A voyeur's look at ‘Hamilton’ premieres on PBS
To say “Hamilton” has exploded like no other Broadway show in recent memory might be an understatement. The show took Broadway by storm, breaking box office records for the Richard Rodgers Theatre and winning 11 Tony Awards. It’s also entrenched itself into mainstream culture, with the cast album constantly holding a place on the Billboard Top 200 Albums and iTunes Best Sellers charts. So it’s only natural that the hysteria spread to television, taking the form of a documentary by PBS’s long-running “Great Performances” series, who made a similar doc for composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In The Heights” several years ago.
For “Hamilton” fans, this documentary is going to be yet another way to interact with the show they love. It’s not as much a technical breakdown of the show’s history, though, as a look inside how the story of Alexander Hamilton is told through this different form of storytelling. Though it did leave me wanting more stories about the show’s production, it’s still a fascinating look into how the life of “The $10 founding father without a father” was brought to life onstage.
The main story “Hamilton’s America” tells is how the music and other content of “Hamilton” relate to the life of Alexander Hamilton. It intersperses details of Hamilton’s life with clips of the staging and music from the musical. Ron Chernow, the author of the biography on which the show is based, is our main guide through the history and adds substantial insight to the historical details. The film also features politicians from both sides of the aisle talking about the impact of Hamilton on our government. Everyone from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and President George W. Bush to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) share their two cents about Hamilton. There’s also an extended sequence where Miranda interviews President Barack Obama (on the day of the cast and crew’s visit to the White House) illustrating just how important this show is.
Still, the best moments of the documentary come from when the cast talk about their characters. The documentary mixes actors’ talking heads with clips of them performing the songs. Watching Leslie Odom Jr. (the original Aaron Burr) and Chris Jackson (who currently plays George Washington) sing and bring their songs to life is amazing. Hearing Daveed Diggs (who originated the roles of Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson) and Jackson talk about how their characters were imperfect people (and owned slaves) are emotionally powerful moments. There’s one scene in particular where Jackson is standing in the slave quarters at Mount Vernon, talking about how he can’t ignore the moral imperfections about his character.
Where I wanted a little more from the documentary was a more in depth look into the success of the show and the consequences of that success. There are some wonderful talking heads from Miranda where he discusses the impact the show had on his life, and there are a few great shots of the adoring throngs of fans at the “Ham4Ham” lottery shows, a few brief clips from the Tonys and of the opening night parties both on and off Broadway. However, there are a few other stories that remain untold. One major one is the battle between the cast and producers for a percentage of the show’s backend that occurred early in the Broadway run and set a new precedent for major Broadway shows. It’s not surprising that a documentary would want to avoid talking about one of the show’s biggest controversies given that “Hamilton” ’s producer Jeffrey Seller is a producer on the actual documentary. Still, it’s definitely a story that would benefit from the inside look this documentary provides.
However, those are the nitpicky points about what is otherwise a fascinating look into one of the biggest musicals Broadway has ever seen. As someone who loves the show, to learn more about how and why the show made the choices it did in its characterizations and music is a splendid way to spend 90 minutes.
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Airs Friday 10/21 at 9 p.m.