“I remember, as a kid, watching the Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ video, which blew my mind as it did everyone’s mind, but they did a making-of movie, and I remember being like, ‘This is more interesting than the video,’” says David Korins, the now Tony-nominated scenic designer behind Hamilton. “Seeing the teeth and the prosthetics and the casting and the dance rehearsal and the set being built and the zombies drinking Coca-Cola on their breaks… I was like, ‘This is un-f***ing-believable that you get to see really how it gets put together.’ It made a huge imprint on me.”
Korins, who prior to Hamilton lent his talents to design for Grease: Live, this season’s Misery, as well as Passing Strange, Bring it On The Musical and concert tours for Kanye, lavishes in sharing his design and building process on social media. “People are starting to care about how the sausage gets made … so I love that I can sort of be the voice for the voiceless and the behind-the-scenes,” says Korins. His photos and quick video takes on Instagram reveal, how it transitions “from an idea to the [actual] thing.”
Step one: Research. Lots of it. “The cool thing about Hamilton is that it takes place in many many realistic locations. Every place is a place you can research—pictures or etchings or portraits or descriptions. In some places you can go to the real places,” he says. Still, Korins and his creative partners, director Thomas Kail and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, knew they were never going to be able to depict every single location in Hamilton. “We had to come up with some sort of theatrical metaphor and some sort of bigger idea to serve the play,” he says. “Lin and Tommy had no idea of what the show is supposed to look like. It’s not a revival. You know?
“We had so many bad ideas—it was like do we want this to be modern? Do we want it to be period?” Korins recalls. “The turntable was one of my very, very first ideas; I think I said that to Tommy in the interview. There’s this swirling, cyclical feeling between [Hamilton’s] relationship with Burr or that he got swept off the island of Nevis by a hurricane, or the political storm he finds himself in.” (A vision all of the collaborators could see and work with, including choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.)
“But then Tommy was like, ‘Put a pin in that [idea],’ and we didn’t touch it for eight months,” says Korins. Then days before rehearsals began at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater, Korins’ associate, Rod Lemmond, brought back the idea of the turntable. It may have been too late for Off-Broadway, but the dual turntables are a quintessential piece of Hamilton’s set today.
As seen in the video, Korins’ research morphs to sketches, then a ground plan (how people will move through the space), models and renderings before a crew builds the pieces. The final version of Hamilton’s set may seem obvious, as everything clicks into place, but Korins says that it was the result of a million bad ideas. “I think writing is re-writing and designing is re-designing,” he says.
Korins describes the final iteration as an aspirational space, which helped him create the symbolism he was searching for. “The show is about people who … built the foundation from which the country is built, so our big theatrical methapor is we are building the scaffolding from which the foundation of the country is going to be built,” he says.
“That wooden catwalk is the scaffolding, and we have, literally, a half-made brick wall and we have trowels and all sorts of building tools,” he describes. “Between Act One and Act Two the walls actually grow. We add eight feet of height to the walls to show that progress has happened in the country.”
“We [also] change out the props from utilitarian war-like guns and things to finer china and parchment paper and scrolls and maps because now they’re governing the country.”
For Korins, his passion is in the details, even if few notice them. “If one person picks up on that [detail], the profundity of that experience, for them, changes,” he says. “I believe that people feel the change in the mass of the wall and the set even if they can’t put their finger on what happened, and … even at a subconscious level, it really does affect your viewing experience.”
In fact, Korins sees his role as a kind of therapist: extrapolating the deep ideas from Miranda and Kail and then ensuring it affects their audience’s emotions in the desired way. Korins calculates every choice. “There are no mistakes in the theatre,” he says. “There are happy accidents, but there is nothing on that set that isn’t fully accounted for and thought of.” In fact, Korins and his team experimented with 33 variations of brick color—to complement costumes and lighting and performers’ skin tones—before settling on the blend audiences see today.
A team of builders at Hudson Scenic Studios (outside of New York City) built, painted and fully constructed the final set before de-constructing it and transporting it to its current home on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Final load-in (and rebuilding) as seen in the video, lasted about eight weeks.
“I’m so unbelievably proud of the fact that we could wrestle this 30-year-spanning story—51 musical numbers—and wrestle it down into the ground,” says Korins. “Now this design has become this iconic thing that ‘Yeah it’s obvious that it looks like that,’ but it wasn’t obvious to us [at the start].”
As the June 12 Tony Awards approach, it seems the flurry of work around Hamilton would wind down, but Korins will have to gear up for the Chicago production of the show.
“My life is like a cyclical experience,” he says. “It’s like ground-hog day, so, yes, I feel like [I'm] in the home stretch only knowing that I’m about to get back on the treadmill.” Or, in his world, the turntable.