On October 21, the Hamilton documentary, Hamilton’s America, premiered on PBS as part of the network’s Great Performances series. Read reviews here.
It might be the biggest debut since the opening night of its subject. The documentary is as much a retrospective of the original company of actors who created Hamilton’s characters as it is a deeper dive into Alexander Hamilton’s life—using the actors’ historical discovery process as a device to teach America even more about the ten-dollar Founding Father.
For those who have yet to see the musical live and onstage, this documentary allows the most glimpses of the actual production to date, including snippets of the songs “Alexander Hamilton,” “My Shot,” “You’ll Be Back,” “Right Hand Man,” “The Schuyler Sisters,” “Yorktown,” “Wait for It,” “What’d I Miss,” “Cabinet Battle,” “Burn,” “Election of 1800,” “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”
While Hamilton is being used as a teaching device and reawakening the United States to its own beginnings, here are 21 things Hamilton’s America taught us about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creative process, the artists who made Hamilton and the man who inspired it all:
1. “I’m just playing my dad.”
From the very start of the writing process, Miranda has felt that Alexander Hamilton is very much like his father, Luis. A man who left Puerto Rico for New York at age 18, Miranda draws on his father as inspiration when writing and portraying Hamilton. “I knew that it would be fantastic. I didn't realize it would change his life,” Miranda’s father told Playbill.com in this exclusive interview.
2. Green is Hamilton’s color for a reason.
Tony Award-winning costume designer Paul Tazewell dressed Hamilton in green per Miranda’s request, as he told Playbill.com when he shared his sketches and designs. Now, we might know why. That walls of Hamilton’s study at Hamilton Grange were green. It was “his color.”
3. Writing Hamilton started slowly. Very slowly.
Though it might seem Miranda writes non-stop, at a pace similar to Hamilton, he didn’t start out that way. In the first two years of working on what would become Hamilton, Miranda wrote two songs. That’s right—one per year.
4. Comparing Miranda to Shakespeare might not be so ludicrous.
Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of New York’s Public Theater (the Off-Broadway birthplace of Hamilton), calls Miranda the Shakespeare of our time—and not hyperbolically. “Lin in Hamilton is doing what Shakespeare did with his history plays,” he said. “He is bringing out what is noble about the common tongue….”
5. Miranda wrote pieces of Hamilton in Burr’s bedroom.
While Miranda visited Hamilton Grange and sat at Hamilton’s desk, he never wrote where Alexander did. However, he did write in Burr’s bedroom. One scene in the documentary shows Miranda writing “My Shot” in an armchair beside Burr’s four-poster bed. Oh, and the cover of his laptop is the image of a typewriter—always a nod to history.
6. Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman gave Miranda advice on writing Hamilton.
One of the most exciting things to learn is that Miranda consulted with his idols—musical theatre greats, like Sondheim and Weidman, and rap titans, like Nas. Weidman, who wrote Assassins with Sondheim, gave Miranda invaluable advice. As Miranda was “drowning” in research and text writing his masterpiece, Weidman told him, “just write the parts you think are a musical,” giving him permission for the artistic freedom he needed.
7. Cabinet meetings are Miranda’s favorite part of the process.
And not the battles you see onstage. Miranda calls his creative team his cabinet: director Thomas Kail, music director/orchestrator/conductor Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. Fun fact: Kail was actually an American history major.
8. Hamilton’s desire to fight was very real.
Throughout the documentary, historians filled in more of the gaps about the first Secretary of Treasury’s life. Apparently, Hamilton had proved himself as a warrior, and so his frustration at being promoted to General Washington’s Chief of Staff, rather than to leading his own battalion, was a result of untapped skill—not simply the result of being an antsy young man.
9. The cast visited multiple historic landmarks in their research.
Throughout the development of the musical, members of the company of Hamilton visited sites of significance. Anthony Ramos, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, and Okieriete Onaodowan visited Valley Forge, which gave Onaodowan a perspective of the scope of the battlefield he’d envision as they “attack, retreat, attack, retreat” onstage at the Richard Rodgers each night.
Miranda and Tony winner Leslie Odom, Jr. (the original Aaron Burr), visited Maiden Lane—a.k.a. “the room where it happens.”
Tony nominee Christopher Jackson (the original George Washington) visited Mount Vernon to gain perspective on his character. Miranda visited the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where the “Cabinet Battle” took place.
10. The company had one week to learn the full score.
This isn’t highly unusual, but seven months before opening night, Miranda is seen coming home from the first day of rehearsal to a two-week-old son, an apartment in need of unpacking, and a fridge stocked only with gin, tonic water, and ketchup. “Yorktown,” was the second song the company learned musically, and they had one week to learn all the songs in the show “including the ones that aren’t written yet,” said Miranda.
11. Miranda rapped original verses on opening night.
It’s not an official occasion unless Miranda freestyles.
Six years of labor these are the fruits
I’m onstage with the mother-f***ing Roots
This is the afterparty
So we’re cracking...
This party’s gonna go until half past 7
I swear to God I died and went to Heaven
It’s The Roots
Photos from Opening Night of Hamilton:
12. Not all rap is created equal.
As Tony winner Daveed Diggs (the original Lafayette/Jefferson) explains, Miranda composed different styles within rap for each character. Washington sounded very metronomic, because his brain worked methodically. Lafayette starts out sounding like ’80s rap and then turns to double and triple time as America’s favorite fighting Frenchman breaks the language barrier.
13. Miranda listened to two songs on loop while writing Hamilton.
As Miranda tells Nas, “I listened to ‘Takeover’ [recorded by Jay-Z as a diss track to Nas] and ‘Ether’ [Nas’ response to ‘Takeover’] on loop.” Miranda’s score isn’t just influenced by the Sondheims of the world, it also incorporates elements from Mobb Deep, Biggie, and Nas.
14. Miranda thinks of Thomas Jefferson as Bugs Bunny.
Washington’s cabinet consisted of four members: Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State; Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of Treasury; Henry Knox, Secretary of War; and Edmund Randolph, Attorney General. Miranda thought of Jefferson as the “indefatigable winner,” much like the boastful Bugs Bunny.
15. Jefferson’s solo is jazzy for more than one reason.
Aside from wanting to show Jefferson’s swag in the jazzy Act II opener “What’d I Miss,” Miranda also chose the musical genre to show how out of touch Jefferson had become while off in France. “[He] sings in jazz even though the rest of the world has moved on to rap,” said Diggs.
16. Hamilton invented more than the Federal Bank.
Turns out, Hamilton created a lot of firsts: the first Coast Guard, the first customs service, tax systems, first monetary policy, first budget systems, and the first central bank.
17. The strength of Hamilton lies in the flaws of its characters.
Miranda and Hamilton director Thomas Kail echo each other when they discuss that their goal was to present whole people, flaws bared. The first flaw that came to cast member Jackson’s mind when visiting Washinton’s home, Mount Vernon, was the question of slavery. Washington owned slaves. Jackson admits, he will “never make peace with it.” “Nothing in my portrayal suggests we forgive any of that,” he continued. Diggs argues that audiences shouldn’t separate the good from the bad. Jefferson can be brilliant, a man who wrote that all men are created equal, “and he sucks,” laughed Diggs. “Both are true.”
18. Eliza Hamilton did burn much of her correspondence with her husband.
When Tony nominee Phillipa Soo sings “Burn,” and lights her letter on fire, it’s not just a dramatic symbol. The spurned wife of Alexander Hamilton destroyed much of their correspondence after news of his affair broke.
19. Miranda can’t help but rap, even when reading Hamilton’s words.
During a visit to the Museum of American Finance, Miranda and Odom, Jr. read letters of correspondence between Hamilton and Burr—the letters that contributed to the duel that killed Hamilton. As Miranda reads Hamilton’s words in the film, he can’t help but slip into the rhythmic speech of his character.
20. Miranda is terrified of one thing.
At the end of the documentary, Miranda confessed that he ponders one question over and over: How much time do we get on this earth? He is terrified of this idea that tomorrow is not promised, but we make plans anyway. In fact, Miranda told us, Hamilton had a lunch planned the day of his duel with Burr.
21. Miranda truly never expected this.
While the Tony-winning creator says he expected Hamilton to change his life, he never expected the show to change the legacy of the lesser known Founding Father. Miranda keeps “waiting for life to get back to normal.” More likely, he should get used to this new normal—one where his piano still needs tuning.
Watch the full documentary here: