Thought You Knew Everything About ‘Hamilton’? The Documentary That Will Make You Think Again

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By John Simon | 9:28 am, October 18, 2016

The documentary about the making of the musical Hamilton conveys that there can exist a show offering the proverbial something for everyone. So much so that people have paid a thousand dollars for a ticket and left, wonder of wonders, not disappointed.

We gather from Hamilton’s America that Lin-Manuel Miranda worked six years conceiving and creating the musical in which the founding fathers produce pretty much what became today’s America.

A former classmate of Miranda’s, Alex Horwitz, shot one hundred hours of film for the documentary Hamilton’s America which he boiled down to 84 minutes providing the answers to those with a healthy appetite for more about Alexander Hamilton, revolutionary hero, Washington’s secretary and first Secretary of the Treasury, theorist and enactor of American economic history and much else, as the musical that celebrates him attests.

Be in the room where it happened Friday, October 21st 9/8c on @PBS. #HamilDocPBS

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The story of its coming about abounds in what ifs. What if Miranda had not been off on a vacation and looked for a big book to last him all the way? What if Ron Chernow’s doorstopper, “Alexander Hamilton,” did not extend to many hundreds of pages? What if Miranda had not picked it up off an airport bookstore shelf? What if he had not become absorbed by it?

What if, we gather from the documentary, Miranda had not been asked to perform a number from his previous hit show In the Heights at a special White House evening?And what if, instead, he performed a song he wrote about Alexander Hamilton, and been hotly urged by the Obamas and others to base a musical on it?

Oscar Eustis, head of New York’s Public Theater, where the show was first produced, compares Miranda to Shakespeare, who ennobled ordinary speech: what blank verse did for the one, hip hop and rap did for the other. And so, mounted by the Public, the musical became such a sell-out hit that, transferred to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre it made theatrical history (eleven Tonys) echoing political history.

It opened even as Lin-Manuel and his wife moved into a grander apartment in New York’s Washington Heights, and had their first child, a boy.

Horwitz followed a fruitful formula. Have Chernow as amiably professorial narrator of historical events and crosscut to scenes of their enactment. Two further, female historians were consulted: Joanne Freeman, white, and Annette Gordon-Reed, black; the former a bit of a flibbertigibbet in gesture and delivery, the latter calm and dignified.

We are introduced to the makers of the musical: David Korins, who designed the two-tier, two-staircase (one curving up on each side) set, and a large turntable in the middle; Paul Tazewell, who created the very authentic-looking costumes in colorful variety; Howell Binkley, who designed some dramatic lighting coming from diverse sources; Alex Lacamoire, who contributed ennobling orchestrations and thrusting music direction; Andy Blankenbuehler, who provided a kind of through-danced effect, with imaginative, near-continuous dancing in some part of the stage, at the very least sneakily lurking around the edges.

Finally, there is the expert direction of Thomas Kail, who manifestly elicited the most dedicated performances, their essences captured in the documentary. There is pony-tailed Miranda, not only protagonist but also a kind of compere or MC; also the vaguely sinister figure of Vice-president Aaron Burr (“I am the damn fool who shot him”), first lawyer colleague and friend, then rival and antagonist, and finally killer duelist, in a performance that won Lesley Odom, Jr. a Tony.

There is also Daveed Diggs, differently but equally amusing as Lafayette and Jefferson. We get, further, a beleaguered but commanding, human but not superhuman, first George W. from Christopher Jackson. Jonathan Groff makes the grandly condescending King George into an uproariously funny figure, here with sharp observations about the royal’s inflated character.

“Hamilton’s America” is not quite as generous to the actresses, the socially prominent Schuyler women: Angelica, Alexander’s favorite and only intellectual equal, a sort of super-gamine (Renee Elise Goldsberry); Eliza, who married this upstart, originally penniless and illegitimate Caribbean island orphan (Phillipa Soo); and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones), played by the same actress as Maria Reynolds, with whom, much later, Hamilton had a scandalous adulterous affair, only to have her husband blackmail him.

Most of these parts are played by African Americans or Latinos (or, in the case of Ms. Soo, an Asian American) some of whom confess to their difficult grappling with having to embody such flawed persons as Washington and Jefferson, their equalitarian proclamations belied by their ownership of slaves.

Why all the ethnic actors? The documentary does not explain it, but I guess to show that racial differences are only skin deep, performers who specialize in hip hop and rap, and to give minorities much needed opportunities to show off their talents. Furthermore, however morally impugnable these founding fathers could be, they were also brilliant in so many other ways.

Also many museum scenes of the principals’ reconstructed domiciles (Miranda even wrote a couple of pages in Hamilton’s bedroom, though he was never allowed to touch an object such as the owner’s desk), as well as spectacular outdoors shots of battlegrounds and statues, including one full three-dimensional representation of the fateful duel. To show Hamilton and his cohorts on historic locations provides much needed effective cinematic variety.

Mention must also be made of the many distinguished figures from politics and the arts who contributed provocative comments. They include the Obamas, President George W. Bush and spouse, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senator Elizabeth Warren, savvy Secretaries of the Treasury Henry Paulson (who declares Hamilton the Father of Wall Street) and Timothy Geithner, Questlove and Black Thought, Nas, awestruck Jimmy Fallon, and others.

Altogether Hamilton’s America  is a highly accomplished documentary, emotionally stimulating and intellectually enriching. It’s full of touching scenes, none more so than footage of Lin-Manuel with his immigrant father, Luis who quit his native Puerto Rico for education, work, and raising a family in the United States.

His journey replicated that of Hamilton’s.

Hamilton’s America will be broadcast on Friday, October 21 at 9/8c on PBS