Hamilton’s America: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Process, the Historical Figure, the Issues

Elisa Lichtenbaum | October 3, 2016
The cast of “Hamilton” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City

The cast of “Hamilton” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City. Photo: Joan Marcus

It began in 2008. Lin-Manuel Miranda was on vacation in Mexico, reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton – all 832 pages of it. When he returned to New York, he invited Chernow to see In the Heights, his first Broadway show and winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical. During a backstage visit afterwards, Miranda told the author that as he was reading his book, hip-hop songs started rising off the pages.

“I knew it was my next show,” he says.

Eight years, 11 Tony® Awards, and one Pulitzer Prize later, Hamilton, Miranda’s hit musical, is the hottest ticket on Broadway and a pop culture phenomenon. It’s also the subject of Hamilton’s America, a new documentary from Great Performances airing this month as the season premiere of the PBS Arts Fall Festival on Friday, October 21 at 9pm ET.

The story of Alexander Hamilton is most remembered for its dramatic conclusion, which saw Hamilton killed in a duel by Vice President Aaron Burr. But the full story of this political genius – a poor immigrant who built himself up from nothing to become the architect of modern finance and one of the nation’s most vital authors – has largely been forgotten by history…until now.

Today, Hamilton’s fan club is vocal and growing, thanks, in no small measure, to Miranda’s revolutionary musical. With its young cast claiming America’s history as its own, Hamilton is redefining how audiences learn about history.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, writing in Aaron Burr's bedroom at The Morris-Jumel Mansion

Lin-Manuel Miranda, writing in Aaron Burr’s bedroom at The Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights, NYC, in a scene from Hamilton’s America. Photo: RadicalMedia.

Hamilton’s America, produced by RadicalMedia (Great PerformancesIn the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams) and directed by Alex Horwitz, offers an intimate look at the creation of the show, revealing Miranda’s process as he adapts Hamilton’s epic story into groundbreaking musical theater. Newly shot footage of the New York production with its original cast and trips to Mt. Vernon, Valley Forge, and other historic locations with Miranda and other cast members further flesh out the story. President Barack Obama, President George W. Bush, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Secretary Hank Paulson, Secretary Timothy Geithner, Questlove, Black Thought, Jimmy Fallon, John Weidman, Nas, and Stephen Sondheim are among the notable interviews.

Highlights of the film include Miranda performing an early version of the musical’s opening number at The White House in 2009 and composing songs in Aaron Burr’s Manhattan bedroom. In Virginia, Christopher Jackson (George Washington in the musical), grapples with our Founders’ legacy of slavery while preparing for the role. Back in New York, Miranda, (Hamilton) and Leslie Odom, Jr. (who won a Tony® Award for his portrayal of Aaron Burr) visit the Museum of American Finance, where they get a deeper understanding of the historical figures they are depicting onstage and learn how to handle authentic 19th-century dueling pistols.

Hamilton’s America shows just how timeless the hot-button issues of today’s America are: immigration, States’ rights, debt, income inequality, and race relations. These were the same fights that defined Hamilton’s time, and they are the driving force of Miranda’s historic work.

The role that storytelling plays in history is a central theme of Hamilton the musical and Hamilton’s America. The musical invites audiences to ponder: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” In the film, Miranda marvels at the way Alexander Hamilton has changed his life – and the way the show has enriched Hamilton’s legacy.

“He reached out of the Chernow book and grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go until I told his story,” he says.

Watch Preview: Hamilton’s America

Hamilton’s America, a new documentary from Great Performances premieres on the PBS Arts Fall Festival on Friday, October 21 at 9pm ET.
The broadcast will simultaneous stream anywhere you watch PBS programming — including the ThirteenExplore App for AppleTV, iPad, iPhone or Android Tablet, here on our Great Performances page, and on Great Performances Facebook!

Want More Hamilton?

THIRTEEN has created a treasury of resources to enhance your experience of Hamilton’s America. Visit our Great Performances page or follow the series on Facebook  or Twitter (@GperfPBS) to watch the Hamilton in :60 Seconds web series and other exclusive video content, read feature stories, learn about special giveaways, and more.

Teachers can enjoy a variety of classroom-ready resources to teach students about Alexander Hamilton’s role in the founding of the United States, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s process for creating theater from history, and more. Go to pbslearningmedia.org and search for “Hamilton’s America” for educational content provided by WNET.