Meet David Korins, the Man Who Makes ‘Hamilton’ Look So Good

The Daily Beast

June 6, 2016

Bricks: hard to get very wrong, you’d think. Well, no, says David Korins, the Tony-nominated set designer of theatrical mega-hit and all-round cultural juggernaut Hamilton.

To get the bricks just right for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fabulous rap musical about the foundations of American democracy, Korins reveals he and his team went through 33 variations of brick color just to get the background of the set exactly right.

“This was so the skin tone of the performers matched with the lighting, the bricks’ gel color matched with the parchment color, and that they matched with the costumes so you could see everyone’s faces.”

The tall and handsome 39-year-old Korins looks outside the window of his 15th-floor office in Manhattan’s Garment District to the dirty-brown bricks of the building opposite.

“We started with those bricks. But they were too brown, then we found others that were too beige. Others were too red, others were too pale.”

“Mission Perfect Hamilton Brick” began: it was critical to get the color right. “Imagine watching Hamilton and not seeing people’s faces,” says Korins. “That was an unbelievably difficult challenge: there was so much work underpainting, overtoning, glazing, and spraying just to get those bricks to look like a brick wall.”

Korins laughs, and reveals that—despite what our eyes may tell us—the brick wall we see as the background of Hamilton is not that of the Richard Rodgers Theater, but the effect of two special walls constructed for the show. (The real theater brick wall is obscured.) Eight feet of wall appears between Acts 1 and 2 to thematically imply the growth of the nation itself.

The stage itself is more of an ampitheater, and the perfect arena for Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr, to debate, plot, back-stab, and outmaneuver one another as the story of Hamilton and his life and legacy unfolds.

For the “Best Scenic Design: Musical” Tony—a hotly contested category, with Hamilton by no means a shoo-in, Korins is up against Es Devlin and Finn Ross (American Psycho), Santo Loquasto (Shuffle Along…), and David Rockwell (She Loves Me).

In Hamilton, Korins has constructed a butch and evocative arena for democracy to be decided within—and the show is as good, stunning, and astonishingly executed as every word you have read or heard about it. Unseen below the stage is Alex Lacamoire’s wonderful orchestra, whose musicians segue seamlessly and deliciously between rap, rock, and ballads.

Korins’s job is to provide a believable, non-intrusive physical and metaphorical space for Miranda and his fellow performers to sing and dance within.

It feels and looks elemental—a riot of ladders and joists and ropes—but in theater design, Korins says, there are no accidental rough edges or mistakes. It may look ramshackle or thrown together, but “every single brick is designed and put in place as it needs to be. Every single joint, the pegs, every single railing, every single rope, every rope loop, every pulley is exactly in place.”

How will he disassemble it? “Hopefully the show will run forever, so never,” Korins says, laughing. “Things come down a lot faster than they go up.”

The ampitheater is supposed to feel like an operating theater, Korins says, where those above observe Hamilton and his peers below. The design is most distinguished by two turntables, which spin—precisely, for precise periods of time, “all choreographed to an inch of its life”—as the story continues.

There is no specific meaning to the turntables moving forward or backward, but they take the characters through time, or setting them up for duels, or for debate, or emotional crises—and serve generally, says Korins, “as an effective way of conveying a cinematically epic sweep of history.”

The turntables were not part of the initial stage plan. Korins convinced director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler of their brilliance by illustrating 10 places in the show where the turntables could be used effectively.

“I handed them the building blocks, and expected them to build a rudimentary home with it,” says Korins, “and they built a supersonic rocket ship. The way they took it and filtered it through their artistic sensibilities has been amazing.”

The biggest technical challenge, says Korins, “was literally wrestling the thing down to the ground. Lin plopped this thing on my desk three years ago. It was unlike the revival of a show. There were no rules to it. It’s a hugely epic story, with different locations, and different socio-economic strata—we go from a tent on a battlefield to the richest person’s home.”

Korins felt “a huge responsibility,” because he genuinely sees Hamilton as a work of “staggering genius, as close to catching lightning in a bottle as I have ever seen.”

This is quite a compliment from someone who has worked in stage design so prolifically for 18 years—on Broadway productions that have included Misery and Annie, and who has designed TV sets for productions like Grease Live, and concerts for artists including Kanye West and Mariah Carey.

To get to its first home at the Public Theater, then to what Hamilton looks like on Broadway, “a million bad ideas” had to be processed and rejected. There was a plan to show the founding fathers on columns, and within a gold picture frame, which would be broken; the stage was set to be made of earth, and at another point black and metal. At the Public, the show had a pool of water in early previews.

“Designing is redesigning,” says Korins, and rejecting designs, and taking others on, was part of a process of necessary experimentation.

“Carpenters were the shipbuilders of the time, and we wanted it to look as if carpenters had constructed the stage,” says Korins. If it looks rough, he says, “these were hard times. We think of these men as rich and privileged, and yes, they went to become presidents and dignitaries. The truth is before that they were scrappy and hungry: they were oppressed people.”

Each location was picture-researched, and then Korin and his design team chose only one or two visual signifiers, like an abstract “star field” of candles for a posh party, or desk, or bench.

“To me, the thing I am most proud of—apart from being part of the show, it has been such a profound experience—is that each one of the design elements works perfectly with the choreography, design, music, and acting,” says Korins. “It’s a completely cohesive experience—that is rare in theater.”

The show’s sets took 16 weeks to build, and nine weeks to install, and Korins says his challenge now with the planned touring show is designing a set “which can be unpacked from a truck on Sunday for a show on Tuesday.”

Korins knows his professional life will change because of Hamilton. “It’s the first social media show. It’s put theater at the heart of pop culture conversation and all media conversation. It’s already reached a level of fame and recognition that Rent took 15 years to reach. It’s funny because not many people have seen the show yet. Thirteen hundred people see it a night now. Next year [as the touring production and perhaps others seed], that will be 10,000, then 15,000 the year after that. I can’t believe I’m involved in it. I’m sure being involved in it will open many doors and opportunities. I’m trying to keep my wits about me, and not get swept up in it. But it’s an amazing experience. It’s an out-of-body experience to be with Hamilton.”

Was Korins his own design master, or is the stage vision Miranda’s, or both of theirs?

Korins replies, smiling, that Miranda is a “certified genius”—referring to his $625,000 Macarthur Foundation Fellowship award—“and he is a genius at what he does, writing music and lyrics, and performing. But he sat right where you are, and said, ‘I have no idea what this thing looks like and moves.’ He was inclusive, trusting, and kind. I count him and Tommy [Kail] and Andy [Blankenbuehler] as good friends. It’s been a very fruitful collaboration.”

The Tony nomination feels “really special, partly because I’ve never had the honor bestowed upon me.”

As for waiting for the winner of his category to be announced on Sunday, “I don’t know if you’d call it ‘nervous,’ but I’m shivering with anticipation a little bit. I’ve never been to the Tonys. It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It took 20 years. What if it takes 20 years for another? I’m going to really enjoy this night.”

Growing up, Korins wanted to be a professional basketball player, “but I didn’t grow past 6-foot-2. I’m tall but not tall enough.” He performed as a musician and actor at high school, but after not getting the lead “Billy Bigelow” role in Carousel, the director suggested he could help build scenery.

At university he took a class in design techniques, and via an internship at the Williamstown Theater Festival saw a path—at the beginning he mulled that this might be themed restaurants—to a viable career.

Korins wasn’t a keen drawer, as you might expect. A professor told him not to worry about this: Korins learned that drawing, like models, were tools for communication. How he conveyed his ideas and concepts was the key thing.

“It’s kind of like robbing a house,” he says, smiling. “First you try the front door. That doesn’t work, then you try the window. That’s closed, try the chimney. Similarly, if you don’t have a drawing, you build a model, or a rendering.”

Eighteen years ago, a production of Antigone was the first show Korins designed, with lighting design by Ben Stanton, also up for a Tony this year (musical lighting, for Spring Awakening). Korins recalls the lights going out. “A blackout. The performers performed for the last 45 minute in total darkness.”

From that, through Kanye and Mariah to Hamilton, Korins sees himself as “not really a designer, more a storyteller,” who through color, perspective, architecture, and textures aims to elicit emotions within us, the audience. If he does his job right, we don’t notice how much his design is helping achieve that.

Isn’t hard working with divas? “It doesn’t bother me. Part of being an athlete growing up, I learned really early that being on sports teams you have to depend on other people sometimes. I’m never thrown by the pressure of a diva changing their mind at the last minute: it’s just another game, another clock ticking down.”

I ask what spectacle is on his dream design-job list, and he says emphatically into my recording device, “Olympic opening ceremonies,” and laughs at his shameless self-advertisement.

“That seems the biggest scale, the biggest world stage.” He points to a photo on his wall of a production done in a 29-seat theater, and both are about “human experience, of telling stories—very, very small or very, very big.”

The trick, he says, is to design for individual audience members, for our roving eyes scouting the stage as the action unfolds, with touches that also will buoy the collective experience of the audience at key moments.

Korins, who lives in New York, relaxes with his two children, Stella and Vivian, aged almost 11 and 7 respectively.

They have carved their initials into the Hamilton set, he says, smiling, and adds he doesn’t feel the need to relax—that traveling so much, and enjoying work so much with people he counts as friends, is pleasure enough.

His next Broadway projects include Bandstand and (transferring from off-Broadway) Dear Evan Hansen, as well as War Paint, starring Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, in Chicago. “I go there the day after the Tonys,” Korin says smiling. “Either my bag will be a little heavier or a little lighter.”

We look at Korins’s Tony nomination certificate, framed on the wall. “I held on to it for a long time,” he says, about the joy of receiving it. “When I read Hamilton, I thought, ‘I want to work on this show, it’s staggering.’ There’s good and amazing. Then there’s what catches on. I’ve worked on tons of shows that are extraordinarily good that never became Hamilton. This happens to be beyond, beyond, beyond.”

Does he have to pinch himself sometimes?

“Every day,” Korins says, smiling and also deadly serious.

“Several times a day. Literally, it’s crazy.”