Hamilton and the Power of Narrative
By Mike Kuczkowski
In 2003, I wrote a 367-word biography of Alexander Hamilton for Columbia University as part of the Columbia 250 celebration.
I remember struggling with it and the 30 or so other biographies we had committed to write for the launch of the Columbia 250 web site (an innovative idea back then). How to tell the story in what was supposed to be 250 words of such an accomplished, intelligent, intriguing and comparatively underappreciated figure? So many facts, so little space. Hamilton wasn’t quite Washington, Jefferson, Franklin or Adams, but he was fascinating. I mean, the guy was an orphan from the Caribbean who basically invented the American banking system as we know it. How do you do that story justice?
Thankfully Lin-Manuel Miranda, with help from Ron Chernow, has answered that question. Apparently, it involves 20,520 words, a hip-hop score, a Broadway stage and period dress.
I am, at the moment, obsessed with Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. Miranda started working on the musical in 2009 after picking up Chernow’s award-winning 2005 biography of Hamilton on a vacation (Chernow serves as an historical advisor to the show) and recognizing Hamilton’s potential as not just an interesting biographical story but as a human story (an American story) that would resonate broadly.
Hamilton has been lauded for many things: bringing modern beats to the stage in the telling of an historical tale; redefining the pace of the modern musical; using contemporary language to express 18th century ideas; and fielding a cast of diverse actors as our founding fathers telling the story of our nation’s birth. All of which are remarkable. I find its storytelling to be its most outstanding feature. Here’s why:
- In “Alexander Hamilton,” we meet a young Hamilton as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” who grows up to join the American Revolution and makes a name for himself as Washington’s right-hand man. Boom, right off the bat, something we are not expecting.
- He introduces us to Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s contemporary, rival and ultimately his killer, as an entirely sympathetic figure. Even if we know Burr from the history books, Miranda endows him with an intriguing point of view and bearing. “Talk less. Smile more,” he advises Hamilton early on. “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
- We hear, in “My Shot,” how Hamilton is “young, scrappy and hungry”’ just like his country.
In a recent interview, Miranda described the purposefulness with which he wrote the lyrics for the musical’s first few songs:
“For me, the fun of writing My Shot is, it’s Hamilton’s declaration of purpose and I wanted to demonstrate his intellect and his ambition not just in what he was saying but in the way he was saying it. So, prior to his arrival and singing “my shot,” the other guys in that bar, right – (John ) Laurens, (Hercules) Mulligan and (Marquis de) Lafayette, are rhyming at the end of the line. It’s:
– I’m John Laurens in the place to be! Two pints o’ Sam Adams, but I’m workin’ on three!
We rhyme at the end of the line. And then here comes Hamilton, and suddenly we’re getting a lot of internal assonance and a lot of internal rhyming. And not content to just rhyme at the end of the line, but you know, have these big pun-esque lyrics, you know.
– I know the action in the streets is exciting, but Jesus between all the bleedin’ ‘n’ fightin’ I’ve been readin’ ‘n’ writin’
They’re intricately tied together and if you consider that Hamilton is delivering this in real time, suddenly you’re like, whoa, this is the greatest freestyler who ever lived. And so, that was the fun in constructing that. And it was many days and months of work to sort of make his lyrics just that much more intricate than everybody else’s.”
I’m blown away by the care Miranda took with these choices. That’s art. That’s craftsmanship. (It’s worth noting how long that takes. Many days and months.)
The narrative unfolds with beauty, grit and elegance to match its complexity. Miranda introduces us to “The Schuyler Sisters,” who include Angelica Schuyler, the eldest sister to whom Hamilton introduces himself, her younger sister Eliza, whom Hamilton will later marry, and Peggy. None of it is simple.
- In “Satisfied,” Angelica’s wedding toast to Hamilton and Eliza, we learn how deeply Angelica is drawn to Hamilton. She recounts their meeting, and how she sized him up “too quickly” (but not wrongly) as a penniless suitor and matched him with her sister, to Angelica’s lasting regret
- In “Wait For It,” we hear Burr lay out his philosophy of life and power: If there are reasons why he is still alive, he’s willing to wait for it. He lays bare his secret. He’s not standing still, he’s lying in wait.
- In “That Would Be Enough,” which I find to be the musical’s most moving song, Eliza pleads with Hamilton to moderate his ambitions. Hamilton: “Will you relish being a poor man’s wife, unable to provide for your life?” Eliza: “I relish being your wife. Look around, look around… Just stay alive, that would be enough.”
Hamilton describes the rise of Marquis de Lafayette as Washington’s lead commander, the Colonists’ victory at the Battle of Yorktown and the challenge of independent self-rule. We see it all through the eyes of Hamilton, a singular figure in the early days of our nation. Miranda makes complex events, like the Constitutional Conventions, the writing of the Federalist Papers, Washington’s early cabinet meetings, and the compromise over Hamilton’s economic plan, accessible.
Along the way, Miranda captures both Hamilton’s strengths (his brilliance and boldness) and weaknesses (ambition and his inability to shut up) in equal measure, humanizing a hard-to-humanize figure.
Miranda is a huge talent with the rare ability to pull it off. He has a MacArthur genius grant to his name, two Tony-award winning plays and a Pulitzer Prize. No slouch.
That said, those of us who manage the narratives of the companies we represent, either in-house or as consultants, should take some lessons from Hamilton, which takes a complex figure and finds a way to turn it into something relatable. That’s a challenge many of us confront with regularity.
Here are some lessons Hamilton holds for communicators:
- Start with origins: Miranda’s opening number “Alexander Hamilton” (which he previewed in 2009 at a White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word) summarizes the most compelling aspects of Hamilton’s biography and foreshadows his ambition and resourcefulness. (Note: I’m fascinated to hear the White House crowd’s laughter in their initial hearing of this song. They had no idea what was coming.)
- Declare your purpose: The third number of the show is “My Shot,” which is a big highlight of the show, what Miranda describes as Hamilton’s “Disney Princess” number, Hamilton’s declaration of purpose. We learn what he believes the stakes are for him in the Revolution, and life. The song conveys Hamilton’s self-confidence, self-doubt, ambition and recklessness. And, by using an expression that ultimately foreshadows Hamilton’s fatal duel with Burr, Miranda foreshadows a concept with dual meaning that will come back into the narrative in multiple ways over time.
- Find the emotional core: Some of the strongest songs in the musical are songs that pause along the path of the narrative to take stock of the emotional aspects of Hamilton’s story. “That Would Be Enough” makes me well up every time, as it highlights the tension between the boundlessness of Hamilton’s ambition and the beautiful life that is being built around him by Eliza.
- Embrace complexity: Hamilton is unflinching in its efforts to round out its subject, bad choices, broken promises and ill-chosen battles. He pursues martyrdom, embraces fatherhood, shames his wife with his philandering and ultimately loses his life in an avoidable confrontation. Hero? Hard to say.
- Use repetition wisely: There are a number of phrases and expressions throughout Hamilton (“I’m not throwing away my shot”, “The world turns upside down”, “Right-hand man”, “I will never be satisfied”, “History has its eyes on you”, “The room where it happens”) that repeat and recur throughout the musical, often with evolving meanings. This allows a listener to anchor into key elements of the story while hitting them with new developments and concepts. It breeds familiarity while the narrative moves forward.
- Dimensionalize tension and conflict: There are multiple conflict vectors throughout Hamilton. The conflict between Hamilton’s intelligence and his social status; Angelica’s desires and her obligations; Burr’s trust-fund-baby status and his desire to be on the winning side; the colonists’ desire for independence and King George III’s sense of divine authority (‘You’re on the own’ he declares, dripping with sarcasm. ‘Awesome. Wow. Do you have a clue what happens now?’). So often corporate narratives try to offend no one, or present propositions as being without risk. That’s fine, but I’m not sure why anyone would read them.
- Break forms: There’s no template for a 2 hour and 45 minute hip-hop musical. The founding fathers did not speak in rhymes. Alexander Hamilton was not Puerto Rican. But, it works. Who says a master narrative has to be prose on paper? It can be a video, a web site or a speech. A Prezi deck can outline a company’s story as well as any vehicle. As long as it lives in the world, inspires employees, engages stakeholders… it’s doing its job.
Hamilton shows the power of a creative approach to storytelling that can bring dense, difficult-to-absorb subject matter to life. We can definitely do better with our narratives by grappling with the realities and messiness of our characters, finding the tension and emotional core of the story, and bringing it artfully to the page.
If Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose first public performance of “Alexander Hamilton” in front of a political audience was met with anxious laughter, can turn that into a hit play, what have we got to lose?