He’s on the $10 bill.
He was a Founding Father.
He was killed in a duel.
He was tall…I think?
If you asked me what I knew about Alexander Hamilton a year ago, those are the few facts I could have told you about him, off the top of my head.
I know, I know. It’s bad. And the worst part about it? I actually like American history!
But thanks in large part to a certain musical that’s been sweeping the nation, I no longer know next to nothing about our “founding father without a father.” After hearing the soundtrack to “Hamilton” for the first time, I became obsessed with knowing more about the remarkable, and, in many ways deeply flawed, man that made our country so much of what it is today.
And now, thanks to “Hamilton’s America,” a new documentary produced by PBS, I also know the story behind how “Hamilton” the musical came to be. And, in a stunning number of ways, it’s a story that’s equally as remarkable as the man himself.
CUT TO: 2008. Lin-Manuel Miranda is in the middle of performances for his smash-hit Broadway musical “In the Heights.” We see him in his apartment, mulling over ideas for a new musical…something that came to him while laying in a hammock on vacation, reading a book he bought because it looked big and would get him through his trip.
It’s “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow—and it would change Miranda’s life. After getting to know more than the second chapter, Miranda is stunned. He can’t believe the history of this man is actually true. Hamilton’s life is filled with everything a great story needs: romance, intrigue, fights to the death, winning against all odds, cravats.
…Okay, so maybe that last one isn’t absolutely necessary.
He hits Google, sure that someone has already dramatized Hamilton’s life, but no one has. That’s when he starts composing—not just any music, but rap.
“This is Tupac, this is Biggie, this is Nas,” Miranda says. “This is a hip-hop story.”
The most awesome thing about PBS’s new documentary isn’t the behind-the-scenes look at the “Hamilton” actors in action, songs from the musical or even the interviews with celebrities who love the show. It’s the fact that we get a rare look inside the creation of “Hamilton”—from its inception, to its opening night, and ultimately—to the mark it has left on history (in more ways than one).
For anyone who hasn’t heard the songs or seen the show, this documentary is great. You’ll get to see snippets of songs and hear the history of Hamilton’s life from experts who tell it in a refreshingly candid way.
For anyone who’s already in love with the show, this documentary is also great. You’ll get to see so many incredible moments—like Miranda freestyle rapping (spoiler alert: he’s amazing at it) backstage before a performance, or stumbling his way through early drafts of “My Shot.” We get to see him writing the lyrics (while sitting inside Aaron Burr’s actual bedroom) as the camera focuses in on his hand, tapping out the beat that would become the show’s iconic hit.
“I’m an artist in residence. Literally,” Miranda chuckles as he contemplates different rhymes.
Getting this kind of intimate, inside look into the creative process is priceless. It’s also emotional. Especially when we hear from actors in the show who have had to face their own consciences when playing slave owners like President George Washington or Thomas Jefferson—or American History’s Ultimate Bad Guy, Aaron Burr.
“If all you’re looking at is our worst act on our worst day, anyone can be painted as the villain,” says Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr. “I think our show is doing a really good job of reminding us that we are all more than one thing.”
The immensity of what this show is doing for Hamilton’s legacy and the history of our country isn’t lost on the actors or Miranda himself. He’s acutely aware of the importance of the story he’s been given the opportunity, and the talent, to tell.
“That’s the thing you’re always up against when you’re writing something that’s big,” Miranda says. “God, can I be proud of this at the end of the day?”
Yes. I definitely think you can.
Watch “Hamilton’s America” on Friday, October 21 at 9 p.m. ET on your local PBS station.
Maria Bartholdi is the video producer for Rewire. She’s the proud recipient of 5 Upper Midwest Emmy Awards and loves telling emotional, inspiring, and visually stunning stories.