Few modern playwrights have achieved the living-legend status of Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway hit Hamilton. His show, with its original rap lyrics and a cast made up almost entirely of actors of color to tell the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, completely reinvented Broadway musical standards.
Since premiering in February 2015, Hamilton has sold out almost nightly, with tickets flying at notoriously high prices. The play is currently running in five cities beyond New York, where it opened.
Miranda, a former substitute teacher whose play In the Heights won two Tony awards in 2008, is now a beloved celebrity and philanthropist. He has 2.5 million followers on Twitter, where he posts prolifically, and has raised millions of dollars for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, where he spent time every year with his grandparents while growing up in New York City.
It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t think the 38-year-old Miranda is a genius (including the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded him a Genius Grant in 2015). Gazing upon his success, it’s easy to feel intimidated.
Perhaps the most intriguing (and infuriating) thing about Miranda is that his artistic genius seems to come so naturally. When I saw him speak on stage earlier this year at the Qualtrics X4 Experience Management Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, he paused mid-interview to begin improvising Biggie Smalls rap lyrics overlaid with Hamilton, while beat boxing and annotating the raps with literary criticism. If that sounds confusing, trust me, it was.
But what makes Miranda so unusual among revered artists is that he refuses to propagate the lie that true genius comes easily. Take this tweet from 2009 that he recently resurfaced on Twitter:
“Spent the entire day working on one couplet about George Washington,” reads the 2009 tweet. “Hamilton’s slow-going, my friends, but I promise you it will be worth it. It’s hard converting whole swaths of history into a hot 16 bars.”
If spending a full day writing two lines of verse sounds insane, consider this: ”After writing ‘Alexander Hamilton,’ the first song in the play, it took me a full year to write the second song, ‘My Shot,'” Miranda told an awestruck audience at Qualtrics. For context, he worked on his first play, The Heights, for 10 years before it opened.
These details only scratch the surface of Miranda (and all playwrights’) grueling, time-intensive, error-ridden artistic process.
“My thesis is that Hamilton is this hip-hop story, and he’s just that good, so the lyrics also have to be that good. So I’d labor over ever couplet,” he explained at Qualtrics. “It wasn’t enough to rhyme at the end of the line, every line had to have musical theatre references, it had to have other hip-hop references, it had to do what my favorite rappers do, which is packing lyrics with so much density, and so much intricate double entendre, and alliteration, and onomatopoeia, and all the things that I love about language.”
Even then, if the genius comes, there’s no guarantee it will be recognized.
“You can’t control the success of a thing,” Miranda explained at Qualtrics. “You can’t say, ‘I’m going to go write an award-winning musical,’ that’s not how it works. You know, your goal is to just make something that feels as true to what you set out to do as possible. I spent my 20s writing The Heights, I writing it when I was 18, and we opened when I was 28 years old. There was no guarantee it was going to get there. You do it because you love it, and you have to.”
Notably, at the time of his November 2009 “I promise you it will be worth it” tweet, he already had performed his first (and, at that time, only) song from Hamilton at a private White House event, six months earlier.
“No one besides my wife and the shower had heard ‘Alexander Hamilton’ until that night,” Miranda said at Qualtrics, reflecting on former US president Barack Obama’s invitation to have him perform at a White House poetry jam. “I felt like, well, if it doesn’t work in this room, when’s it gonna work? That audience was the first family, the first grandma, Michelle Obama was there, it was like this crazy conference: Here’s George Stephanopoulos next to Spike Lee next to Zach Braff. I thought, if it doesn’t work well here, I’ll put it aside and start something else.”
But clearly it worked. Note the standing ovation from president Obama.
Of course, most of us will not receive presidential encouragement to continue pursuing our passion projects. But that’s not what made Miranda try to turn a history book into a hip-hop musical, nor did it nudge him on as a recent college graduate without much money or recognition striving to write The Heights. And that’s the sentiment behind his message on Twitter last week: If you don’t rise up and put in the work, no one will.
Art isn’t easy. If it were, artists probably wouldn’t do it. The process and the pain, as any real creative knows, is at least half the pleasure.