A Scaffold to Build a Nation On

by Michael S. Eddy
in Feature

The Hamilton ensembleA talk with Scenic Designer David Korins on his set for Hamilton

​The new musical Hamilton has taken Broadway by storm. When the hip-hop retelling of the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton opened Off-Broadway in early 2015 at The Public Theater downtown it was a hot ticket and was quickly slated to make an eventual move to Broadway. Opening on Broadway late in the summer, Hamilton has been playing to sold out houses at the Richard Rodgers Theatre ever since. 

David KorinsWritten and conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda with direction by Thomas Kail and choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, the Hamilton design team includes scenic designer David Korins, lighting designer Howell Binkley, and sound designer Nevin Steinberg. I recently spoke with Korins, who discusses this deceptively simple set since, as we all know, “simple” is never simple.

“Obviously this show takes place in a real time, in a real place, in all real locations,” says Korins. “Everything from Washington’s tent, to the front lines of the battles, the Schuyler’s home, New York City, and an early American town square. What I knew very early on was that we were going to throw some sort of theatrical metaphor wrapping so that we would take no time transitioning from one location to the next. There are moments in the show where it breaks into abstract realism or moments of pure abstraction.” 

In order to make a nod to the theatricality of the show and keep the idea of building support structure, Korins relied on two brick walls. The first, all the way upstage, is the “back wall” of the theatre. But in front of it is another brick wall—which is only partway built when the show begins. The action of the show takes place over the course of 30 years, moving back and forth between New York and Washington, D.C. while the Revolutionary War is won, the U.S. becomes an independent country, the legislature is started and the process of making laws has begun. To represent this process of building and time passing scenically, stagehands add 8 feet to the wall during intermission. 

The set of HamiltonBut there’s more layers. “We came up with a couple of different ideas. One was that the surround was a theatrical metaphor of sorts for what was actually happening at the time in the country. It is architecturally like a tapestry of early American architecture. At that time, the carpenters were actually ship builders. The building methodologies they employed were ones of boat builders. We carried that into our set, you see all of the seams and all the joints that made up all the boards and beams, all come from ship building techniques. There’s a lot of rope, block and tackle, pulleys and other nautical references.” 

Korins continues, “These are the people that did not build the country; they are the people that built the blueprint and the scaffolding from which the country was built. Our big metaphoric gesture with the set is that we see a place that is just at the beginning of being built. We’re not building the inside dome of the Capitol. We’re not building the Washington Monument. What we’re doing is we are building the kind of structure that is the scaffolding and the wrapping that we then will build all these things from.”

A model of the set for HamiltonAll Hands on Deck

Korins’ process started by looking at every single real location. He asked himself such questions as: What did Washington’s desk look like at Valley Forge? What did Washington’s room look like in the White House when he finally was elected president?

“I went to every single location and pored over research of what the stuff actually looked like so that you knew what all the details were. Even if you wind up depicting the Washington office with just the desk, you have a sense of the color tones, what the architectural build style was and on and on. I started with a lot of research,” says Korins. He coupled that with a lot of conversations with his design team, eventually coming to the idea of “a tapestry of American architecture.” For Korins, all the research and brainstorming are integral to the process. “You throw a lot of bad ideas up against the wall to see what sticks. I think in giving yourself permission to have a lot of bad ideas, really good ideas come out. When you realize what Hamilton is, you gotta stay out of its way. It is such a profound and amazingly staggeringly wonderful work of genius as far as the writing is concerned. It’s all right there.” 

Once the team landed on the concept, it was about finding what they would need to put on the stage in order for it to still feel realistic. “It was important that everything we put on stage, to me, had real historical accuracy,” Korins says. “You do a lot of sketches. You do a lot of renderings. You pick and choose your details. It’s a lot about model-making and rendering, trying to articulate to your team what it’s going to look like and feel like and smell like.” 

Korins has worked with one associate for nearly 16 years: Rod Lemmond. “Rod’s a genius,” states Korins. “Many of the architectural details are his. Many of the small, beautifully thought out, nuanced pieces on the set are his. He happened to have a bug for American history and loved early American furniture. He really dove deep into the props and furniture and was just unbelievably pivotal in every step of the way making this thing ring of authentic proof and integrity. Really, Rod Lemmond was there every step of the way and was a fantastic secret weapon to have. Also, I worked with Javier Amapadus, who illustrated the works in my office. In the very beginning he and I worked on some early sketches together. He really helped shape the early vision of the show.”

Some of the scenery needed to be weight-bearing, so it’s actually steel wrapped in wood to have a wooden-looking structure but with much more strength. A “fair amount” of the set is sand-blasted to give it an extra deep and rich texture to it you wouldn’t normally get from an off the shelf item. What’s not sand blasted has a texture that gives it a rough-hewn look. Every single cable is wrapped with hemp rope so there’s no modern building methodology visible. 

Circular storytelling and movement is incorporated into the set with a double turntable.Circular Storytelling

“The last thing that we added was the double turntable,” explains Korins. “I just couldn’t get out of my head the swirling, cyclical motion of the storytelling. It starts with Alexander Hamilton living on the island of Nevis and it gets swept over by a swirling hurricane. That idea, the cyclical swirling continues throughout the themes of the show: including in political struggles, in his sex scandal, the cyclical nature of his relationship with Burr, and on and on.” 

Korins also liked the cinematic aspects of the circular concept. “It’s a sweeping epic, storytelling tool and the show is so epic in scale that when I pitched it to the director and the choreographer, I actually wrote out several different beats of the show where I imagined we could use this kind of swirling movement,” continues Korins. “You can also use it like a treadmill; there are many applications of this thing. This swirling movement is really important to the storytelling.”

A close-up of the turntable integrated into the deckTransitions are always critical, especially in this production, and often fall heavily on the scenery. “That was imperative to do,” notes Korins, “because the music moves so seamlessly from scene to scene and we wanted to have the scenery do the same thing. I love transitions, I’m not afraid of them. It’s really one of my most favorite parts of designing scenery. Figuring out how we get from one to the other. The great and amazing thing is we, the creative team, have a hive-mind mentality. I’ve worked with almost all of them before. We really could talk through the logistics of things early on. They were not add ons like, ‘oh God, we gotta make a scene. How do we get here?’ They were really built in and sewn into the fiber of the show. Some had an actor standing on the turntable, scroll around and we would have a scene update that would roll down into focus. Some of them we had built into the choreography literally, and everything in between. When you’ve got this trust and implicit shorthand with these people, it’s so easy. You just figure it out and you keep refining it.” 

The Hamilton set being built at Hudson Scenic StudiosThe floor is painted to look like wood, but it’s not actually wood. “The choreographer has them all over the floor all the time, sliding and doing insane dance moves,” says Korins. “It was really important to have that floor be super smooth but feel authentic. We’ve actually worked really hard with all the different textures to make it look and feel like one cohesive, holistically created world.” 

Hudson Scenic Studio built the scenery and Daedalus Design and Production, Inc. and Jerard Studio built the props and furniture.

The staircase set piece for HamiltonHouse Proud

Korins speaks about the pride that he takes with this design. “My feeling about Hamilton, and in particular the design of Hamilton, is if you read that show, you would think to yourself ‘how could I conceive of this and how could I create a set that would support this storytelling at every single step of the way?’ I am unbelievably proud of the work I have done on the show in creating an environment that doesn’t let the show down, that stays interesting and dynamic, that keeps changing and evolving and that is incredibly simple and doesn’t for one second get in the way of the storytelling, doesn’t take you out of the storytelling, doesn’t call into question any authenticity of any moment. That is incredibly hard to do. I don’t care how many flats you have or wagons you have or how realistic or how abstract. It’s really hard to do.

“With a show like Hamilton, I felt a responsibility to Lin and the rest of the team,” Korins concludes. “I was also really proud of the fact that the show got such great notices and we did not just rush and bring it uptown last season. That we waited. We took several extra months. We made the show substantially better. It took Lin five and a half years to write this show. I think people will look back at the process we took in the creating of Hamilton and really hold it up as a benchmark of collaboration and exactly what it is that you do to care for a show.”