Hamilton's America, the new PBS documentary (Friday, 9/8c) chronicling the development of the Broadway musical juggernaut Hamilton, should come with a warning. Viewers who haven't seen the Tony Award-winning show and who are hoping to satisfy their craving through the program will come away with an even stronger sense of urgency about getting into "the room where it happens." And for those of us who have been lucky enough to get our hands on the hottest ticket in town, Hamilton's America only reinforces the desire - nay, need for repeat viewings.
Directed by Alex Horwitz and airing as part of PBS' Great Performances series, Hamilton's America blends the historical narrative of Alexander Hamilton's life with a behind-the-scenes look at the genesis of the stage adaptation. Anyone who's familiar with the musical knows the Hamilton-Aaron Burr story is a compelling one when told in the right way, and Horwitz doesn't disappoint.
A longtime friend and college classmate of Hamilton star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, Horwitz had unprecedented access to Miranda's creative process - and as a result, Hamilton's America allows us to see some of the earliest incarnations of the songs that comprise Hamilton, with footage of Miranda's process dating back to 2008. At the same time, interviews with historians give a deeper context to the topics covered in the incredibly catchy songs, and the stars of the play provide analysis of their artistic choices and the real-life information they drew upon in portraying their characters.
At an advanced screening of Hamilton's America in New York earlier this week, Horwitz said he knew from the moment Miranda told him about Hamilton that the show was bound to be something big. But the same can't be said for Miranda himself. The biggest treat of the documentary is seeing Miranda's complete unawareness of what the musical (which started out as a single song) would become, and his visible stress as he rushed to complete the finishing touches mere weeks before its opening at New York's Public Theater - all while he and his wife were renovating an apartment and expecting a baby.
Throughout the documentary, Miranda comes across as a genuinely likable, down-to-earth guy who hasn't been jaded by his sudden fame or success - which won't come as a surprise to anyone who's seen his appearances on late-night shows or his speech at the Tony Awards. (Here, he wears jeans for a performance and sit-down interview with President Obama at the White House.) He's a creative genius, to be sure, but rather than having the stereotypical persona of a brooding, serious artist, his wide-eyed enthusiasm about his subject matter is refreshing and completely infectious.
In addition to Miranda, Hamilton's America also features commentary from an array of personalities, including the other stars of the show, author Ron Chernow (on whose Hamilton biography the musical is based), Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Secretary Hank Paulson, rapper Nas, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a slew of other historians. Horwitz also follows the stars of Hamilton as they travel to historic sites including Aaron Burr's bedroom (which Miranda used as a writing spot), Valley Forge, Mt. Vernon and the Museum of American Finance. It's endearing to see cast members including Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr) and Christopher Jackson (George Washington) in complete awe while inspecting the artifacts and living quarters of the people they're now portraying.
The historians involved, as well as the Hamilton players, stress that the characters of that era were all incredibly flawed people - everyone from Alexander Hamilton to George Washington - and yet, their foibles don't erase the brilliance of their political achievements. In the midst of an election cycle that can be described as messy at best, Hamilton's America is a hopeful, entertaining reminder that U.S. politics were once great - and many of the issues the founding fathers grappled with are issues that are still being debated today. As one person in the documentary says, the cool thing about history is that we don't realize it's "history" when we're all just living through it.
Great Performances: Hamilton's America airs Friday at 9/8c on PBS.