Most of us who became fascinated by, and then fanatical about, the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “Hamilton” will have to hold on another year to see it in St. Louis.
But “Hamilton’s America,” arriving Friday to lead off this year’s Fall Arts Festival on PBS, proves definitively that the wait will be worth it.
The documentary from Alex Horwitz follows Miranda for three years as he brings to life the idea that becomes “Hamilton.”
Horwitz happened to be Miranda’s roommate at Wesleyan University and a close friend.
In the beginning, “I didn’t know what Lin was making any more than he did,” Horwitz said when PBS introduced TV critics meeting in Los Angeles to the documentary.
Miranda “had this sort of half-baked idea,” Horwitz added. “It might be a concept album, it might be a show.” Eventually, when Miranda “started using the term ‘show’ or ‘musical’ more often,” Horwitz told him, “Look, I don’t know what you’re going to make, but let me follow you doing it.”
Whatever it ended up being, Horwitz knew that would be interesting.
“I saw what he was doing to dramatize history, to musicalize history, to make history alive in a way I’d never seen before, and that was the hook,” Horwitz said. “We just kept our eye on that ball as we kept going and as ‘Hamilton’ got even bigger and bigger.”
“Hamilton” went on to get bigger than big, selling out on Broadway with ticket prices in the stratosphere. It set a record for the most Tony Award nominations and took home 11, including best musical. Miranda, who wrote the music, lyrics and book, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
And still, because of cost and geography, many fans have had to be satisfied with accessories: the cast album, the companion book “Hamilton: The Revolution” and YouTube videos.
“Hamilton’s America” won’t completely fill that gap. It’s a documentary, not a filmed version of the musical, and although it includes lots of music, it is also bulked up with interviews with Miranda, his cast and fans including President Barack Obama and George W. and Laura Bush.
There is plenty of history, too. Author Ron Chernow, whose biography “Alexander Hamilton” inspired the musical, fills in gaps; so do docents at historical homes and museums visited by Miranda and his stars. We learn about everything from the history of duels to the creation of the U.S. economy.
Horwitz realizes that a lot of people still don’t grasp what others consider the magic of “Hamilton.”
“I hope that I found the pictures and the words of others in this film to explain it,” he said.
“I’ve been following this for a while now, and I don’t know that I’ve cracked exactly how Lin’s alchemy is working, why a debate in hip-hop form ... is the most exciting thing to happen to theater maybe ever.”
He just knows, he said, “that it works, and I think the proof is just in the pudding. I filmed a lot of the pudding, and we’ll bring it to you.”
As he worked on the documentary, the interest in “Hamilton” reached a fever pitch.
“We tried as hard as we could not to get distracted by the noise,” Horwitz said. “The zeitgeist, the incredible phenomenon that became ‘Hamilton,’ we touched on it in the movie, to be sure. How could we not?”
But that, he said, is “almost incidental. We take it for granted that you know about that. We just focused on the issues that made Lin want to write a show, the issues that Hamilton fought for that are still relevant today. And if we kept doing that, we would have something hopefully that was a little timeless.”
What “Hamilton’s America” • Four stars out of four • When 8 p.m. Friday, repeated at 9:30 p.m. Saturday • Where PBS • More info pbs.org/hamilton