Just You Wait, Just You Wait…
Have you heard of “Hamilton?” Sooner or later, someone will ask you that question. Because once you’ve heard the Broadway smash that is breaking records, you not only love it too, you feel compelled to tell someone else about it. “Hamilton” is, oddly enough, a musical about Alexander Hamilton’s life and his part in the founding of America… set mostly to rap music. Starring a multi-ethnic cast in period costumes and throwing down the thickest, densest rhymes since Eminem, your ears won’t believe it when you listen for the first time. I’m not saying you have to fly to New York and wait for a year to see one of the sold-out shows. Just find the whole soundtrack on iTunes. Preview the tracks just once. Then you’ll buy it. You’re welcome.
“Hamilton” is not only good, it’s crazy good. And the best part about it is that it shouldn’t be good at all. On paper, it sounds like a horrible idea. A rap musical about American history? That should be a train wreck performed at some experimental 99-seat theater. But anyone who encounters this show has to tell everyone they know about it. Celebrities, teachers, music snobs… The President. Everyone is tweeting about it. I checked it out because I was tired of reading all the love. “What is this thing?” I finally said. “Alright, I guess I HAVE to check it out.” And then I became one of those super-fans tweeting about it myself. The brainchild of Lin Manuel-Miranda is inspiring as a work of art, but what’s equally inspiring is the effect that it has on the audience. It is the kind of art that is so good that you are compelled to tell someone else about it. That’s a rare thing. And what a goal to shoot for! As an artist, there is no greater success than your art transcending marketing and sharing itself.
So how does that happen? Lots of people have great ideas that turn into forgettable art, and some great ideas never see the light of day. A great idea isn’t enough. And carrying that great idea around in your head like a precious treasure doesn’t get it made. Many of my friends are artists who have big dreams and some truly fantastic ideas that the world should enjoy. But somewhere between that spark and the final product is the deadly uphill battle called EXECUTION.
Making the idea a viable product and the best version of itself involves work that very few are willing to endure. It’s long hours of doing it wrong. It’s countless failures, or being rejected by those who don’t get it. It’s doing all the thousands of little tasks that must be done: raising the money, filling out the paperwork, plotting out the details. There are so many tiny steps between the big, fun milestones that you can be worn down and abandon the idea before it is complete… or before it is the best it can be. If you skip some of the steps out of sheer impatience or end up saying “good enough,” your idea falls short. And then it may not be successful at all, even if it’s a “great idea.” I used to be in the Music Video business, where the one who pitches the best idea wins the job. That always made me crazy, because a two-page pitch has very little to do with the final result: a good video. A client-winning pitch in the wrong hands is nothing special. It has to be in the hands of a someone who is a master of execution; someone who will use the best lenses and the right locations and know when to cut to the band and when to shoot the actor at 120 frames-per-second. It’s hundreds of details that make that pitch into three minutes of great art. The IDEA wins the job? The idea is step one. I would posit that almost ANY idea can become great art in the hands of a great artist, but the most ambitious idea in the world will be crummy art in the hands of a bad artist.
Execution. That’s what turned “Hamilton” into a smash hit you can’t deny. It went from a cringe-worthy idea that might have been amusing at best to 100% fantastic. Lin-Manuel Miranda spent five years writing handfuls of songs that he threw away to find the right ones, workshopping it off-Broadway, trying things that didn’t work, arranging orchestrations to figure out what traditional melodies and harmonies would complement rap lyrics. And this is AFTER he won a Tony for “In The Heights.” Five years? Think about what that must have been like, in the middle of Year Three. That’s about the time he was probably wondering if it would ever be finished. Or maybe it was when a lot of people around him were wondering if it was an obsession he should abandon. It’s that extra push into Year Four… and Year Five… that made it into the highly polished, fully-produced, air-tight show that it is today. It’s the same push that made Edison try over 500 items to discover what filament would conduct electricity inside a light bulb. He didn’t stop at 450. That’s when I would’ve stopped! But he saw the end game and couldn’t stop until he made it happen. Execution is longevity, but it’s also a commitment to achieving the ideal quality. I’ve seen attempts at rap musicals before. They are sloppy on lyrics and use one track made with synthesizers and samples. “Hamilton” uses a full orchestra, a full chorus, and probably a thousand words more than the average musical. That takes a lot of tenacity and a lot of saying “not good enough” for a very long time. That’s execution in the hands of a great artist.
I have to nod one more time to J. J. Abrams and his work on “The Force Awakens.” The whiny babies and film critics who keep playing the same song of “It’s just ‘A New Hope’s’ plot all over again” don’t seem to realize the amazing feat that J.J. just accomplished. Let’s say they’re right. Let’s say this new Star Wars movie is just a cover tune of an old one. Then why are people having such an emotional reaction? Why is it selling more tickets than any other Star Wars movie (or ANY movie) ever made? Execution. The right characters cast with the right actors playing the right moments under the right music. Need I go on? These “cover tune” critiques fall apart when you try to find any version of Finn, Rey or Poe anywhere in the old movies. You can’t. But even if this was an instant replay of every Star Wars trope we’ve seen before, the execution has made the whole world go see this thing again and again and again. I’m sorry to say it, but not even George Lucas himself has made that happen in 30 years.
So the next time you have a good idea, write it down. That’s the first step. But then take the next step — lay out your plan to bring it to life. And prepare for the long slow climb up the hill of countless, mind-numbing tasks and setbacks. That’s the gauntlet you must survive to see your idea become not just real, but successful and the best version it can be. Masterful execution is the only way to a great piece of art. Anything else is just another cool thing you told somebody in a coffee shop.