It’s the toughest ticket on Broadway, but now all of those who want a seat at “Hamilton” can get an inside look at the groundbreaking musical and the journey to bring it to the stage in PBS’s “Hamilton’s America.”
A gala premiere for the 90-minute documentary, part of the “Great Performances” series, was held Monday night at the United Palace in Washington Heights, New York, a place that has special resonance for creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who grew up in the area and recently moved back to the neighborhood.
Amongst the audience of 3,400 people in the historic movie theater were members of community groups invited by New York City’s flagship public station WNET THIRTEEN including a group from Hunter High School, Miranda’s alma mater. Another connection: Miranda interned at WNET when he was a teenager.
After the screening, “CBS This Morning” host Gayle King conducted a Q&A with Miranda, director Alex Horwitz and Ron Chernow, upon whose 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton the musical is based. Chernow began by rapping the opening number.
“In recounting the story of when Lin first gave him the song, Ron did the first few bars of the musical. One of the first steps Lin took was to involve the author in the play, much to his credit,” Horwitz told me in a phone interview from New York a few days after the event. “I don’t expect to ever forget the evening. It’s very rare that TV programming gets a screening like that — with an audience of ‘Hamilton’ fans excited to see Lin.”
Telling the story of Alexander Hamilton in hip-hop is what has made the musical such a sensation. Before the show took the nation by storm, most people only knew the founding father, who is credited with creating our nation’s financial system, as the guy on the $10 bill. And possibly that he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. Few knew he immigrated to the U.S. from the West Indies as a young teenager.
Horwitz started shooting footage three years ago, when Miranda didn’t know whether “Hamilton” would be an album or a show. The two had known each other since college, and Horwitz got unprecedented access to his friend’s creative development process.
The documentary traces the origins of the project to when Miranda was on vacation from appearing in the musical “In the Heights.” He picked up Chernow’s book to read, and thought, “This is Tupac and Biggie, this is hip-hop.” Music and lyrics started forming in his head.
In 2009, Miranda performed a song at the White House after informing President Obama that it was a rap he wrote about Alexander Hamilton, to which the president famously replied, “Good luck with that.” He was originally slated to perform music from “In the Heights.”
The rest is Broadway, Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning history. The show debuted off-Broadway at the Public Theater in February 2015 to immediate acclaim. “The show opened and the world blew up,” Miranda recalls in the documentary.
By August of last year, it was ensconced at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, where it continues to regale sold-out audiences. This past June, “Hamilton” was awarded 11 Tonys, falling one statuette short of the record set by “The Producers.”
“It seems that many critics have different theories about why it resonated so strongly, but I instantly loved it,” Horwitz said. “There are musical styles for every taste in the show. The plain English and simple down-to-earth language becomes poetic. But I don’t think anyone came to loving the show because of history, but because of the storytelling.”
Yet the peek into America’s past is as riveting as the musical numbers, which are given enough play to thrill legions of established fans — and entice new ones.
While chronicling Miranda’s efforts with close collaborators including his musical director and choreographer to bring the show to life in the theater, the documentary brings to life the histories of Hamilton and Burr, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, set against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War and the confrontation-filled early days of governing the United States of America.
Miranda and fellow actors including Leslie Odom Jr., Christopher Jackson and Phillipa Soo find even more depth in their characters by visiting their historic homes — which are either national monuments or part of trusts, and are all available for public visitation — and museums.
History buffs will be thrilled to see the location footage, including the interior of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Burr’s home in New York City, where Miranda wrote some of the play.
“I wrote everywhere — on trains and even in Aaron Burr’s bedroom,” Miranda notes.
The cast and crew also visited the military camp at Valley Forge and George Washington’s Mount Vernon home and soaked up the atmosphere.
Odom and Miranda are actually given an opportunity to touch the dueling pistols used by Burr and Hamilton, which are housed at the Museum of American Finance in the building on Wall Street where Hamilton founded the Bank of New York.
They also travel up the Hudson River to the site of the infamous battle, which began as a feud based on an insult. Viewers learn that duels were not intended to kill, that they were to prove one’s bravery. In fact Hamilton had a lunch date on the books after the duel was set.
Another unexpected delight of the documentary is the range of interviews with prominent personalities, experts, politicians and musicians, including President Barack Obama, President George W. Bush. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Treasury Secretaries Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner, Questlove, Black Thought, Jimmy Fallon, John Weidman, Nas and Stephen Sondheim.
Horwitz says they “shot the moon” with the list of desired subjects — and got everyone they wanted.
“It was a great privilege that they all said yes. Some of the officials were trickier than others, but they could not have been more open, and happy to talk about something other than contemporary politics,” Horwitz said. “It was important to get both sides of aisle because film is about shared history and shared values and looking at politics as a spectrum of ideas — and not one way of doing things.”
Despite the fact that the events portrayed in “Hamilton” occurred more than two centuries ago, the issues still resonate.
“Superficially, some parallels are very obvious, like immigration. But at the end of the day, every political season is about big versus small government. It’s labeled different ways but that is sort of the core tug of war of American political philosophy, the eternal question,” Horwitz said.
In addition to providing historical insight provoking political discourse, most critics would agree that “Hamilton” changed the culture and the way we look at history. The cast album went platinum — a rarity. Hamilton will remain on the $10 bill after a previous effort to boot him.
In the past, he was usually a footnote to history. Even as the Founding Fathers go in and out of fashion, trends often driven by books, movies and television shows made about them, Hamilton was never really A-list. Until now.
“He changed my life and I changed his. I feel like he grabbed me,” Miranda says about Hamilton in the program. “Musical theater doesn’t get off the arts page often — and here we are.”
“Much like the show does, I hope people enjoy [the documentary] and laugh, even cry if appropriate,” Horwitz said. “As a side effect, if they learn about history I’ll be very happy. I would hope that schools using the cast album to teach would extend that to the documentary.”
“Hamilton’s America” premieres on many PBS stations on Oct. 21 at 9 p.m. ET — check local listings. The Great Performances Facebook page (facebook.com/greatperformances) will live stream through Facebook Live at the time of the broadcast, which marks the season premiere of the PBS Arts Fall Festival. This is the first time the long-running series has live streamed one of its productions. The program will be available to stream on PBS.org through Nov. 18.