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Not Being in the Room Where It Happens: Loving ‘Hamilton’ in the Digital Age (Column)

'Hamilton's America,' the PBS documentary about 'Hamilton,' grants access to fans still waiting for it

“Hamilton’s America” is a product of one of those weird cultural moments where multiple different mediums attempt to be the same thing — a documentary film about a work of musical theater, premiering and broadcast on television. The PBS film tracks the production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton: An American Musical,” the Tony-award winning production and cultural phenomenon about the life of Alexander Hamilton, starting the year before the show opened on Broadway. The film was produced by Miranda’s college friend Alex Horowitz, who — like a lot of other people exposed to the early moments of “Hamilton” — sensed that Miranda was on the verge of something huge. As a result, the audience is able to follow the phenomenon of “Hamilton” almost in real-time, as Miranda and his team of collaborators slowly put the pieces together using Ron Chernow’s biography of the founding father as inspiration.

For this particular cultural phenomenon, the PBS documentary serves a few crucial purposes: It provides the history of Alexander Hamilton, in order to demonstrate what Miranda did with it; “Hamilton” being an essentially metatextual musical, “Hamilton’s America” serves to fill in the broad strokes the musical dares to draw. Miranda is an adorable documentary subject, earnest and well-spoken and talented. The cast of the musical, some increasingly well-known in their own right, confront the histories of the characters that they embodied on stage even as they win awards, are met by crowds of screaming fans, and perform for the president and First Lady at the White House. It is hard to not be charmed by “Hamilton,” and if the material itself doesn’t speak to you, the enthusiasm of the leads is still infectious. (Variety’s Owen Gleiberman reviewed the film much more thoroughly here.)

But most importantly, especially for this musical, “Hamilton’s America” allows the mainstream viewing audience, many more people than could ever fit into a playhouse all at once, to be in the room where it happens — it, in this case, being the Tony-award winning play itself. In an era where digital expansion makes accessing both painstakingly crafted Criterion collection films and haphazardly tossed off YouTube confessionals increasingly and amazingly accessible, the live theater performance is almost mindboggling. We exist in a social landscape where news, trends, and buzz can spread and travel faster than ever before. But “Hamilton: An American Musical” cannot be streamed or downloaded, and as a result it is both fascinating and — at least for me, a critic who specializes in the lazily consumable — absolutely maddening.

Entrance to “Hamilton,” an inherently democratic production, became about access — a word whose connotations suggest secret concerts, exclusive runway shows, and members-only nightclubs — not a nerdy hip-hop musical about the American Revolution. And yet limited access is exactly what confounds and lengthens the buzz around “Hamilton”; it’s the exact opposite of a Netflix show, which occupies all available conversation for about a month and then disappears as quickly as it came. And because Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldberry, Leslie Odom, Jr., Jonathan Groff and Daveed Diggs — among others — have all left the show to pursue other opportunities, when and if all of us who want to see “Hamilton” finally get through the door, we will be seeing a different production from what won the Tony — and indeed, because of the nature of theater, an ever-so-slightly different production from even just the night before. You could argue that this quality has pushed theater to the margins of arts coverage, as film and then TV bloomed. And indeed, as Miranda and others in the documentary attest, it’s hard to fathom how a musical on Broadway became a cultural touchstone, despite the difficulty in going to see it. But somehow, in today’s era of looped video and reproducible samples, “Hamilton” became precious precisely for its essential scarcity.

I can only guess as to what makes the musical, viewed live, so potent. It’s true: Though I am familiar with the cast recording, have been told elements of staging, and follow Miranda on Twitter, I am one of those people who has not seen “Hamilton.” This past summer, right before most of the original cast took their leave from the show, the fact that I could know so much about the show but still somehow not actually see it was a special, strange, unsettling experience. I’m far from alone — though many fans have seen it, many more haven’t. Difficulties in getting tickets led Miranda and the cast to start #Ham4Ham, to entertain fans hoping to get seats through the lottery. And Miranda has gone on to work on state and national legislation against ticket bots passed, in an effort to keep the highly coveted tickets at reasonable prices. Most tellingly, when news hit that Miranda and several other original castmates would be leaving July 9, Miranda assured fans who hadn’t seen the original cast that it would all been filmed for posterity — though as yet he’s not sure how to package the footage for consumption, possibly because now that it’s on tape, it’s a film, and not a work of musical theater. It’s hard to satisfy a mass media audience with analog equipment.

“Hamilton’s America” is a great addition to the musical for fans who have already seen it. But to my mind, it’s made for fans like me, who have proven willing to wait for it but want something to tide them over in the meanwhile. The film provides an intimacy with the world of “Hamilton” that makes the inaccessible musical feel approachable. The documentary even airs snippets of the musical in chronological order, meaning that viewing “Hamilton’s America” is sort of like watching a 30-minute, abbreviated version of the musical, complete with filmed choreography and close ups of the actors’ faces. It is also a very funny and moving journey with these gifted performers and bright minds, who are all engaged with what it means to reclaim history in this way. Diggs, with his trademark wry delivery, points out that Thomas Jefferson might have done a bunch of great things, but he also “sucks”; Chris Jackson, who plays George Washington, visits the slave quarters at Mount Vernon and observes that he can never quite forgive who the man he’s embodied for over a year actually was. It makes for a TV movie that feels familiar and fresh at the same time.

While stewing over my own failure to see “Hamilton,” it amused me to note that much of the musical, especially the second act, is about the very human frustrations of missing out or being passed over. In the documentary, Miranda and Odom, Jr. go to a museum where they learn to hold and load dueling pistols. The curator shows them the dates on the correspondence between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the man who killed him. It takes years for their rivalry to foment, and months for it to whip into the frenzy of wounded pride and tossed-off challenges. Odom points out that today it might be solved with tweets or texts. But “Hamilton’s” story, like “Hamilton” itself, takes place in a world outside of the digital and immediate. And though I am entirely reliant on that world — digital screeners and streaming services, final cuts and sound mixing — “Hamilton’s America” helped me appreciate the experience outside the tech bubble, at least a little bit more.

“Hamilton’s America” airs October 21 at 9/8C on PBS.

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