How did a musical based on the life of an overlooked founding father become the hottest ticket in town? The answer to the guiding question of Alex Horwitz’s Hamilton’s America (which screened at the New York Film Festival and airs as part of PBS Great Performances this month) is obvious to fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Broadway smash hit: by making history come alive. By putting people of color at the center of America’s story. By featuring a dizzying musical score for the ages that marries hip-hop and rap with show tunes and jazz. By educating and entertaining its fans in equal measure. By capturing the zeitgeist.
The documentary — which is part making-of, part history lesson, and part performance showcase — gives fans, and the uninitiated alike, a chance to see how Hamilton went from a seedling of an idea in Lin-Manuel’s head, to a White House performance, and later to the Broadway phenomenon that it has become. Featuring insight from Miranda’s collaborators, American historians, political officials like Elizabeth Warren, Paul Ryan, and President Obama himself, as well as visits by the cast to key historical places at the heart of Alexander Hamilton’s story, Hamilton’s America is the type of must-watch doc that’s as entertaining as it is enlightening.
For many of us still waiting to catch the show, Horwitz’s doc is as close as we’ll get to seeing the Broadway staging as it features over a dozen songs from the show performed by the original cast. And so, ahead of its PBS premiere, here are 5 things we learned from the doc and watching the post-screening Q&A at the New York Film Festival following the world premiere.
“What Lin-Manuel Miranda Is Doing Is Exactly What Shakespeare Did In His History Plays”
Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director at the Public Theater where Hamilton got its start is effusive in his praise for Miranda. His comparison to Shakespeare is not hyperbolic—as the guy responsible for producing the Bard’s plays over at Shakespeare in the Park, Eustis is not one to make those parallels lightly. “He’s taking the voice of the common people,” he argues in the film, “elevating it to poetry—in Shakespeare’s case iambic pentameter, in Lin’s case rap, rhyme, hip-hop, R&B—and by elevating it to poetry, ennobling the people themselves.” Indeed, one of the things that Hamilton’s America makes clear is that the show that’s now on Broadway is as rooted in deeply-researched history as it is in the way that history feels of and for the people.
Lin-Manuel Miranda Sees In ‘Hamilton’ His Father’s Story
For Miranda, the story of Hamilton is the “quintessential American story” of redefining yourself in a new country. That’s what had struck him when reading Ron Chernow’s biography. In fact, he felt he knew this guy: “You know, leaving the Caribbean to get an education in New York: I just tell people, I’m just playing my dad in the show. Down to the hair.” His father, like Hamilton, had left his home in the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, in this case) and headed to mainland US to pursue his education and eventually settled in New York for good.
‘Hamilton’ Is A Timely Show For 2016
As Miranda explained in a Q&A following the film’s screening at the NYFF, Hamilton’s ideas about immigration are as timely now as they were then. While the first act of the show has Lafayette and Hamilton singing that immigrants get stuff done, celebrating the work they’ve accomplished as newcomers, the second act has Jefferson, Madison, and Burr singing “this immigrant isn’t somebody we chose. This immigrant is keeping us all on our toes.” Both speak to the American narrative. As he explains, “There is a long tradition of using the word ‘immigrant’ as an epithet of distrust of the latest group of people who have gotten here.” It is nothing new as his musical shows but he’s adamant that what he’s seen in 2016 is probably the worse it’s been. “And if it bothers you: vote!”
Angelica Schuyler Was A Badass
One of the many things that Hamilton, taking its cue from Chernow’s book, did, was help fill in the gaps of what we know about the people around Hamilton. While Burr comes off usually as a villain, that’s because, as actor Leslie Odom Jr. explains in the film, he is judged by his worst act on his worst day. (He was an early feminist, Miranda reminded the audience at NYFF). But while we knew a lot about Burr, Hamilton clearly fleshed out our perspective on Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler whom Horwitz refers to as a badass, as comfortable in the parlor as in the state room. “It is so easy to say this is a play about men,” actress Renée Elise Goldsberry pointed out. “But it’s not” and that’s because Angelica is the smartest person in the show and the only one who knows how important the issue of who tells your story is. “If a woman could have been president then, Angelica would have been president.”
Miranda Wrote ‘In The Heights’ as a Way to Cope With a Long-Distance Relationship
Answering what he said was his favorite question ever (“What would you say to your 19 year-old self?”), Miranda said he’d have told him to break up with his high school girlfriend. In fact, it was during their long-distance relationship that he found himself writing In The Heights as a way to cope with all the angst he had. Funnily enough, Hamilton’s America director Horwitz, who’d met Lin at that time, actually played Kevin Rosario in one of the earliest readings of the show. “We’re stricter about the Latino casting now,” he joked. “I was as giddy as I was depressed when I was 19 and I channeled it all into my writing,” and it paid off.