No one really knows how the game is played/The art of the trade/How the sausage gets made/We just assume that it happens/”The room where it happens”.
On November 14, 1972, ten days before Richard Millhouse Nixon was elected to a second term as president of the United States, PBS launched a new series: Great Performances. The first program was a televised adaptation of The Rimers of Eldritch, directed by Davey Marlin-Jones, and featuring a pre-Rocky Horror Picture Show Susan Sarandon.
Now in its 44th season, Great Performances opens its 2016-2017 season with the premiere of Hamilton’s America, a documentary directed by Alex Horowitz, which provides a behind-the-scenes look at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway hit Hamilton. On one level, this is an obvious Machiavellian marketing exchange: Miranda gets an 80-minute advertisement for his play, and PBS gets to piggy back on the play’s success to attract pledges. While the episode aired on October 21, it’s likely to be featured heavily in many future pledge drives.
The original Hamilton playbill included the cover text: “Who lives, Who dies, Who tells your story”. Until Miranda’s play, most people Alexander Hamilton as the guy on the US $10 bill. Prior to Hamilton, Miranda had won a Tony for Best Original Score for his play The Heights, which also won a Tony for best musical, and was probably best known as Juan ‘Alvie’ Alvarez, a small recurring role in the television series House, MD. In this respect, the play itself tells the story of Hamilton, and the documentary tells the story of the play and, in part, Miranda’s personal history.
What’s both excluded and included make the documentary stronger. Horowitz does an exceptional job of limiting the onanistic show-business hyperbole, although the segment where Miranda is defined as the closest writer to Shakespeare since Shakespeare induced an eye roll. There were a few other equally sycophantic moments, but they were kept to a minimum.
Horowitz includes a lot of good stuff in Hamilton’s America. One of the most sentimental elements of the story is Miranda envisioning Hamilton as Miranda’s father, Luis A. Miranda, Jr. Both were born on islands and moved to New York; Hamilton in the West Indies, and Mr. Miranda in Puerto Rico. Both immigrated to New York and found great political success. Hamilton was the first US Secretary of the Treasury, and Mr. Miranda served as a Special Advisor for Hispanic Affairs to former Mayor Edward I. Koch, as well as Director of the Mayor’s Office for Hispanic Affairs from 1984 to 1987.
This inclusion was very important because it gives credibility to Miranda’s project. The idea of making a Broadway musical that combines hip-hop and the founder of the US banking and economic system seems so utterly contrived. Approximately 5 years ago, Miranda meditated on what two cultural entities were most divorced from each other, and his passion was unite those two entities. He clearly has a great deal of admiration and affection for both his father and hip-hop music.
Hamilton’s America also does a good job of documenting the process of making a Broadway hit, from conception to Tony highlights. The project started when Miranda went on vacation with a copy of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. While reading it, Miranda said that he heard the voices of great hip-hop artists like The Notorious B.I.G., Mobb Deep, A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, DMX, Jay-Z, and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. Chernow’s look of bemusement over the idea of reading B.I.B. into Hamilton’s words was fairly entertaining, and one that would be echoed several more times within the documentary, most notably by President Barack Obama, who described his reaction to Miranda’s description of the project with, “Good luck with that.”
A good deal of the documentary deals with detailing the history behind the play. The term “founding fathers” is slightly misleading, suggesting that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe stumbled about and founded a fully formed government. Many have “founded” the democratic idea of America, but what we know of the country’s political and economic structure had to be built, which meant they needed an architect. Hamilton was that architect. Horowitz drafts a cavalcade of heavy political hitters to comment on Hamilton, Jefferson, and Washington’s impact on contemporary America, including President Obama, former President George W. Bush, US Senator Elizabeth Warren, current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and former secretaries of the treasury Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner.
The job of documentaries is to do two things: inform and entertain. On the first point, Hamilton’s America isn’t flawless. Horowitz touches on a lot of subjects in the documentary, and could’ve delved more deeply into the play’s hip-hop influences. It is, however, off-the-charts entertaining. Spliced in are several of the play’s musical numbers. Further, Miranda is very likable, which makes the audience root for him. Even though Hamilton’s America blurs the lines between advertisement and documentary, it’s well worth the 80-odd minutes the viewer invests in it.