‘Hamilton’s America’: A Behind-the-Scenes History

Photo: PBS
Photo: PBS

Anyone lusting after a bit of the Hamilton experience — the Broadway musical phenomenon created by Lin-Manuel Miranda — will get some satisfaction from Hamilton’s America, a PBS Great Performances episode airing Friday. It’s not the full-length Broadway show, but rather a look at how Miranda created it, with a few juicy excerpts.

The TV show is directed by Alex Horwitz, and because he’s an old college pal of Miranda’s, it has an advantage few such making-of-a-show documentaries possess: Horwitz began filming Miranda while he was still creating Hamilton, literally years before it became the hit we know, or at least have heard about.

Related: ‘Hamilton’s America’ Director Alex Horwitz Previews the PBS Documentary

This gives Hamilton’s America a certain intimacy. We see Miranda tinkering away on lyrics, through the opening night downtown at the Public Theater before it goes uptown to Broadway and vast commercial glory. There are interviews with Ron Chernow, author of the highly acclaimed Alexander Hamilton biography that sparked Miranda’s interest in the Founding Father; with Stephen Sondheim, one of Miranda’s musical-theater idols; and with Nas, one of the hip-hop artists who Miranda says inspired his rhymes and rhythms. There are visits to Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania and George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Va. There are cameo appearances by Barack and Michelle Obama as White House Hamilton fans. Warning: You also have to sit through not-particularly-enlightening comments by Jimmy Fallon, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and former Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner, among others.

Many viewers who haven’t scored a ticket to see Hamilton will be both excited by Hamilton’s America and frustrated that we only get snippets of any given production number. But that’s the way this genre of documentary goes, and the TV show gives you a solid background in the history of Hamilton’s era that may enhance your experience if and when you do see the show. I’m not a big fan of having the actors from a piece of creative work speak about the history of his or her character — I always feel as though they’re being used for their familiar-face celebrity, as opposed to their knowledge, which is almost inevitably myopic. But there are enough supplementary interviews with various historians and educators, such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to give the talking-head interviews some weight. All in all, Hamilton’s America is a classy commercial for the show.

Hamilton’s America airs Friday on PBS. Check your local listings.