The Story of Tonight

“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known, when I was young and dreamed of glory: you have no control – who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

from Hamilton – Lin Manuel Miranda

Stories take many forms, but few are as effective and innovative as the recent piece of musical theatre I saw in New York. Hamilton is the story of the American Revolution centering on the architect of the country’s financial systems: Alexander Hamilton. It covers many significant historical moments and figures, spanning Hamilton’s life and beyond.

As if this subject wasn’t challenging enough for a musical, the style of music used to tell the tale draws mainly from the world of hip-hop.

At first glance you might think this combination won’t work, but the lyrical style and pace work perfectly to tell the story of the violent upheaval of an oppressive power. Hip-hop itself becomes a metaphor for the events of the late 18th Century: young, disenfranchised people better themselves by creating a new world, with radical thinking and stirring passion through debate and dazzling rhetoric.

What’s so wonderful about this show is its ability to educate as well as entertain. The biography on which the show is based (‘Alexander Hamilton’, by Ron Chernow) is a staggering 832 pages long and that’s with a whole heap of tiny writing. Its appeal is arguably limited, but by taking the content and translating it for a different audience, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda gives this story a broader voice. He’s also likely to drive people (like me) back to the original book to explore and understand the finer points of US history.

Hamilton deftly demonstrates how strong writing and new ways of sharing stories can enhance an important message. At its core lie a couple of key points we can learn from in a brand and business context:

  1. It doesn’t detract or deter from the original key points of the message
  2. It adds value to a subject rather than making it more confusing through elaborate or inappropriate language devices
  3. It enhances the emotion of the facts – something every great story does
  4. It speaks to its audience in a relevant tone and style – it uses modern language and rhythms of hip hop
  5. It makes it memorable – a singing and beatboxing President sticks in the mind
  6. It makes you want to learn more

As if to illustrate my point the producers (in conjunction with the Rockefeller Foundation) have begun offering a hugely discounted ticket price for public schools in the US to see the show (which has been sold out for a significant period now). This will allow students to learn history in an engaging and connected way.

I only wish this was how they taught history when I was at school, it might have helped me avoid a poor grade!