Not so out-of-date.

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'Hamilton' Makes Me Want to Be Great

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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Maybe you’re sick of hearing about “Hamilton.”

Or maybe you haven’t heard about it. I was shocked when I brought it up at dinner with two otherwise-well-informed people in San Francisco last month and neither had any idea what I was talking about. I shouldn’t have been -- it’s just a Broadway musical, after all, and Broadway musicals have their limits as 21st century cultural phenomena. In terms of reach, “Hamilton” has nothing on “The Force Awakens,” Adele’s “25” or “Game of Thrones.”

Still when I think back to the book or article or TV show or movie or other piece of what the media executives call “content” that affected and entertained and enlightened me most in 2015, it was clearly Lin-Manuel Miranda’s retelling of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s rise, fall and tragic death.

My wife and son and I saw it first in January, on the second night of previews at the Public Theater in Manhattan. We had been awaiting its arrival ever since the first time we saw the video of Miranda performing what became the show’s opening number at the White House in 2009 (Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker profile of Miranda has the back story). We also went to see the Broadway version in August, then downloaded the cast album the day it came out in September and had it on pretty much constant rotation until it was time to start up the Christmas playlist (yes, we’re that kind of family; sorry).

We weren't alone in this obsession. That cast album is, again, no “25,” but it was still at No. 41 on the Billboard 200 last time I checked. My circle of friends -- both actual friends and people I kind of know on social media -- is rife with “Hamilton” fanatics who drop lyrics in conversation and discuss when they’re going to see it again. Tickets for the show this week start at $400 on StubHub, and are more than $1,000 if you want really good seats.

So what is it about “Hamilton”? There are lots and lots of things, but I’ll offer three:

It’s a complete, original, dazzling work of art. Yes, “Hamilton” is based on Ron Chernow’s great biography, and is stuffed with way more homages to rappers living and defunct than I could ever hope to keep track of. But Miranda and his co-conspirators tweaked and embroidered and massaged and eventually transformed that source material into something bracingly new. It’s not that it’s perfect -- some songs are better than others, some parts fly by faster than others. But there are no obviously fixable flaws in it. Economists call an allocation of resources Pareto optimal when (I’m quoting from Wikipedia here) “it’s impossible to make any one individual better off without making at least one individual worse off.” With “Hamilton,” it isn't clear what could be improved without making some other part worse off. It verges on Pareto-optimality, which is awfully rare for the product of the modern American entertainment industry.

The contrast with “The Force Awakens,” which, while delightful, is basically a redo of a 1977 movie riddled with enough plot holes to keep us all wondering and debating till the next installment comes out, is instructive. Miranda spent six years getting “Hamilton” right. When others pushed him to rush it from the Public Theater to Broadway early this year, he resisted and instead took two months off from performance to rework it because, as he put it, “I had a better version of the show in my head.” (Then, with the musical in full swing this fall, Miranda collaborated with “Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams to compose the music for the movie’s cantina scene.)

That doesn’t mean everybody has to like “Hamilton.” De gustibus non est disputandum, and I get the impression that appetite for the music is especially limited among those older than 70. But the thing is so well constructed that when it gets yet another Broadway revival for, say, the 500th birthday of the U.S., I imagine it will still find many admirers.

It’s about America, and America can be really interesting. Much has been made of the musical’s cast of Founding Fathers who don’t look anything like the Founding Fathers. This isn't a stunt. Miranda is clearly in love with the United States of America, past and present, and much of the genius of his creation lies in how it makes the personalities and conflicts of the late 1700s feel fresh and relevant today. Hamilton came to New York from the Caribbean as an impoverished teenager, so it doesn’t feel like a great leap to see him portrayed by a guy (Miranda) whose parents both came to New York from Puerto Rico. “The ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him,” Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr sings of Hamilton. “Another immigrant comin' up from the bottom.” The diversity of the rest of the cast flows naturally from that. It also doesn’t hurt that the rest of the cast, with Odom at the lead, is pretty brilliant.

Miranda has said the spark of the idea for the musical came as he read Chernow’s biography of Hamilton and was reminded repeatedly of the ambitious, talented, combative and prematurely deceased rapper Tupac Shakur. The comparison is one sense ridiculous: Shakur is No. 86 on Rolling Stone’s list of “100 Greatest Artists of All Time,” with “All Time” starting in about 1954; Hamilton helped create a nation that’s still thriving more than 200 years later. But different times offer different opportunities, and the idea that similar angels and demons drove the two men isn’t ridiculous at all.

Then there’s the musical’s clear-eyed but generous take on politics. Political debates don't dominate the plot, but the confrontations between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over economic matters and foreign relations are lots of fun, and full of parallels to contemporary conflicts. Someone like me with pre-existing Hamiltonian tendencies found much to reinforce my views, and Daveed Diggs’ portrayal of Jefferson as an arrogant, fast-talking dandy may forever shift the public perception of that particular Founding Father. But “Hamilton” actually renders each side’s arguments quite faithfully and sympathetically.

Miranda grew up in a family immersed in New York City Democratic politics, and perhaps as a result of that experience he portrays politics not as a moral quest but simply as conflict between opposing groups, with none having a monopoly on virtue. In a climate where political identity is increasingly becoming “fair game for hatred,” as one researcher recently put it, this is wonderfully refreshing.

It’s one big motivational tract. “There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait,” is one of the signature lines of the show, uttered several times by Miranda. I can’t think of any recent book, movie, play or other work that celebrates ambition, hard work and accomplishment as unironically and infectiously as “Hamilton” does. Every time I listen to the cast recording I start making plans and resolutions to accomplish great things. Sometimes I even get working on them. You go spend your money on a Stephen Covey book or a David Allen seminar. I’ll just listen to “Hamilton” again.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net