'Hamilton's America' weaves history and music

Discovering the next big thing is easy when it's created by your friend.

That’s how director Alex Horwitz managed to get a camera on Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and star of Broadway super-smash Hamilton, as he was conceiving the musical in 2014. It was impossible for Horwitz, his college roommate  at Wesleyan, to know just how big the musical was going to be. But he knew it was going to be something.

“When (Miranda) said he was going to do this thing about Alexander Hamilton, I knew he wasn’t talking about doing a hip-hop Schoolhouse Rock,” Horwitz says. “I said, ‘Look I don’t care where you’re going with this, I think we’ve got a compelling story.’”

The resulting documentary is PBS' Hamilton’s America (Friday, 9 ET/PT),  which manages to tell the story of both the musical and the man.

The project, produced by RadicalMedia for the public broadcaster's Great Performances series, tells the chronological story of the founding father’s life, relying on historians and political heavyweights from former president George W. Bush to Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The musical (and its creation) is the lens through which the audience sees Hamilton’s story. The film adds to its narrative clips from the show as well as interviews from the creative team and artists such as hip-hop legend Nas and Broadway icon Stephen Sondheim.

“It kind of follows me on all of the disparate influences of the show, and that’s these three circles in a Venn diagram that don't meet very often,” Miranda says. “It’s hip-hop, it’s musical theater and it’s politics and history.”

The behind-the-scenes story of Hamilton has already been told in Hamilton: The Revolution, a book Miranda co-authored with Jeremy McCarter. PBS also recently aired a documentary about the making of another Tony-winning Broadway musical —Miranda’s In the Heights.

“Alex’s approach was never, ‘Let’s get behind the scenes of a making of a musical,’” Miranda says. “That just was not interesting to him.”

Instead,  cast interviews  focus on their relationship to the real-life person they played. In one scene, Christopher Jackson, the black actor who played George Washington, visits the president's slave quarters at Mount Vernon.

“It wasn't just me being a talking head about the process of making Hamilton, it was about getting to watch all of us dive deeper into the world,” says Daveed Diggs, who originated the roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. “I was never much of a history guy, but this whole experience has helped me learn a whole lot about a little bit.”

Miranda hopes the documentary will have educational value to more than just the cast.

“For me, the most exciting thing is for the teachers who already use that cast album to interest their students in history,” he says. “I have a feeling that a lot of social-studies teachers are going to be pressing record on their DVRs.”

Fans desperate to see the show will be rewarded with as much footage as the documentary was legally allowed to include. “We have sort of these two narratives, the life of Alexander Hamilton and the life of Lin and the show,” Horwitz explains. “We used those together, we criss-crossed back and forth between those two. And the music is how we do the criss-crossing.”

Horwitz chose carefully to prevent spoilers, he says, leaving out numbers like Satisfied, sung by Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler. “It’s a song I think that needs to be seen in the context of the show,” he says.

“It should neither ruin the experience of the show for those who haven’t seen it, nor be too redundant for those who have,” Horwitz adds, stressing that the documentary is a companion piece, not a replacement, to the musical. “It’s supposed to only be additive, wherever you come into this.”

Miranda echoes that sentiment.

“The thing I made is really the show itself,” Miranda says. “Everything else is just gravy.”

Contributing: Patrick Ryan


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