Monday, February 29, 2016

"Hamilton": How Entrepreneurs Really Innovate

The musical Hamilton is an inspired, hip-hop-rich stage performance that tells the life story of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804).  The show arrived on Broadway in August 2015 with $32 million in advance sales.  Scalpers commanded prices as high as $3,000 for a pair of tickets,  topping off an average audience at 101.8 percent of capacity.  

Critics were uncommonly effusive.  One referred to the show as “the great work of art, so far, of the twenty-first century.”  The overnight review in the New York Times stated simply, “Yes, it really is that good.”  

The room where it happened, June 19, 2016.
If an entrepreneur is defined by his or her ability to introduce an innovation that disrupts an economic flow, then Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Investors put up $12.5 million to produce the show which, at its current rate, will gross $1 billion in less than a decade.  Should that happen, profits will be roughly $300 million, or 24-times the original investment.  Miranda and close members of his creative team have become multimillionaires.  Ticket resellers and brokers stand to gross $60 million annually.  The Hamilton cast album became the highest-debuting Broadway musical since 1961’s Camelot--and America’s No. 3 rap album.  Attendance rose on the Great White Way in Hamilton's first year to 13.3 million, Broadway's best total ever.  And the night the Tony Awards honored Hamilton with 11 awards, audience ratings hit their highest mark in 15 years.

These extraordinary totals don't factor in the impact of the other seven Hamilton productions slated to be staged globally.

But the disruption of Miranda's Hamilton is far more than financial.

Few people have the range of interests to appreciate all of the historical and musical combinations found within the show.  But few fail to understand instantly—as a story unfolds of the American Founding Fathers, played by people of color--that there is a “novel combination” happening on stage that is the very definition of innovation.

“Let’s make the founding of our country,” Miranda neatly summarizes one defining theme, “look like our country looks like now.”

The Smithsonian recognized the musical’s unique contribution when it awarded its playwright a 2015 American Ingenuity Award alongside a planetary scientist and neurologists researching Alzheimer's.  The MacArthur Foundation bestowed a "genius" grant on Miranda for "bringing the traditional Broadway musical into the 21st century with modern musical styles that reflect the diversity of contemporary America."  The Rockefeller Foundation understood the special value of Hamilton when it financed an unprecedented program to bring twenty thousand New York City eleventh graders from low-income families to see the show.

And in April 2016, Hamilton won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Ripples from the show reached the highest levels of government.    President Barack Obama called the musical “brilliant” and immediately suggested his own Secretary of the Treasury attend.  Indeed, in the competitive political worlds of New York and Washington, failure to score a ticket for Hamilton in its first year was like, one observer noted, “the grown-up equivalent of sitting alone in the cafeteria.”  The Treasury Department felt the show’s impact when a proposal to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill was scrapped.  And the global community was witness to the show’s influence when America’s ambassador to the U.N. invited the entire U.N. Security Council to a performance.

Hamilton was hailed as a unique lesson in American civics that upended traditional thinking, not unlike Charles Beards’ 1913 landmark effort, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.  Both historian Beard and now playwright Miranda forced a national conversation about America’s Founding Fathers and their place in contemporary life.  This retelling was echoed by one enthusiastic fan of Hamilton, who commented, “They should teach it like this in the schools.”  

Hamilton’s journey from its source, historian Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, to a Broadway sensation, provides a textbook case in how entrepreneurs bring together novel combinations to invent the future.  In some ways, the process that created Hamilton is easier to understand than technological innovations grounded in silicon and software code.  The “things” that Miranda connected were bits and pieces of his and his audience’s own experiences, along with rich veins of history, music and theater--but combined in ways few could anticipate.

As an artistic innovation, Hamilton embodies the kind of disruption-narrative usually reserved for technological phenomena like the telegraph, electric grid, and iPhone:  No amount of advance market research would have predicted its success, because few consumers were capable of imagining that such an innovation could exist.

Hamilton: The Man

At the heart of Hamilton the musical lies Hamilton the man.  As Chernow documents, Hamilton not only became the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, but he was a battlefield hero, congressman, abolitionist, founder of the Bank of New York, founder of the Coast Guard, member of the Constitutional Convention, lawyer, and patron saint of the New-York Evening Post.  Hamilton was instrumental in establishing the country’s first political parties, and was the lead player in America’s first national sex scandal.  He became a gun-shot victim when the sitting Vice President, Aaron Burr, fired on him at a dueling field in Weehawken, New Jersey. 

Hamilton died before turning fifty years old, leaving his reputation to be defined by enemies that included some of the most influential and articulate politicians of the early Republic, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  Chernow’s work has helped to restore and burnish Hamilton’s legacy.

Taking full measure of Hamilton’s life, Chernow came to the conclusion that this man “made the greatest contribution of any immigrant in the history of the United States.”  This view became the launch pad for Hamilton’s dazzling opening number, which describes the future founding father as “a bastard, orphan, son of a Scotsman and a whore / dropped into the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean.”  (That once forgotten spot is the island of Nevis, today home to an active tourist trade and five-star hotel.)  Unlike Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, Alexander Hamilton arrived in America a penniless, low-born immigrant.  His rise was as meteoric in political terms as immigrant Andrew Carnegie’s business success was a century later.

Hamilton was driven and, it seems, simply more talented than those around him.  At sixteen years old he entered King’s College, now Columbia, and by twenty he was George Washington’s top aide.  When he married Elizabeth Schuyler in 1780, he also married into one of New York’s most prominent families.  Hamilton practiced law brilliantly, wrote two-thirds of the Federalist Papers (hoping to create a strong, central government, at odds with men like Jefferson), and when thirty-two years old became the first Secretary of the Treasury, appointed by George Washington.  “Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers,” Chernow wrote, “at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive.  

Alexander Hamilton was quite possibly the only Founding Father who understood economics, and the only one of his peers who even sensed the Industrial Revolution engulfing the country.  Hamilton’s vision of what America could become led Chernow to describe him as “the messenger from a future that we now inhabit.”

Hamilton the musical highlights its hero’s growing stature but never loses sight of Hamilton the immigrant making his way in a nation of immigrants.  From the days of George Washington to the time of Miranda’s birth, whites of European descent never comprised less than eighty percent of the U.S. population.  The year Hamilton opened on Broadway, that percentage had fallen below two-thirds.  Demographers forecast that the white majority in America will vanish by 2043.  The show bears witness to this cultural transformation.

“By telling the story of the founding of the country through the eyes of a bastard, immigrant orphan, told entirely by people of color,” one observer noted, Hamilton “is saying, ‘This is our country.  We get to lay claim to it.’”  Indeed, audiences erupt after a musical exchange between Hamilton and his solider-friend Marquis de Lafayette when they announce together, “Immigrants/we get the job done!”  This line so consistently drew applause that Hamilton’s creators lengthened the pause before the scene continued.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: The Entrepreneur

Lin-Manuel Miranda is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, his mother a clinical psychologist and his father a political consultant.  Miranda was raised in upper Manhattan, attended Hunter College High School and participated in musical theater.  “You’re a Latino kid in a school that isn’t Latino,” he said.  “You either try to blend in or you overcompensate.”  He was funny.  He could sing a little.  He could act a little.  And, like Hamilton and Chernow before him, he could write a little.

Steve Jobs was observed that “Creativity is just connecting things.”  What Jobs was trying to convey--a message often lost in the modern entrepreneurial machine that encourages the young to get out there as early as possible and disrupt stuff--is that entrepreneurs with rich life experiences have a distinct advantage.  The more time spent listening, observing, reading, experimenting, sharing, and living--the more “things” they ultimately have to connect, and the more opportunity they uncover.  
So it was with Miranda.  Raised in two cultures and conversant in two languages, he was introduced by his parents to two very different musical traditions.  “I grew up in a house where cast albums were almost always playing. . .That was the music we played to clean up after parties.  It was Latin music at the party, and we’d dance outside and we’d dance merengue, cause we’re Puerto Rican, and then when we cleaned up the house after the party we’d put on the cast album--and that’s what I keyed into.”

His own tastes drew him to Gilbert and Sullivan, West Side Story, pop music, and rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.  Daveed Diggs, who plays the role of Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, said, “Lin exists at the intersection of a bunch of worlds that don’t often intersect.”  

If innovation is all about novel combinations, there is no better address for an entrepreneur.

By 2005, Miranda was a member of the Freestyle Love Supreme, a hip-hop improvisation group popular for creating instant rap from words supplied by the audience.  He was also working on a musical that became In the Heights, a show set in his beloved Washington Heights.  And in the process he had found his life’s passion, though it wasn’t always a comfortable passion.

I can’t tell you how many friends I graduated with who were all going to conquer New York City.  And it’s not like a bad-guy ending; they found happiness somewhere else, they found stability somewhere else.   While I was the roommate who stayed in the cheap rent place while other people got married, and other people moved out of town.  So I understood that struggle.  I understood the relationships ending because, “Well, I’m doing this.  And if our relationship means you’re not going to let me do this, then you gotta go.  And I’m always going to choose this.”  And the price that comes with that.
This single-minded focus paid off.  In the Heights opened on Broadway in 2008 and won for Miranda, not yet thirty years old, the Tony Award for Best Musical. 

While readying for a vacation from performing in Heights, Miranda purchased Chernow’s biography of Hamilton.  As he read the opening chapters, Miranda began Googling to see who had already set Hamilton’s colorful life to music.  

Surprising to him—but probably to no one else--the coast was clear.

Innovation in Community

While the idea for setting the life of Hamilton to music might have struck Miranda like lightning, it took six years of hard work and constant evolution for a final product to emerge.  The source materials—Chernow’s eight-hundred-page opus and Hamilton’s avalanche of papers—were almost overwhelming.  As Miranda wrestled with the project, he thought, “I feel like a mosquito that hit an artery.  There’s so much here—how am I going to get it all?”

The answer to that question, asked often by entrepreneurs who uncover enormous opportunities, inevitably comes down to one simple solution: in community. “The secret history of Hamilton,” writes author and producer Jeremy McCarter, “is that Lin’s uniquely singlehanded achievement (as composer, lyricist, librettist, and star) required the artistry of dozens of very gifted people to be realized.  A bunch of people from a bunch of backgrounds had to come together to make it work. . . .”  And in Miranda’s case—as is so often true—the most effective innovation community was one that already spoke the same language, had a shared history of struggle and success, offered complementary strengths, and was grounded in trust.

Source: New York Times

To begin, there was Tommy Kail, the director of Freestyle Love Supreme and In the Heights.  Another Wesleyan alumnus, Kail remembers, “I met Lin in May of 2002 and we basically never stopped talking.  It’s basically been a 13-year conversation.”  The alchemy between the two resides in the fact that Kail provides structure around Miranda’s creativity.  Miranda says,

Tommy is someone who likes to come in and work no matter what the outside world wants of us.  So, when In the Heights happened and we were both broke and had day jobs, he would say, “Well, bring in a song on Friday and we’ll talk about it.”  He kind of created deadlines for me even when we had no apparatus, or even knowing if the show was going to be anything.  And it created somewhere for me to go, and something for me to do, and something for me to work towards.  We’ve kind of continued that with every project we’ve worked on.
Kail sees the flip side of that coin, adding,

What Lin is able to do is take very complex ideas and—not show you how smart he is, but--make them accessible to all of us.  One of the great gifts that he’s given us with this show is he doesn’t stand up there and say, “Look where I am—you’re down there.”  He builds a ladder, and he says, ‘Come up here, and be up here with me.’  And so my job was to help try to architect that ladder, and get every single person who walks into the Public Theater—and the Richard Rogers on Broadway—to participate and feel like it’s also for them.
Kail’s gifts are described as selflessness, and having an ability to draw out the best from every person in a production.  “My job was not to have the best idea in the room at any time but to identify the best idea,” Kail says.  One proof of his impact on Miranda, and vice versa, is that the shows each has done separately is considered inferior to those on which they have collaborated. 

Another essential player in Miranda’s innovation community is Alex Lacamoire, an award winning Cuban-American arranger, conductor, and the musical director of In the Heights.  Miranda says of Lacamoire, he “is Cuban, grew up in Miami, so he comes to all of the Latin stuff really naturally.  But he also associate-conducted Wicked.  He’s got the Broadway and Latin chops in equal measure.”  Like Kail, Lacamoire has a personal and professional connection with Miranda that multiplies their capacity for entrepreneurial output.  Hamilton’s choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler, describes the relationship between the two by saying, “Lin will have an amazing inspiration and put it forward in a way that you know exactly where he’s driving.  Alex will pave the street.”

Jeff Seller is the lead producer of Hamilton.  Seller’s Broadway credentials are likewise impeccable, having co-produced Rent, Avenue Q, and In the Heights.  His job involves overseeing the show’s Broadway run while taking it worldwide, maximizing profits and keeping everyone from the audience, investors and the cast happy.  Like Kail and Lacamoire, Seller was involved for five years in the development of Hamilton, working with Miranda and becoming an integral part of the larger creative team.  At rehearsal, Kail said, Seller has “the intense focus of a 12-year-old building with Legos.”

Miranda supported this brilliant, everyday innovation community with occasional, world class inspiration and mentoring from the outside.  One source of inspiration was renowned librettist John Weidman, who wrote Assassins and Pacific Overtures, and, Miranda said, “has wrestled history to the stage about as well as anyone who’s ever done it. . .And I emailed Weidman and said, ‘I’m getting really daunted by this prospect.’  And he said, ‘Just keep your head down and write.’”

Miranda also called on Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim.  Miranda says,

If something I feel like is really ready--I know how valuable that guy’s time is.  So when I email him. . .I’m asking really specific questions.  I’m not here to be like, “Hey, pat me on the back and tell me how good this is.”  I’m like: “I need help. I have this, this, this and this.”  So I go to him-- it’s like climbing the mountain to go to him and talk to him about the stuff that’s really important, stuff that he would get—because he’s done the work.  He’s gone up the hill and gotten the tablets so many times, and it’s a lonely road.”
Hamilton was a step process, a ground-breaking innovation that started as anything but. Miranda read the biography in 2004 and first thought “mixtape.”  He did not start writing for another four years.  It was in May 2009 that he performed what would become the musical’s opening number before an audience that included President Obama and the First Lady—a full six years before its Broadway debut.  In 2012 he staged a concert production of the songs for Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, presenting as “The Hamilton Mixtape.” 

Meanwhile, the composer-lyricist waded into Chernow’s source materials, reading Hamilton’s letters and published works as he continued to develop the language and tempo of a longer musical.  He visited sites all over New York City where events took place, and even composed some of the musical in the mansion where Aaron Burr once lived and Washington had held some of his first cabinet meetings.

Only gradually did it begin to morph into a Broadway show, first in workshops and then at the Public Theater—all before becoming an “overnight success” on Broadway.

The process of creation throughout involved a circular feedback process, one where Miranda could test ideas and reshape them based on his team’s, performer and audience reaction.  But within this collaborative process, Miranda carefully reserved personal creative time. “What I’d do is write at the piano until I had something I like,” he said.  “I’d make a loop of it and put it in my headphones and then walk around until I had the lyrics.”  Neighbors could not know it at the time, of course, but the guy with the headphones walking the dog and talking to himself—that was an entrepreneur at work. 

Then, Miranda would return for group feedback, validation, and new ideas.  “I’m fine with sitting alone,” he says. “Writing Hamilton was six years of sitting alone.  But—the payoff is, I get to go into a room with Tommy Kail, and I get to play it for him, and then he’s got three ideas on how to make it even better.  And then Alex has three more ideas on how to make it better.  And then Andy’s going to know how to stage it.  So there’s this ‘show and tell.’”  

In the end, Miranda’s Hamilton is a testament to the community of innovation.  “Working with other people makes you smarter,” he said.  “We elevate each other.”

Innovation: Connecting the Dots

One of the great entrepreneurial ambiguities is that innovation honors, borrows from, and sometimes sits squarely in the midst of tradition.  In the case of Hamilton, Miranda was able to “disrupt” and galvanize the American musical because he was so conversant in its history.  “Lin knows where musical theatre comes from,” Sondheim says, “and he cares about where it comes from.”

The connected dots leading to Hamilton’s brilliance are too numerous to describe completely, but Miranda and his team have noted the following:

·         The musical Rent, itself a show that upended Broadway, gave Miranda permission to write musical theater about the present, about what he knew.  He called it “the starter pistol” for his career.

·         A show about Alexander Hamilton is written, ironically, from Aaron Burr’s perspective--a technique pioneered in several Broadway shows.  “Actually, I looked to musical theater history,” Miranda said.  “We have a great tradition, thanks to Andrew Lloyd Weber, of the antagonist narrating the story.  Judas narrates Jesus Christ, Superstar.  Che narrates Evita.  And so that was immediately where I went.”  

·         Miranda studied 1980’s Les Misérables to determine how best to reintroduce themes in Hamilton.  Theatergoers sometimes hear the closing number in Act I of Les Misérables in its Hamilton’s counterpart.  

·         Miranda even admitted to stealing a page from Harry Potter for Hamilton’s first meeting with Burr and later his real friends. (Harry meets Malfoy first who offers to help him, and later meets his true friends.)

·         And the music is full of “connected dots” to the past.  “You’ll Be Back,” thanks to Lacamoire’s talent, pays homage to the Beatles in a variety of ways.” A kinetic Hamilton tends to be associated musically with the drums, while George Washington performs with the Wurlitzer; “it’s an electric piano. Ray Charles used it a lot,” Lacamoire.  “It has a vintage feel to it, an older feel, which is Washington—that earthy, organic stature.” Hamilton’s “My Shot” shares in common with Tony’s West Side Story edition of “Something’s Coming.” Aaron Burr advises Hamilton with a piece reflective of 1949’s South Pacific.  The concluding song from Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, was inspired by Caroline’s last moment in the Broadway show Caroline, or Change.  The Schuyler sisters’ “Helpless” plays off Beyoncé, and their harmonies off the female R&B group that she fronted, Destiny’s Child.  The “Duel Commandments” riffs off “The Ten Crack Commandments” of deceased rapper Notorious B.I.G.

In fact, Miranda saw connections between Alexander Hamilton and rappers Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur in a way few others could.  All three men were brilliant with words.  All three were pugnacious and battle-ready. And all three were shot to death.  “The idea of hip-hop being the music of the Revolution appealed to me immensely,” Miranda said.  “It felt right.”

Source: The New Yorker

Hamilton’s innovations transcend the purely musical, however.  Having America’s first black President experience a show where a person of color plays George Washington takes a satisfying swipe at the nineteenth-century minstrel show, where white performers played racist stereotypes in blackface.  This thoroughly modern twist, alongside Hamilton’s featured immigrant roots, were just two elements that suggest to Hamilton’s audience that there might be more than one history of America worth remembering.

The entrepreneurial lesson is that Miranda innovates radically, but with a steady grasp of traditional artistic forms.  His ability to draw from both musical theater and pop music, one friend noted, “is inseparable from the fact that he loves both forms—he’s not being a tourist when he visits one of the other, but he’s deeply embedded in both of them.”[55]  His ability to connect things, Steve Jobs might agree, is not a function of market research or due diligence, but of life experience.

After Innovation: The Daily Grind

Hamilton’s opening night on Broadway was a sensation.  But then--after the reviews were clipped, the flowers placed in vases, and the parties over--the show had to be repeated.  Night after night.  Dance after dance.  Rap after rap.  Even when performers and musicians were tired, bored, or not feeling a hundred percent.  And the stakes were high, because each performance brought a new audience with abundant expectations about the show’s brilliance.

This part of entrepreneurial success resembles less lightning and more an assembly line, the reliable delivery of an experience that can feel antithetical to the highly creative process that precedes it.  Success at this stage involves excellence in management—building habits and consistent process, obsessing about quality, and inspiring people to do the same thing virtually the same way, day after day.  It has become a recognized theme in today’s entrepreneurial world, the idea that delivering a product to scale is every bit as important as conceiving and launching that product.   It sometimes explains why dazzling inventors fail to become successful entrepreneurs.  To pit management against entrepreneurship, Peter Drucker once wrote, is “like saying that the fingering hand and bow hand of the violinist are ‘adversaries’ or ‘mutually exclusive.’  Both are always needed at the same time, and both have to be coordinated and work together.”

Miranda views performance as a craft that requires focused attention.  It is not unlike the way McDonald’s feels about every single meal it serves, or Amazon about each order it fulfills.  When asked during the show’s first year what he worried about most, Miranda was clear that it wasn’t the next great entertainment innovation.  His role as an entrepreneur had shifted.  “The most important thing for me,” the composer said, “is meeting those expectations every night.”

This attention to performance is perhaps best summed up by Chris Jackson, who plays George Washington in the musical.  When Jackson addresses the prayer circle every night before the show, he says to his fellow performers something like, “Let’s agree that for the next two and a half hours, this is the most important thing we’ll do in our lives.” 

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Twitter feed is an important ongoing conversation with his audience (now numbers over 1M),
even when his audience might be slightly misinformed.