition to his role in the show, he was communicating with fans via Periscope and Twitter, entertaining the fans waiting to get in to the theater, MC'ing kids' performances of their original songs inspired by HAMILTON, performing on the Tony Awards, making appearance on talk shows, and raising money for various charities. He also has a wife and baby to take care of-- and I'm sure his wife must play a crucial role in helping to keep things running smoothly. Miranda has said that it’s no accident that he got the complete idea for HAMILTON when he was relaxing on vacation in Mexico (where he finally finished reading Chernow's 800-plus page biography of Hamilton), and was actually able to get enough sleep. He's very big on the importance of sleep. I gather (based on what he's said on his Twitter account) that he doesn't drink alcohol before he goes onstage to give a performance. He also knows when he needs a rest. Back in March, he took a brief vacation from starring in the show, and went to to "my undisclosed location under the sea where I recharge," (a reference to The Little Mermaid). Miranda is young and clearly blessed with tons of energy. But I also would guess that even though he may not always get enough sleep (who does?) he's in great shape, paces himself, and that he takes very good care of his health. If that weren't the case, with his busy and exhausting schedule "Hamilton" would have keeled over onstage somewhere along the line-- even before "Aaron Burr" fired his dueling pistol at him. Failure can be stressful-- but success can be even more so. If you want a successful writing career, you need to learn how to manage stress, budget your time, eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep.
6. IT USUALLY TAKES A VERY LONG TIME TO DEVELOP A PROJECT AND MAKE IT SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY, SO MAKE SURE YOU CAN LIVE WITH THE STORY YOU’RE WORKING ON FOR A LONG TIME. Write what you’re passionate about. Don’t obsess over what’s “commercial,” just write a great story and tell it magnificently in the best possible form for it. You should be the only person on the planet who can write the particular story you’ve chosen, in the way you’ve chosen to tell it. As Miranda told writer Mark Binelli in an interview for Rolling Stone, “…I create works of art that take years and years to finish. So it’s an enormous act of faith to start a project.” Regarding HAMILTON, he also said, “I’m just thrilled that I finished the thing.”
7. KNOW WHO YOU ARE AS A WRITER AND HUMAN BEING, AND DON’T FORGET WHERE YOU CAME FROM. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was born in Manhattan and grew up in the largely Latino, Washington Heights section of the City, uses the “bully pulpit” he’s gained from his fame to promote tolerance, compassion, and worthy causes-- such as debt restructuring and humanitarian aid for Puerto Rico (the island where his parents were born), and raising funds for victims of the Orlando massacre and their families. Miranda raised over a million dollars for the Hispanic Foundation, rapped about the Puerto Rico debt crisis on national TV, and lobbied Congress-- in person-- for help for Puerto Rico-- all during the past few months. He uses his power to “give back.” Miranda has said that his priority with HAMILTON is reaching kids so that the show helps them improve their schoolwork and their lives. Over 20,000 New York City kids will see HAMILTON this year alone, paying just $10 for a ticket, thanks to Miranda, HAMILTON producer Jeffrey Seller, and a Rockefeller Foundation grant. This educational initiative also integrates HAMILTON into classroom studies, and hopes to inspire the next generation of historians, artists, singers, and musicians. Kids are encouraged to create their own songs, poetry, rap and other art expressions, which they performed for Miranda at the Theatre. If you make it to the mountaintop in your own career, always remember to give a hand up to the people coming up behind you.
8. ONE MEGA-SUCCESS MAY BE THE ONLY ONE YOU GET IN YOUR LIFETIME, SO MAKE THE MOST OF IT. Strike while the iron is hot. Save your money and invest wisely because—even if you’re Lin-Manuel Miranda—you may never have another megahit on quite that scale again. Sell new projects while you and the first one are still “hot.” Get an agent, if you don’t already have one, while you’re still in demand. Find new platforms and derivations for the original work, as Miranda has done with HAMILTON. Interact with your fans on Twitter and Periscope, etc., stay humble, and always treat everyone well. Miranda has many HAMILTON projects going on now, and told Rolling Stone that the show will also be a movie “Someday. Probably not for, like, 20 years.”
9. PERFECT AND REVISE YOUR SCRIPT, EVEN IF YOUR FIRST DRAFT IS GREAT. Miranda has said that though he could have gone straight to Broadway with Hamilton, he felt that presenting it first Off-Broadway (at the Public Theater) allowed him to make it even better. Changes were made to make sure the songs never distracted from the story. Miranda cut a moment he liked, about the Whiskey Rebellion, before the show moved to Broadway. Even before HAMILTON ran at the Public Theater, the show was workshopped at Vassar. Along the show's path to Broadway, lines were changed and songs were added and cut. The final duel between Hamilton and Burr was still being revised by Miranda right up until the final few days before the critics arrived to see the show on Broadway. As a result of all these improvements, HAMILTON became an even bigger smash. If even a man who was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and had already won several Tony awards before writing HAMILTON, realizes that every script needs revisions, so should you.
10. LEARN YOUR CRAFT. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t just listen to hip-hop and rap in order to become the performer, lyricist/composer, and dramatist he is today. He first learned rap lyrics as kid, from his school bus driver, but he also knows musical theater history, grew up listening to and memorizing Broadway cast albums (his parents collected them), and is as familiar with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals, rock, and country music as he is with Jay Z, Biggie, and Eminem. On his book shelf in his HAMILTON dressing room at the Richard Rodgers Theatre were works by writers as varied as Judd Apatow and Herman Melville. He was basically a child prodigy, who attended a school for gifted children once his talents became obvious. It was Disney’s The Little Mermaid that got him hooked on musicals when he was nine years old. Miranda even (much later) named his son after Sebastian the Crab (his son is named Sebastian, not "Crab"!) from that Disney musical. By the time Miranda was seven years old, he had participated in a piano recital, and by the 6th grade he was performing in traditional school musicals. When he was in high school, Miranda heard Stephen Sondheim give a talk when he came to his school, and met him. Nowadays, he sends Sondheim new work for his input. Great writers usually start creating early in their lives, learn from the masters, absorb a mental mash-up of everything they've learned, and then generate their own, original style and material.
Keep pitching. See you next month.
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