Here’s what you won’t see when you tune in to the documentary Hamilton’s America, which premieres as part of PBS’s Great Performances series on Oct. 21: a complete, uncut airing of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical sensation. But here’s what you will see: a compelling glimpse into how Hamilton the show — and Alexander Hamilton the man — came of age. Filmed over a period of several years, the documentary follows Miranda from some of his earliest songwriting sessions to opening night on Broadway, while also tracing the real Hamilton’s rise through Revolutionary-era America. “As a history nerd and musical theater nerd, this story scratched a lot of itches for me,” says Hamilton’s America director, Alex Horwitz, who has been friends with Miranda since their college days. We spoke with Horwitz about the scenes that didn’t make the final cut, his favorite Hamil-tunes, and how many times he’s seen the show.
Yahoo TV: What’s the backstory on your relationship with Lin-Manuel Miranda, and how did it lead to Hamilton’s America?
Alex Horwitz: Lin and I met during our freshman year at Wesleyan University — this would have been the spring of 1999 — and we’ve been friends ever since. So I had that privileged access a friend has when he gets to hear something another friend is working on. At the time I started filming, he had a handful of songs and not a fully formed concept. But whatever it turned out to be, I knew it would be good, and I was interested in capturing the process as early as I could. I’m grateful to him for saying yes, because it was one thing for him to share his work with me early on. It was an entirely different thing for him to let me capture the creative process.
Since he didn’t have a clear idea of what Hamilton would turn out to be at the time you started filming, you similarly wouldn’t have known what the documentary would end up becoming.
I solved that problem by conceiving of the film in a less straightforward way. I could have made a behind-the-scenes documentary, but I had already seen that movie. In fact, Radical Media, which produced Hamilton’s America, had already partnered with Great Performances to make an In the Heights documentary many years earlier. There’s a question in that film of: Are they going to make it? Is the show going to succeed? It’s a really good documentary, but I didn’t want to make another version of that. Lin being a known entity this time around made that approach feel less dramatic. But the drama did lie in the life of Alexander Hamilton, and that would still be the case no matter what became of Lin’s project. I would still have a film about an artist’s process of grappling with history. That seemed to me like a richer, more long-lasting way to make the film. I like “process films,” but I didn’t want to do that here.
Of course, the “process” scenes are the moments that Hamilton fans are probably most eager to see. The sequence where we watch Miranda writing an early version of the song “My Shot” is a standout moment. Are there other scenes like it that you had to leave on the cutting room floor?
We don’t have as many more of those scenes as you might imagine, but we do have that big benchmark one. And all credit is due to Lin for opening that door. He’s very generous with his fans and the press and loves to talk about his work, but he’s also rightfully protective of the writing process. That was one of the first scenes I shot, and it’s the centerpiece of the first half of the film. We had about 100 hours’ worth of material when all’s said and done, so a lot of good stuff did hit the cutting room floor.
Is there enough material left over to potentially make an alternate version that’s more process-oriented?
I wouldn’t say I had a second version in mind, but I would love it if some of the extended interviews and deleted scenes got to see the light of day, if only for educational purposes. There’s a lot of substantive stuff in there about how Broadway actors and creators put a show together, along with commentary from some of the incredible interview subjects we landed.
Some of those subjects include politicians like President Obama, George W. Bush, and Paul Ryan, whom you wouldn’t expect to see in a documentary about a Broadway show. Were any trepidatious about participating?
I will say that some of the interviews were trickier to get than others. Once they were assured that we weren’t going to be a partisan film, they couldn’t have been more open. The good thing is that we were talking about a shared history and common American values. We were only looking at politics in the historical sense, and that’s not the kind of interview those people often get to do. And, just to be clear, not all of them had seen Hamilton at the time. We were talking about the man, not the musical. But even if they hadn’t seen it, they realized that it was a great pop culture touchstone to discuss. So I have to credit Lin with creating something they liked!
Who were you personally most excited to meet?
I have musical theater in my blood — my father [Murray Horwitz] won a Tony for Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 1978 — so to be in Stephen Sondheim’s presence is to be in the presence of greatness. And I was starstruck by Elizabeth Warren, even more so than the president — maybe that’s just me! What’s interesting is that in all of our interviews, we weren’t talking to stars or divas — just people at the top of their fields, whether they were artists or politicians. They were so good at connecting with us as people, not filmmakers.
What specific documentaries informed the style of Hamilton’s America?
I’m a big Ken Burns fan. Anyone who makes a documentary about American history does so in his shadow, especially when you’re making a documentary for PBS! And I stole freely from Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard. That’s also not a process film; it’s about one artist grappling with this text — Shakespeare’s Richard III — and exploring the history behind it. You get to see dramatized scenes, but you also get out into the world on field trips and learn more about the source material.
There are a number of “field trips” in Hamilton’s America, following the cast of Hamilton as they visit various historical sites associated with their characters in the musical.
That all started with Lin. Early on, he told me that he sometimes went to Aaron Burr’s bedroom at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in upper Manhattan to write. After that, we thought of different places we could go, and the cast thought of trips they could take themselves. Chris Jackson, who played George Washington, is a big history nerd, and when he told me, “I have to go down to Mount Vernon,” I said, “Yeah, you do! And we’re going with you.” [Laughs] With a historical documentary, anytime that you can get out into the world and show stuff, that’s a breath of fresh air. It also provides the great opportunity to literally look at history over the shoulder of actors that the audience is already a fan of.
Hamilton’s original Broadway cast recorded one of their last performances before Miranda and other actors left the show. That’s not the performance footage we see in Hamilton’s America, correct?
I’m glad you asked because we can help clear up any confusion. That full recording of the show happened — it was directed by Hamilton director Tommy Kail — but it’s an entirely separate thing that happened after our documentary was already complete. That [performance] has gone into the vault, not to be seen by the public until they decide to release it. So we worked with pre-existing recordings of the show made for a number of different purposes.
As you mentioned earlier, you’re in the privileged position of knowing Miranda. What’s something you know about him that might surprise his fanbase?
The question I get most often is “What was Lin like then, and what is he like now?” I’m happy to report that he’s remarkably unchanged; his public and private persona are very much the same. The stage has simply gotten bigger. People have also said that it’s great to be able to show his process, warts and all. To which I say, there are no warts. There’s no acrimony or drama, really. Lin and Tommy have no patience for that. They surround themselves with a wonderful group of people.
Because Hamilton fans will want to know: How many times have you seen the show?
Well, now you’re going to make them hate me if I give you a number! [Laughs] All the way through, from beginning to end, I’ve seen it about seven times. I was also present in the room as a guest for the live recording of the original Broadway cast. I count myself lucky to have seen it as many times as I have.
And what’s your favorite song?
“Dear Theodosia” gets me in the gut every time I hear it. Lin and I both became fathers at around the same time, and that song is one that new fathers respond to. I also think that “Satisfied” is one of the most amazing feats of theater I’ve ever seen. It’s an incredible piece of writing, as well as staging, and Renée Elise Goldsberry sings her face off. But the songs that made me want to make this film more than anything are the cabinet battles. Those, to me, are the purest example of Lin’s alchemy at work. You’re seeing the Founding Fathers debating the issues of their day in language that’s utterly appropriate for today. It’s hard to imagine they weren’t rapping, because that’s now how we think of history.
Hamilton’s America premieres on Oct. 21 at 9 p.m. on PBS.