Photo by Joan Marcus
The streets of New York may not have been paved with gold, but they were certainly filled with intrigue and opportunity when Alexander Hamilton, a young immigrant from the Caribbean, arrived in the American colonies in 1772. His story, which runs parallel to that of the founding of the United States of America, is the subject of the hottest show on Broadway this season, Hamilton, which marries history and hip-hop in an extraordinary production that celebrates the birth of a nation.
After Hamilton rose through the ranks to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Revolutionary War, he was called upon as the first Secretary of the Treasury for the new nation, which he so eloquently helped to its feet. With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda—who also excels in the role of Hamilton—the musical has an all-star design team consisting of David Korins, sets; Howell Binkley, lighting; Nevin Steinberg, sound; and Paul Tazewell, costumes. Directed by Thomas Kail with innovative choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton has brought an unrivaled sense of excitement to Broadway, with an interracial cast, contemporary forms of music, and deep roots in American heritage.
It only took a few performances at The Public Theatre in January 2015 before word-of-mouth confirmed that Hamilton was a sold-out hit through the end of its downtown run in May. By the time it opened on Broadway in August, it was like a hurricane roaring onto the stage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Read about Binkley's lighting design, Steinberg's sound design, and Tazewell's costume design.
A Revolutionary Stage
“We knew that we could never attack a show of this scope and scale in a literal way,” recalls Korins. “I always begin my design process with research. This exercise was especially exciting for Hamilton, as almost every location in the show is historically documented. We started by researching the real places, knowing that we couldn’t render them all realistically, paying special attention to the details and the architectural style in New York at the time, and created an overall theatrical metaphor.” As a result, his set of wood, bricks, and scaffolding reflects creating a framework, not only for the action unfolding on stage but also for the building of a new nation.
“We did not want to recreate an architectural icon of the time on stage, such as the Washington Monument or the Capitol Building, but rather to develop a tapestry of early American architecture, evoking an industrious sense of progress as the country develops throughout the 30-year period during which the show takes place,” says Korins. “The carpenters of the time were all shipbuilders by trade, and thus, their building methodologies drew heavily on maritime techniques. We illustrated this influence in the set by incorporating pulleys, ropes, and large, rough-hewn beams connected with historically appropriate joints and pegs, all of which were accurate to the time period.”
Much of the wood on the set is real lumber, with some vertical surfaces that have to carry a lot of weight cast in aluminum or supported with steel framing. “My task was to create a malleable envelope that could expand and contract to support the story and then stay the hell out of the way,” Korins jokes. “This is one of the best written pieces of theatre I’ve encountered during my career, and it doesn’t need literal, realistic scenery to help it.”
In redesigning the show for the move from The Public to Broadway, Korins notes, “While we embellished and added extra detail, the overall architecture remained close to the original design. The specifications of each stage are quite similar: The width is about the same, and there’s a bit less depth at the Rodgers, but we had an extra 8' of height to work with, and the room you are sitting in adds gravitas and grandeur.”
About 30% of the set from The Public was reused, but two new upstage walls were built for Broadway: one that recreates the brick wall of The Public’s Newman Theatre and another, seemingly in the midst of being built, that grows an extra 6' to 8' in height during intermission. “We hope that this subtle change registers subconsciously with our audiences, supporting the idea that the country is continuing to be built throughout the show,” says Korins, who added much more detail and nuance on Broadway, as seen in windows and archways on the unit set.
“We also added a show portal for Broadway,” he continues. “At The Public, the audience was sitting inside the same brick room as the performance space. On Broadway, it is a gilded, more elegant, paneled room, so we looked to find a good transition from the audience to the stage. The portal uses the same visual vocabulary of ropes and rough-hewn beams as the rest of the set and is similarly built to look like it’s in the process of being made. The vertical pilings are there, but the horizontal beams are half in place, held in place with ropes for an unfinished look.”
Literally And Figuratively Revolutionary
Having worked with this team before, Korins knew the action would never wait for scenery to make big transitions. “The only real scenery is for the Winter’s Ball at the Schuyler mansion, as we actually had the opportunity to add something reflective of the family’s wealth, glamour, and status,” he says. “These are among the wealthiest people in the city who are throwing a party where Alexander finds his love.” The ball set has four wagons, with wood-paneled pieces of scenery pushed on stage by stagehands, each with a series of electrified candles in glitzy brass and gold candleholders to create an outside border of a candle star-field for the ball and a series of period-appropriate lanterns that fly in overhead.
There is a double turntable on stage, making the show literally and figuratively revolutionary. “This was an early idea I had after reading the script, but it wasn’t officially added until late in the process,” Korins admits. “Hamilton is caught up in a series of swirling, tumultuous circumstances, from the initial hurricane that devastates his hometown and the political and personal scandals in which he becomes entwined to the cyclical nature of his relationship with Aaron Burr. The turntable not only accentuates the whirling themes of his story but also helps to articulate the cinematic scope of movement within the piece as a whole.”
Korins and his associate, Rod Lemmond, took this idea to the director and choreographer and suggested that it could be useful in key moments such as the Schuyler sisters’ scene of walking through the streets of Manhattan and the epic duels. “After much conversation, they said, ‘Okay, let’s do it,’” says Korins, who built a ½'' scale version of a double turntable so they could play with it. “The Public Theatre gave us two very long workdays during rehearsal to get onto the turntable, run through automation cues, and try out the movement on stage. I believe it was the first time that Andy and Tommy worked on a turntable. Interestingly, Andy had already choreographed the entire show with swirling movement, but in order to accentuate that movement, something needs to be static. During these rehearsals, I suggested having every other person stand still, letting the turntable do half of the work for you. With a turntable, you can deliver scenery, chairs, props, and people in a very poetic way.”
Top of model
Some of the larger scenic moments are supported by the use of staircases, from the top of the first act, when the set evokes Hamilton’s ship docking in the New York harbor, to the large rolling staircase, which supports George Washington and Thomas Jefferson at key moments in the narrative.
Korins notes that all the furniture is historically correct. “My team worked in partnership with Denise Grillo to nail down every detail in the furniture and props, down to the documents and the green felt on Washington’s desk at Valley Forge. These desks and other pieces were custom built by Daedalus Scenic and Jerard Studio. They did a wonderful job, incorporating an enormous amount of subtle historical detail. The Windsor chairs get a lot of abuse during the show. They broke one almost every night at The Public, so we reinforced them to better withstand getting thrown around on Broadway.” Even the tools are historically accurate in Act II, where the builders are laying bricks on an additional rope-hung scaffold.
Photo by Joan Marcus
“This was a unique opportunity,” says Korins about the move to Broadway. “We had such a successful run downtown that we could take some liberties, and the producers supported us in making specific changes. With the hope that we’d be on Broadway for a long time, we tried to get every detail as perfect as possible. Every moment and every detail is really accounted for. Ironically, most of the time when you move from a theatre downtown to Broadway, you have more square footage to work with and don’t have to worry about making the set smaller. In this case, we had to revise the ground plan very carefully to fit the new house, especially as so much of this show involves bodies hurtling through space. I think it was good decision not to rush the show to Broadway last season. That gave us time to think carefully about what was best for the piece and revisit each and every artistic choice we had made. The show is so much tighter now. Lin has been working on Hamilton since 2009 and workshopped it over such a long period of time. There was no choice but to continue giving it the time and attention it deserved.”
Korins notes that he was really happy with the paint job at The Public Theatre. “We took actual paint samples directly from The Public stage, but even to recreate something as simple as the paint treatment wasn’t so easy. It’s never that easy; it takes a lot of care and attention to make something that is of the highest quality,” he notes.
“In my opinion, there’s a perfect storm at work here: Lin, Tommy, Andy, Alex, Paul, Howell, and Nevin are all at the top of their game in their respective disciplines, doing the best work of their careers,” attests Korins. “The first time we all got into a room together, I knew I needed to try to bring my A game.”
- Book, Music, Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda (Inspired by the book, Alexander Hamilton, By Ron Chernow)
- Director: Thomas Kail
- Choreographer: Andy Blankenbuehler
- Music Director/Orchestrations: Alex Lacamoire
- Scenic Design: David Korins
- Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
- Lighting Design: Howell Binkley
- Sound Design: Nevin Steinberg
- Technical Supervisor: Neil Mazzella, Hudson Theatrical Associates
- Production Electricians: James Fedigan, Randall Zaibek
- Hair And Wig Design: Charles G. LaPointe
- Associate Scenic Designer: Rod Lemmond
- Associate Costume Designer: Angela Kahle
- Associate Lighting Designer: Ryan O’Gara
- Associate Sound Designer: Jason Crystal
- Assistant Scenic Designer: Amanda Stephens
- Assistant Costume Designer: Shawn McCulloch
- Assistant Costume Designer: Jennifer Raskopf
- Assistant Lighting Designer: Amanda Zieve
- Production Stage Manager: J Philip Bassett
- Stage Manager: Scott Rowen
- Assistant Stage Manager: Deanna Weiner
- Lighting Programmer: David Arch
- Light Board Operator: Christopher Robinson
- Production Props Supervisor: Denise J. Grillo
- Head Followspot Operator: Sandy Paradise
- Followspot Operators: Brian Frankel, John Mark Davidson
- Sound Engineer: Justin Rathbun
- Assistant Sound: Anna-Lee Craig
- Production Sound: Nick Borisjuk