Behind the scenes

Alex Horwitz, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ron Chernow at the Hamilton's America première.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Gayle King, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alex Horwitz and Ron Chernow
Gayle King, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alex Horwitz and Ron Chernow Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The RadicalMedia and PBS Great Performances documentary, Hamilton's America, had its world première in the 54th New York Film Festival as a Special Events selection along with Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Lonny Price's The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened on a Stephen Sondheim - Harold Prince Broadway production, and Jim Jarmusch's Iggy Pop and The Stooges doc Gimme Danger.

Lin-Manuel Miranda on President Barack Obama attending Hamilton:
Lin-Manuel Miranda on President Barack Obama attending Hamilton: "He didn't see me in it. He saw Javier Muñoz …" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The premiere of Hamilton's America on Monday at the 3400-seat auditorium of the United Palace in Washington Heights, was introduced by PBS CEO and President Paula Kreger and President and CEO of WNET New York Public Media, Neal Shapiro.

David Horn, executive producer of Great Performances introduced the post-screening panel, moderated by CBS This Morning co-anchor, Gayle King, with Hamilton's America director Alex Horwitz, Hamilton creator/star Lin-Manuel Miranda and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow.

Hamilton, currently on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, went on to win eleven Tonys, the Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy and it all began with Chernow's biography, Alexander Hamilton, that Lin-Manuel Miranda read on vacation. He suggested to the author that he wanted to turn it into a musical.

Ron Chernow: I laughed and said, so you want me to tell you when things are wrong? And he said to me with great fervor, he said: "Yes, I want historians to take it seriously."

President and CEO of WNET New York Public Media, Neal Shapiro, introduced the evening.
President and CEO of WNET New York Public Media, Neal Shapiro, introduced the evening. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

He realised that the show would be different.

RC: … Real integrity, and real respect for history. Because frankly, it's usually when Broadway or Hollywood does try on history, they couldn't care less what actually happened.

Gayle King: And they are not interested in having the author involved, are they?

RC: Usually, they want to keep the author as far away as possible. I think that also shows a lot of strength to have the author hanging around on the fringes of the production … When he took the first forty pages of the book and he condensed them accurately in this four-minute song - it's also a little bit embarrassing … I think on paper this sounded like the single worst idea ever for a musical … But Lin kept sending me these songs as he was writing them and they were extraordinary.

Alex Horvitz, Miranda's college roommate, structured his film around the original locations, landmarks and museums, where the real Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington lived and worked. But it really began in a certain room.

"You know, the fun of writing Hamilton's story is that he is the New Yorker of the Founding Fathers." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Alex Horwitz: One of the first things I got was him writing in Aaron Burr's bedroom. As soon as Lin said, "Hey, you know that house in upper Manhattan where my dad throws birthday parties? Aaron Burr's bedroom is there. I write sometimes there." I said, "Next time you're going, call me and I'll get my camera."

Lin-Manuel Miranda: It's not so much the bedroom as the entire vibe. You know, the fun of writing Hamilton's story is that he is the New Yorker of the Founding Fathers. So you kind of peel back one layer of dirt and you're in the late 1700s. It was a revelation to me that Aaron Burr lived on 162nd Street. And Hamilton lived on 141st Street. And Washington, when he is fleeing with his troops, is around the corner from where I grew up. You don't think of history that way.

Gayle King asks Ron Chernow if he was a hip-hop fan before this play.

Great Performances presents Hamilton's America premiere
Great Performances presents Hamilton's America premiere Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

RC: The first time that I met Lin, he was still starring in In the Heights, back when it was at the Richard Rogers Theatre and we were speaking backstage. And Lin started telling me about hip-hop songs rising off the page as he read the book. And then he said to me how Hamilton's life is a classic hip-hop narrative. And I think to myself - man, I have no idea what you're talking about.

I didn't want to show my ignorance but Lin said to me - I think realising that had a world-class ignoramus about hip-hop in front of him - " so lets educate you about hip-hop and he started doing it on the spot ... Finding out that you can pack more information in a hip-hop verse than any other form … that there is an enormous amount of wordplay, that there is internal rhyme, that there is rhymed ending. So I was getting this education in hip-hop from the master - this equation between Hamilton and hip-hop which is essential to the show.

President Barack Obama is a big fan of Hamilton.

LMM: The first time I saw the show on Broadway was the first time he [President Obama] saw the show on Broadway. He came to our sixth preview. He didn't see me in it. He saw Javier Muñoz, the amazing alternate who is playing Hamilton right now.

Hamilton's America at the United Palace in Washington Heights
Hamilton's America at the United Palace in Washington Heights Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And, you know, the White House called and said: "The President is coming to the Saturday matinee." I went [to himself] - I'm not in the Saturday matinee! It was the only chance I get to watch it - we're still in previews, we're still making changes. And then I realised, this is actually great. Because you send a message to the world, I'm not the star of the show. The show is the star of the show.

So it was a really great way to send a message. But - it's also a really weird way to see your show for the first time. It's secret service for days, it was leaked to the [New York] Post that he was coming three days before - so that adds up the security level. We all had to have special badges just to get onto 46th Street. And I'm there to take notes and figure out what I got to fix, while everyone is like [whispers] "The President really likes King George!"

Great Performances: Hamilton's America premieres in the PBS Arts Fall Festival on WNET on Friday, October 21 at 9:00pm.

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