Those eager to see Hamilton’s America, the PBS documentary about the smash-hit musical, won’t have to “wait for it” much longer — the film officially had its world premiere on Saturday at the New York Film Festival ahead of its broadcast debut on the network as part of its “Great Performances” series later this month.
Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was on hand for the event, and took part in a post-screening Q&A along with the documentary’s director, Alex Horwitz, original Broadway cast member Renee Elise Goldsberry, and historian Ron Chernow — whose biography of Founding Father and first U.S. treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton famously inspired Miranda to write the musical.
EW was in the Room Where It Happened for the premiere of the doc, which takes viewers inside the making of what’s become a cultural phenomenon. Here are five things we saw.
They don’t call it “Great Performances” for nothing
If you haven’t been able to score a ticket to see Hamilton live in person — whether at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York, the upcoming run in Chicago, the national tour kicking off in San Francisco, or the West End production coming to London — you’re in luck. Hamilton’s America is packed with performance footage from the musical, from the titular opening number to snippets of “The Schuyler Sisters,” King George’s “You’ll Be Back” and Leslie Odom Jr. singing Aaron Burr’s “Wait For It.” During the screening, the audience often erupted into applause when a musical snippet of the doc ended.
History has its eyes on you
Interspersed alongside Hamilton’s journey to the stage, from it’s Off-Broadway run to Broadway, is footage of Miranda & Co. making visits to real-life locations tied to Hamilton’s story. He visited Hamilton’s New York City home and worked on the song “My Shot” while sitting in Aaron Burr’s bedroom, while fellow original Broadway cast members Christopher Jackson, Anthony Ramos, Daveed Diggs, and Okieriete Onaodowan visited Valley Forge Historical Park.
During a separate visit to Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, Jackson (who plays Washington in the show) visits slaves’ quarters on the first president’s property and ponders how the Founding Fathers were “flawed people” — speaking about how the men who built this country, like Washington and Thomas Jefferson, fought for freedom while still owning slaves.
One other visit of note? Miranda and Odom Jr. going to 57 Maiden Lane, the site of the dinner between Hamilton, Jefferson, and James Madison that Burr sings about in “The Room Where It Happens.” It’s now an office building, but that didn’t stop Miranda from breaking into part of the tune while they were standing outside.
Hamilton at the White House
Earlier this year, the Hamilton cast traveled from New York to Washington for a reception at the White House, where they met with young students and performed selections from the show. Only two of those performances were live-streamed to the world, but Hamilton’s America features much more of them — including Jackson’s tear-jerking rendition of “One Last Time,” sang beside a portrait of Washington as President Obama watched in the audience.
Obama is also seen in the film during a sit-down interview with Miranda, and he’s not the only politician who makes an appearance. First lady Michelle Obama is seen introducing the Hamilton cast at the White House, and there are interviews about the real-life Hamilton’s legacy with Paul Ryan, Elizabeth Warren, and former President George W. Bush.
“In the greatest city in the world…”
In remarks before the screening, Horwitz noted how it was special that the documentary was premiering at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s NYC-based festival. “This film is at its heart a story about two New Yorkers. One of them was an immigrant, and came here and authored modern society as we know it. The other’s a native son who once wrote a song called ‘The Garbage Pail Kids are in Town,’” he joked of Miranda’s pre-Hamilton and In the Heights exploits.
After the screening, Horwitz also explained how he decided to begin filming on this project before Miranda even knew what Hamilton would be (in the doc, there’s a wink-wink moment where Miranda, still a year away from opening night, refers to the show and “whatever it becomes” that got a knowing laugh from the crowd).
“I didn’t know where Lin was going to go — he had just written songs, as he told me at that time,” he said. “He was still thinking concept album, musical … I said I don’t care, it doesn’t matter, because whatever it is, it’s you telling the story of Alexander Hamilton. So everything that came was an incredible bonus.”
A call to vote
On the red carpet at Saturday’s premiere, Miranda stressed the importance of voting in next month’s presidential election, and he echoed that same sentiment on stage during the Q&A. When asked about his thoughts on the election, specifically the rhetoric around immigrants, Miranda responded using examples from his musical about the Founding Fathers that are still relevant today.
“There are two things that are very recognizable in the show that I think resonate in 2016. One, Lafayette and Hamilton, two guys who came here from other countries, slap each-other five and say, ‘Look at where we are! Look at what we’ve made of a life in this country.’ That’s part of our American narrative, is that people come here from other places and help make this country great,” Miranda said. “The other thing, which you see in Act 2 is Jefferson, Madison and Burr singing, ‘This immigrant isn’t somebody we chose. This immigrant’s keeping us all on our toes.’ It’s almost an epithet. That’s another part of our history.”
“There is a long tradition of using the word immigrant as an epithet, of distrust of the latest group of people who have gotten here,” he continued. “And it is a very easy thing to do for a politician, and it happens every 20 years or so, it usually happens around an election cycle, we point at the people who got here most recently and say, ‘They’re the reason you don’t have a job.’ And ‘twas ever thus, it happened with the Irish at the turn of the 19th century, it’s happening with Mexican Americans right now, and this is about as virulent a form of this virus as I’ve seen in my lifetime. We have to survive it. And if it bothers you, vote.”
Hamilton’s America debuts Oct. 21 on PBS.