Hamilton’s America Makes History Thrilling
By Lou Fancher
Composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda should take more vacations.
Not because he’s worn out from the six-year ramp up to Hamilton, the Tony-, Grammy-, and Emmy-winning revolutionary hip-hop musical for which he wrote the book, lyrics, and music and in which he performs the title role. Not because the MacArthur Fellows Program and Pulitzer Prize recipient became a first-time father while pivoting the music industry on the wheels of a story that previously induced snores in schoolchildren and today has made them lovers of American history and theater. And not even because Miranda has made improbable pop-culture stars out of Alexander Hamilton and other Founding Fathers of the United States.
Rather, it was while on vacation that Miranda picked up author and historian Ron Chernow’s hulking, 818-page biography of Hamilton. Hoping to numb his brain after having completed In the Heights, his first Broadway musical that racked up a comparatively small but admirable set of trophies, Miranda discovered a tale that “grabbed” him and wouldn’t let him go. The “residual” of his vacation reading has benefitted scores of people, from Broadway investors to audiences to advocates who insist that theater, dance, and music of all genres are essential to a good life.
Hamilton presents an immigrant story on a grand scale: a Caribbean orphan comes to America and through intellect and sheer will becomes General George Washington's assistant, establishes the national banking system, and serves as the nation’s first secretary of the treasury. Dramatically, Hamilton was shot and killed by Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, during a duel in 1804. The success of the musical has been a shot in the arm for the musical theater industry and is the subject of a new PBS Great Performances documentary.
Illustrated in marvelous detail and told with fresh, exuberant voices, director Alex Horwitz’s spirited Hamilton's America (streaming online at PBS through Nov. 18) is an unexpected thrill ride. Combining fine cinematography and alternately providing the historical story and the making-of-a-musical story, the far-from-dry documentary features charismatic experts like Chernow and instant-recognition politicians — President Barack Obama, President George W. Bush, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and others.
Juxtaposed with the talking heads are intimate, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Miranda forlornly contemplating his ketchup-and-tonic-water-only fridge contents, plunking dissonantly on an untuned piano, and bemoaning towers of boxes in a new home. There are scenes of kitchen-table collaborations with Hamilton director Alex Lacamoire and music director Thomas Kail and touching, quiet clips in which Miranda labors over the score while working on a laptop in the Manhattan bedroom of Aaron Burr. Describing the first urge to transpose Hamilton’s story into hip-hop, Miranda says that he realized: “This is Tupac, this is Biggie, this is a hip-hop story. This is my next show.”
A particularly enjoyable episode follows Miranda and actor Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Burr, at the Museum of American Finance. Visiting the museum to gain factual insight, there’s a boyish glee as the two men brandish 18th-century dueling pistols. While holding the barrels vertically and learning how to ram the gunpowder down, they marvel at the lengthy, bitter letters that Hamilton and Burr wrote to each other that outlined their disputes before the duel. “There was plenty of time to apologize,” says Miranda.
Inarguably, the documentary is most compelling during the numerous clips that show actual footage of the production and appearances Miranda and the cast made at the White House. “Alexander Hamilton,” the song that took Miranda a year to write and was previewed at the White House during an Evening of Poetry & Spoken Word in 2009, was the launch pad for the eventual musical. A video of the piece went viral and convinced Miranda that his song was the beginning of a show. Even so, it was years before he’d be backstage in costume, telling Horwitz’ camera that “it’s such a kick to get to play dress-up and sing the songs.”
The documentary proves that Miranda’s genius with words and music extends well beyond hip-hop's rap to pop, R&B, big showstopper tunes and more. Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis (at the theater in which Hamilton opened before moving to Broadway) likens Miranda to Shakespeare and says that he is “taking the voice of common people, and elevating it to ... poetry” and bringing out what is noble in “the common tongue.” Throughout, Horwitz’s film captures the feel of hip-hop: urgency builds to feverish pace when the plot thickens and the camera moves accordingly, sharp breaks between shots onstage or surprising side view angles or on-the-floor perspectives provide a dizzying effect, and slowing everything down and steadying the camera to allow a comment from an actor to resonate offers unforced profundity that never disturbs the story’s forward flow and overall momentum.
If there’s a misstep to the documentary it is that it is not the musical, but will leave you wanting nothing less. Or maybe it’s the way it skips lightly over the amount of anguish that was surely a part of such a large, lengthy undertaking. Of course, the best cure for anguish or unsatisfied desire is to take a vacation. Plan to visit a city in which Hamilton is playing and invite Miranda to come along and recommend that he bring reading material.