For the past three years, Alex Horwitz has been in “the room where it happened,” filming the creative process that produced the Broadway phenomenon “Hamilton.” Since it opened on Broadway in 2015, the musical on the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton has garnered raves from critics and racked up a slew of awards, including 11 Tony Awards. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book, has been honored with a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” and a Pulitzer Prize Award.
Horwitz is the director of “Hamilton’s America,” a much-anticipated documentary that debuts October 21 on THIRTEEN’s “Great Performances,” a performing arts anthology. An accomplished writer, editor, director and producer, Horwitz’s credits include writing and directing an award-winning horror film, “Alice Jacobs is Dead,” and editing a documentary on Boston organized-crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger.
Horwitz recently chatted with BNY Mellon, which is a sponsor of “Hamilton’s America” – fittingly, given Hamilton’s visionary founding of The Bank of New York in 1784. Excerpts follow.
How did this documentary film come about?
Around 2009, years before “Hamilton” took its current form as a musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda was working on it as a collection of hip-hop songs known as “The Hamilton Mixtape.” It wasn’t clear initially whether it would become a concept album or a Broadway musical or something else. I happened to be around to hear early demos because Lin and I go way back – we became friends as undergraduates at Wesleyan University. I told him I felt he was doing something amazing, and that I wanted to roll cameras. We started filming three years ago.
“Hamilton’s America” is a sweeping title. How does that reflect what you set out to do?
The musical “Hamilton” clearly has tapped into the zeitgeist and become a pop culture touchstone in a way that no other musical has, at least not since Camelot hit Broadway in 1960. We could have simply made a documentary called “The Making of Hamilton,” and that would have interested a large audience. The behind-the-scenes documentary genre is wonderful. Our producers, RadicalMedia, did a great job in 2009 with a documentary on the making of Lin’s first Broadway show, “In the Heights.”
But, we had a different vision for this documentary. I told Lin from the beginning that I saw the show and Lin’s creative journey as a lens through which you can view history and illuminate the story of Alexander Hamilton. You will see things in this film that are unusual for a behind-the-scenes documentary. For example, we go on field trips with cast members to sites of historic significance in the life of Hamilton. We also have interviews with two president and two former U.S. Treasury secretaries, which has to be a first for a documentary inspired by a musical.
How will you take us inside the story?
You’ll see the creative process woven together with the history that inspired it. Lin famously wrote some of the score in Aaron Burr’s bedroom at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. Morris-Jumel is the oldest house in Manhattan, and Burr lived there toward the end of his life. We also go on a field trip to The Hamilton Grange, the family home Hamilton built uptown in Manhattan two years before his death. And we go to Valley Forge and other sites where pivotal events in Hamilton’s life occurred. He left quite a trail.
Hamilton is a complex and paradoxical character. Why do you think his story resonates so powerfully?
Lin has said that more than any of the other founding fathers, Hamilton’s work and life stand as a testament to the power of words as weapons. He wrote his way out of trouble and he wrote his way into trouble. There is such a flurry and fury of words in his work that you have to read his essays several times before you get everything.
I think his story has always been compelling, but it took the work of historians like Ron Chernow and Joanne Freeman to do some of the best writing on Hamilton in the last 12 to 15 years. Chernow’s 2005 biography of Hamilton was, of course, Lin’s inspiration for the musical. Lin was able make it incredibly compelling and digestible.
It’s interesting to realize that the founding fathers, many of whom are the lions of American myth, don’t always occupy the same high position. They come in and out of favor as society’s concerns and values morph. It was just time for Hamilton to get his due.
What was your editing process like?
We captured 100 hours of material, and the film is 82 minutes long, so there is a lot of footage that couldn’t be used. In my years of training as an editor, I’ve learned you always end up cutting out a lot of really good stuff. You have to sigh a sigh and say, “Oh well, it’s a shame.”
What was the most eye-opening moment for you in the creation of this documentary?
I was wearing two hats over the three years we worked on it. One was as documentarian, but all the while I was experiencing the huge wave that was “Hamilton” as a friend to Lin. To see the heights that this musical has reached and to see the press explode the way it has --that was so exciting. Getting on the cover of Rolling Stone was a big one. But these were all moments I experienced more as a friend than a filmmaker.
It has been very exciting for me that as a part of this journey, I get to experience worlds that rarely intersect with the world of pop culture. For example, I had lengthy conversations with Treasury Secretaries Timothy Geithner and Hank Paulson about history and recent events and the influence of Hamilton, and they were fascinating. I’m very happy to be talking to BNY Mellon because you are the House of Hamilton.
How will the documentary speak to those who have never listened to the Hamilton cast album or seen the musical?
I hope it piques their interest enough to make them want to find out more – to listen to the cast album or to pick up the Hamilton biography. I designed the film to speak to people who have no knowledge of the show, people who have a passing interest in it, and people who are obsessed with it. I particularly hope students get to see our show. I would consider it a great honor and success if the only way it lives on is in schools. “Hamilton” has already changed educational curricula and that is no small feat. I can’t think of another film or show that has broken through to schools as successfully as “Hamilton.”