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PBS documentary ‘Hamilton’s America’ offers inside look at the award-winning musical

Filmmaker Alex Horwitz knew from experience that something interesting would come of training cameras on his friend and former Wesleyan roommate Lin-Manuel Miranda as he worked on his new project. He had no idea how interesting.

Horwitz’s documentary “Hamilton’s America,” airing on PBS on Friday as part of the “Great Performances” series, offers a unique, ground-up look at Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony award-winning smash hit musical “Hamilton.”

“I thought, if nothing else, I was just making something that would be my only chance to get a ticket to see the show,” joked Horwitz to reporters earlier this year at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour. “That was the impetus.”

In truth, Horwitz said, “I didn’t know what Lin was making any more than he did… Lin had this sort of half-baked idea. It might be a concept album, it might be a show. It was the time where he started using the term ‘show’ or ‘musical’ more often that I said, ‘Look, I don’t know what you’re going to make, but let me follow you, doing it.’”

As “Hamilton” blossomed, Horwitz understood that it was an extraordinary project, but neither he, nor his fellow panelist Daveed Diggs — who won the Tony for his portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in the groundbreaking show — had any inkling of the phenomenon that it would become.

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Diggs said “Hamilton” mania started becoming clear to him around the second time the cast met President Obama. “And then by the third time, you’re like, ‘OK,’” he said, still somewhat incredulous at the memory.

“What was great about this, and I think Alex will probably attest to this too, is that you’re kind of in a vacuum, working on it,” said the actor-rapper. “I mean, the creative scene did a really good job at sort of blocking out all of the noise. So, as this phenomenon was developing, we were just building a show. And so it’s always kind of surprising. Walking out that stage door is still surprising to see that many people sort of ravenous about this thing, you know, because it’s a play, right? Like, people seem to forget, like it’s a play.”

Although Diggs recently left the show to pursue other opportunities, including his current stint on the ABC sitcom “black-ish,” he notes, “It was nice that people were falling in love with it the same ways that we did, because that was our job.”

When asked to put his finger on the reason why the show became such a runaway success, Horwitz said it was inarticulable.

“I hope that I found the pictures and the words of others in this film to explain it,” he said. “I’ve been following this for a while now, and I don’t know that I’ve cracked exactly how Lin’s alchemy is working, why a debate in hip-hop form about the assumption of states’ war debt is the most exciting thing to happen to theater maybe ever; certainly, in many years. I just know that it works, and I think the proof is just in the pudding, so I filmed a lot of the pudding, and we’ll bring it to you.”

He noted that the film features two presidents— Barack Obama and George W. Bush— and two secretaries of the treasury, as well as interviews with Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim and rapper Nas. “We’ve got a lot of people to try to decode that for us, and they are more eloquent than I could ever be on the subject, so that’s why I made a movie about it.”

Although Miranda himself could not attend the panel, he sent a video greeting to critics in which he confided the “secret” that his first job was as an intern at the New York PBS station WNET, which produced “Hamilton’s America.”

He continued, “Alex has trailed me for the past couple of years. So you’re going to see footage of me and my creative team and our incredible cast that’s never been shown before. And I’m gratified that it’s going to be the kickoff for the PBS Arts Fall Festival, which always features an insanely eclectic mix of cultural programming.”

“The film is very special to me,” he said. “It’s not so much behind the scenes of the making of the musical, as it is an explanation of Alexander Hamilton’s life, and how that was cultured through the musical. When you see it, I think you’ll note the strong parallels to America today.”


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