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The Revolution That Brought THE Musical to Broadway: ‘Hamilton’s America’
October 21, 2016  | By David Hinckley

A new documentary on the Broadway phenomenon Hamilton proves that even PBS can’t fully explain how some bottles can capture lightning.

But Hamilton’s America, which kicks off the PBS Arts Fall Festival Friday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings), does provide comprehensive and engaging background on how creator Lin-Manuel Miranda put this unlikeliest of hit shows together.

The basic genesis, as Miranda has said before, is that he took a short vacation and by random chance picked up a biography of Alexander Hamilton. Soon he was struck by a blinding flash.

Hamilton’s story could be a Broadway show! With lyrics written to a hip-hop beat!

“I felt rap songs rising off the page,” says Miranda.

In retrospect, having seen the results, we believe him. As a concept, even now it sounds unlikely.  

President Obama, at whose White House Miranda performed an early version of a Hamilton song in 2009, recalls Miranda saying he was going to do a rap song about Alexander Hamilton and thinking, “Good luck with that.”

It took Miranda more than five years to put everything together for the show, though he obviously had confidence along the way that there was the seed of success here. Early in the process he started filming the commentary that became this documentary.

He explains here that he was drawn to Hamilton as one of the first embodiments of what we still consider the American dream: that anyone with skill and persistence can rise to the top, regardless of his or her situation at birth.

Hamilton, for the record, was born illegitimate in the Caribbean.

There’s still considerable discussion today over how attainable that American dream may be, and while Miranda doesn’t address that part of the issue, he does suggest Hamilton is aspirational.

It proves that the mountain can be scaled.

What Hamilton’s America doesn’t point out, because it doesn’t have to, is that American history is loaded with rags-to-riches stories.

How Miranda created a pop culture explosion with this one is the real question, because to be honest, Hamilton’s resume doesn’t scream “Wow! Cool stuff!”

He wrote many of The Federalist Papers. He helped create the American financial system. Important? Absolutely. Impressive? Sure. Sexy? No.

Miranda spent a long time configuring Hamilton’s life story into rap lyrics, which also doesn’t explain why this particular set of lyrics had such resonance.

More helpful, perhaps, Hamilton’s America notes that Hamilton isn’t just one man’s story. It’s interwoven with impressively rich stories of other founding fathers as well as the story of Aaron Burr, the aristocrat with whom Hamilton worked for years before Burr killed him in a duel.

Hamilton’s death may be what he remains best known for today. So Miranda and the actors take care to explain the path he and Burr traveled to the fatal dueling ground – including the fact that the sharp-tongued Hamilton had been challenged to some 10 earlier duels with other people, and in each case had negotiated a settlement that preserved honor without involving weaponry.

Hamilton’s America also spends considerable time on the impact of the Broadway show, suggesting it has elevated Hamilton’s stature in American history.

Whether or not that’s true on any widespread scale, the documentary does bring together an impressive bunch of character witnesses for Hamilton, from Sen. Elizabeth Warren to former President George W. Bush.

Hamilton may not have been the most faithful husband, we learn, but he sure knew how to design a banking system. We’re still using it today.

In the end, Hamilton’s America does what it sets out to do, tracking the arc of Broadway’s most popular show from Miranda’s fertile imagination to the Richard Rodgers Theater.

We come away with a better understanding of both the show and the man.

What we don’t come away with, alas, are tickets.

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