When the organizers of Qualtrics’ X4 Summit were looking for a “wow” factor for their annual tech conference in Salt Lake City, they pulled out all the stops. Maroon Five played a two-hour private concert. Tony Hawk, Arianna Huffington, Magic Johnson, shared business insights. Olympian Jonny Moseley skied with attendees. But when CEO Ryan Smith wanted over-the-top excitement, he landed one of the most creative individuals on the American scene today: Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda is not just an inspiration for artists, but for entrepreneurs, business owners, and all of us who aspire to be creative and successful.
If you don’t yet know who Miranda is, you will. He’s not only the creator of the fabulously successful musical “Hamilton” and the Tony-award winning “In the Heights,” but he wrote music for Moana, will star in the upcoming remake of “Mary Poppins,” and has won a Pulitzer Prize, three Grammies, an Emmy, three Tonys, and a MacArthur “genius grant.”
Miranda doesn’t speak at corporate events, and it took CEO Smith over a year convincing Miranda to appear. It was well worth it, because Miranda was inspirational and wowed an audience that included Utah’s Governor and Lieutenant Governor, Miranda’s parents, and 7000 attendees from many of the leading corporations in America.
Here’s just a bit of Miranda’s insights that can inspire you, especially if you’re an entrepreneur or creative:
“You can’t control the success of a thing. You can’t say, ‘I’m going to write an award-winning musical.’ That’s not how it works. Your goal is to just make something that is as true to what you set out to do as possible… I spent my twenties writing ‘In the Heights’… I started writing when I was 19, it opened when I was 28 years old… I had about six musicals called ‘In the Heights,’ one of them finally reached Broadway.”
On “Taking Your Shot,” Seizing Opportunities
Miranda debuted the first song from Hamilton in 2009 at the White House in front of the Obamas and a star-studded audience:
“So much about what impressed me about Hamilton, what I learned from writing the character, is about meeting the moment and being ready for the moment when it arrives. Hamilton gets to New York. He’s got no money. He’s got no connections. But he’s raring to go. So the White House had invited me to perform something from ‘In the Heights.’ But then they added, ‘unless you have something on the American experience.’ I had about 16 bars of Hamilton’s opening number. I hadn’t really even finished writing that song yet. In fact, I never even told anyone this, but there was a different hook originally, it was a hook where Eliza was singing it… But I performed it and in retrospect, it’s a very Hamiltonian move. ‘Let me perform this brand new thing, that I never let anyone else hear.’ My wife and the shower are the only ones who have heard that song before I performed it at the White House.”
On Collaboration and Learning from Others
“The other musical that I’m really proud of that we don’t talk about as much is I wrote a musical called “Bring It On.”… The reason I said yes to that, it was not a burning desire in my heart to write about the plight of cheerleaders, but Andy Blankenbuehler was making his directing debut, he had choreographed ‘Heights,’ he is a genius, he is our modern day Jerome Robbins. I wanted to see what his directing would be like. I wanted to be in that room. Composers never get to work with each other. We all stay in our own lanes and write our own shows. So when he proposed that we co-write the score, I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to leave with 50 new tricks in my bag from working with these other artists who are at the top of their game. And so Hamilton doesn’t exist without my experience (with Bring it On).”
On Immigrants and Hard Work
“I didn’t know that Hamilton was an immigrant. I didn’t know that he had grown up in the Caribbean like my parents, who were both born in Puerto Rico. When he got to the point where he (Hamilton) wrote about the hurricane, and he wrote it so well, that people took up a collection to send him to the colonies to get an education, it reminded me so much of my father and when you understand Hamilton’s pure output, how much he made in the world in his short time on earth, you go, of course, that’s an American story, because that’s the gig. You come here from somewhere else. You have to work twice as hard so that your kids can do better.”
On Scaling an Enterprise and Working with a Team
Hamilton now has five touring companies, and Smith asked Miranda about how he’s been able to scale the production, especially when others have their own vision of how things can go.
“I’m glad you brought up team. That’s the thing about musical theatre. I could never be a novelist. I need to be around people too much, maybe it’s the performer side of me. I love being the member of the team who brings in the song. I feel very proud of that. I get to walk in to a room…and be like, “here’s what I got’ and…everyone in that room is smarter than me and comes at it from their own direction…that’s the most fun for me, the moment I get to bring a song into a room and other creative minds kick it around… We have five companies now…and the thing we’re so proud of is we’re never looking for a clone…the goal is to find people who bring all of themselves to the story in their own unique ways…”
On What it Takes to be Creative
“For me writing is just sort of a heightened form of acting…the only way I know how to write is to do lots of research, figure out what the scene is…put myself in the shoes of the character and when it feels honest, when it feels true, I write it down. It’s that simple and it’s that complicated… For me, the biggest tools in your toolbox as a creator are research and empathy… The truth is more interesting than anything I can make up… Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of that character… You put yourself through what they’re going through…”
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2018
This article originally ran in USA Today on March 14, 2018