In “Hamilton’s America,” a documentary about the creation of the musical juggernaut premiering on PBS last night, the show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda says, “Musicals rarely get off the arts page.” Even more rare is a 90-minute film chronicling a show’s history. But this is no regular musical — and “Hamilton’s America” is quite possibly the best documentary made about musical theatre.
With apologies to “Broadway: The American Musical,” which was an outstanding mini-series, there is something about “Hamilton’s America” that draws you in from the opening frames. Presidents, actors, economists, politicians and Broadway legends like Stephen Sondheim appear throughout the documentary to offer their insights into how “Hamilton: An American Musical” went from one song written for a White House special event to the most popular and well-known musical in recent memory (and perhaps all-time).
We see the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, still performing in his first musical “In the Heights” at night and writing this new show during the day. It’s fascinating to be “in the room where it happens,” to borrow a line from the show, seeing how Miranda constructs the scenes and the lyrics. Highlights from the show itself are also interspersed to let the viewing audience see the finished product. We are also allowed to sit in virtually on production meetings, visit backstage and experience the show’s opening night at The Public Theatre prior to Broadway.
Most documentaries would simply end there, having shown the day-to-day work needed to bring this story of the founding fathers to life. But this film goes much further and this is where its heart lies. In one scene, Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr) visit a historical society where they both hold authentic dueling pistols from their show’s time period. It is both fascinating and a bit chilling to watch these actors as they discuss their characters and how they must have lived and died. Another poignant moment is when African-American actor Christopher Jackson (George Washington) visits George Washington’s home and comes face-to-face with the slave quarters.
“Hamilton’s America” manages to be many things including a documentary about a Broadway musical and a history and economics lesson. Quite often trying to tackle too much ground invokes the “jack of all trades, master of none” label, but not in this case. Broadway and “Hamilton: An American Musical” fans will find great joy in this program, while those not familiar at all with the show will certainly take away a new appreciation for the founding fathers and their struggles.
Who knew that learning about how our economic system was formed could be so fun?
****1/2 out of *****
Directed by Alex Horwitz
PBS Great Performances
Photo: President Barack Obama and Lin-Manuel Miranda in “Hamilton’s America”