“If [Alexander Hamilton] were alive today, he’d say America succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.”
The words are spoken by President Barack Obama as he chats with Tony Award-winning composer/lyricist/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda in a scene from “Hamilton’s America,” the long-awaited, behind-the-scenes documentary of the stage musical “Hamilton.”
The president is one of a handful of the doc’s “talking heads,” which include former President George W. Bush, Jimmy Fallon, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, cable news journalist Maria Bartiromo, the creative team behind “Hamilton,” legendary Broadway musical composers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, and a handful of the principal actors from the Broadway cast of the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.
Miranda has succeeded beyond his own wildest dreams, he admits, when it comes to the musical that began soon after he accidentally picked up a copy of Ron Chernow’s massive biography, “Alexander Hamilton” while on vacation six years ago. Finding the book “a deeply moving, compelling read,” Miranda reveals he knew instantly that the narrative would be his next project (he was starring in his other Broadway megahit, “In the Heights” at the time).
He remembers telling himself: “This is Tupac. This Biggie,” he says to the camera in director Alex Horowitz’s “Great Performances” film, which debuts at 9 tonight on WTTW-Channel 11 (and other PBS stations). “This is my next show.”
“America’s Hamilton” is not the filmed musical (that is tentatively coming down the pike); it is Miranda & Company’s way of giving us the show’s backstory intercut with scenes from the Broadway production intercut with American history experts’ anecdotes about the real Hamilton & Company.
It’s also a window into Miranda’s creative process. Visiting Hamilton’s home, now a museum, Miranda snaps a photo of the Founding Father’s portable writing desk, making that image the skin for the Mac on which he slowly creates his musical (it took him two years to craft two songs). Watch as he sits in Aaron Burr’s bedroom (on a special chair, not the colonial antiques, Miranda explains), furiously freestyling lyrics into his computerized “writing desk.”
“This is a New York story,” Miranda proclaims about his musical, showing us the Washington Heights apartment soon to be occupied by he and his wife, Vanessa Nadal, and their then newborn child. “These blocks I pass are rich in American history! [Hamilton and his family and contemporaries] were Uptown, not in Philadelphia!”
Singing Miranda’s praises, Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis tells his off-camera interviewer, that Miranda, in his musical, succeeded in “taking the voice of the common people and elevating it to poetry… elevating what is noble about the common tongue. Nobody since Shakespeare has done that.”
Members of the “Hamilton” cast are shown visiting Valley Forge, Aaron Burr’s final bedroom, to better connect with their historical counterparts, drawing inspiration and deeper understanding of the men and women they will portray in 8 performances a week. The locations, the colonial furniture and other historical artifacts serve as invaluable touchstones. Christopher Jackson, (who portrayed George Washington on Broadway), visits the president’s slave quarters at Mount Vernon. One scene punctuating the lengths to which the cast went to connect with the past, shows Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. (who delivered a best actor Tony-winning turn as Aaron Burr in the Broadway production) learning how to load authentic duel pistols.
And there is so much more the documentary reveals, which you’ll have to tune in to catch. Above all, this is NOT a making-of documentary, but a glimpse at the journey the cast and creative team took to get to opening night at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theater, where the show continues to play to sold-out houses. It’s a history lesson with so many parallels to our world today, and whether or not you can take in the stage musical, you will be moved to learn more about the struggles, the dealmaking (and deal breaking), the men and women, the triumphs and heartaches behind the founding of America.
“Hamilton proved the condition of your birth shouldn’t determine the outcome of your life,” House Speaker Paul Ryan intones toward the end of the documentary. “[Hamilton] came from nothing and rose to the highest levels of serving this country.”
The American Dream lives on.
“Hamilton” is currently playing at the PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe. For tickets, visit broadwayinchicago.com