If you need any further proof of Hamilton’s cultural monumentality, watch Lin-Manuel Miranda — its playwright, songwriter, and original star — as he interviews President Obama about the musical’s importance in the Broadway production’s making-of documentary. With performances sold out until next spring and ticket prices in the hundreds of dollars, Hamilton’s America (PBS) — which debuts tonight (October 21) — is probably the closest many of us will get to the show for a while. That’s unfortunate, because the doc is so obviously a filmed playbill for the already converted that it doesn’t even bother imparting to newbies a synopsis of the musical.
Miranda recasts Alexander Hamilton — the Founding Father best known for establishing America’s financial system and being the face of the $10 bill — as a Caribbean immigrant and a prodigy from humble origins who changed the world from his perch in New York. Hamilton’s America leans heavily into those parallels between Hamilton and Miranda, the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant. (“I’m just playing my dad in the show,” jokes the actor and writer, “down to the hair.”) The camera visits Miranda’s apartment at six-month intervals before opening night, but its subject elides serious probing. The documentary’s deepest insights into Miranda are those we could already guess. He’s a huge history nerd, squee-ing over the fact that a historical house has set the dining-room table the way it would be in Revolutionary times. And he’s still very much a theater kid, his huge, baby-kitten eyes insisting, “I feel like Hamilton chose me. He reached out ... and wouldn’t let me go until I wrote his story.”
Viewers who want a series of famous talking heads waxing lyrical about the musical’s delights will be sated. (Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the off-Broadway Public Theater, earnestly toasts Manuel as an equal to Shakespeare.) The choice of commentators isn’t always intuitive — who thinks of late-night host Jimmy Fallon as a musical-theater arbiter? — and Paul Ryan and Elizabeth Warren appear to take subtle potshots at their opponents across the aisle. (Warren grants Hamilton’s importance, but she’s not a fan of the way his policies enabled the concentration of wealth.) Even the interviews with key members of the cast and crew — some of whom travel to the estates of the characters they play — aren’t as interesting as the analyses of the decisions that went into Hamilton: why Thomas Jefferson croons in jazz while Hamilton and his future killer Aaron Burr rap, how the disparate hip-hop styles of the various characters define their personalities, and to what extent death was an unavoidable part of the Founding Fathers’ lives. But the doc’s cheerleading function comes through most in its wholesale evasion of the motivations behind the production’s most eye-catching and (stupidly) controversial detail: its predominant cast of color.
That makes the film’s biography of Hamilton, which wraps around Hamilton’s own story, its most compelling element by default. As historians get deeper into differing monetary philosophies, the case for the 18th-century statement’s relevance gets lost in the weeds. But at least Hamilton’s America follows Hamilton in making the man — and especially his relationships with Burr, Jefferson, and George Washington — feel jealously alive. It’s Miranda — with his comparisons of Jefferson to Bugs Bunny (both are “indefatigable winners”) and illustrations of how much our country was initially designed by a small group of twentysomethings “flying by the seat of their pants” — who remains the musical’s most effective spokesman. Even more than the snippets of muscular rhymes and the thunderous dances we see from time to time, the writer convinces us that there’s something more to experience here beyond the novelties of rapping Founding Fathers: There’s a story, and who gets to tell it matters.