Friday, June 24, 2016

Plutarch, Brand, and Tickets to "Hamilton"

Earlier this month, Lin-Manuel Miranda announced that he is leaving Hamilton, the Broadway hip-hop musical he wrote and in which he stars.  And when the Tony Award-winner departs after July 9, he’ll be accompanied out the door by another Tony-winner, Leslie Odom Jr., who plays co-star Aaron Burr, and a third mainstay of the cast, Phillipa Soo, who plays Eliza Hamilton.  That means the hottest ticket on Broadway, the winner of 11 Tony awards, called “the great work of art, so far, of the twenty-first century” will lose its three major leads.

So, if you happen to have tickets for Hamilton on July 10, will you really still get to see Hamilton?

I’m reminded of an old thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus. 

Theseus, the founder of Athens, had an impressive ship that won many battles.  When the ship was finally retired, the grateful citizens of Athens preserved it in their harbor.  But every so often a rotten plank on the ship would need to be replaced.  The question Plutarch asked was: After replacing the first plank, was it still the Ship of Theseus?  How about when half the planks were replaced, would it still be the Ship of Theseus?  And how about all the planks?


When I drive into Boston I sometimes glance down on my approach to the Tobin Bridge and see the USS Constitution in the Charlestown Navy Shipyard.  It’s the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world, named by George Washington, and draws crowds year-round.  And yet, it’s been through so many repairs, restorations, and structural renovations since its launch in 1797, it’s not entirely clear that any of the original ship actually remains.

How many planks, then, of the Ship of Theseus can be replaced before it’s no longer the Ship of Theseus? 

If the patriotic crowds in the Charlestown Navy Shipyard are any example, the answer might be this: It will never stop being the Ship of Theseus.  But then, as wily philosopher Thomas Hobbes asked, what if all of the planks replaced on the ship had been stored in a warehouse, and the original Ship of Theseus rebuilt from them?  Would there then be two Ships of Theseus?

Philosophers solve this in a practical way, by saying that the notion of a ship is a derived category in our ontology, not a fundamental one, like an atom.  In other words, we invent the concept of a ship solely for our convenience, to describe some collection of atoms, because it’s not especially useful to talk about “some collection of atoms.”  Things done for our convenience can therefore be done and undone at will.  Consequently, when it comes to if and when the Ship of Theseus is still the Ship of Theseus, each of us gets to decide.

If a member of the Hamilton ensemble left, we’d probably all agree that it would still be Hamilton.  But when the star leaves?  Three stars?  If Lin-Manuel Miranda returns to Broadway and appears in a matinee of the show three years from now, does it become Hamilton again?  Or is it somehow more Hamilton when he's there, and less when he's not?  And what about the versions and casts of Hamilton soon to play in Chicago, or London--are they Hamilton at all?

Now you know how a five-year-old feels when he sees four Santas in four different stores on the same winter afternoon.

In business, this is the stuff that gets to the ideas of authenticity, brand, and legacy.  The New York Yankees of 2016 are still the Yankees of 1960 even if all the players, the owner, and the stadium are gone—at least, that’s what a Yankee fan might say.  Rooting for the Yankees over seventy or eighty years, then, must be about rooting not for a team or even an organization, but for an idea

Was Microsoft still Microsoft after Paul Allen left? Bill Gates retired?  Steve Ballmer?  The business was founded in 1975, so if annual employee turnover was just 10% annually, the employee base would have turned over completely four times by now.  None of the company's original employees are still there and none of its original products are supported in the market.  But Microsoft still seems to be Microsoft, even though all of its planks have been replaced.

And the employees of General Motors?  They're still hearing about missing the move to smaller, more efficient, higher quality cars in the 1970s--before many of them were born.  That's a little like getting whacked with your own rotten planks.

I’ve had the great fortune to work with two companies, Zildjian and Carrier, both of which have been enormously successful in maintaining their identity across centuries despite a complete turnover of people, strategy, and products.  Such consistency requires extreme focus and tender loving care to keep the idea of something alive when all of the planks are being regularly replaced and all of the atoms flying off somewhere new.

That goes double when the idea is a country, like the United States, or an organization like the European Union, as we are now seeing.

As for if and when Hamilton is no longer Hamilton, I understand Plutarch, Hobbes, and the general philosophical community are in solid agreement over this ontological concept: If you can get a ticket for a show before July 9, after July 9, in 2016, after 2016, in New York, Chicago, or London--take it.