When David Korins interviewed for the job of set designer for “Hamilton,” he quoted a line from the script he’d spent all week studying. “I said, ‘You have to hire me. I’m not throwing away my shot,’” Korns recalls. He got the job, and ended up creating a stripped-down set for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop juggernaut, which tells the rags-to-riches story of America’s “10-dollar founding father,” Alexander Hamilton. The touring version of the musical, which begins a three-month run at the Kennedy Center on June 12, will feature a set that’s “virtually indistinguishable” from Broadway’s run, Korins says. We asked him to walk us through his design.
1. Quick changes
With nearly 50 songs and some 20,000 words, “Hamilton” required a set that could move as quickly as the script, Korins says. “There’s no time for set changes,” he adds. Korins eventually settled on an all-purpose setting that suggests a Colonial-era building under construction. “This is the story of the people who built the scaffolding upon which the country was built, so you see wooden period scaffolding up around a half-made wall to show a kind of aspirational space,” he says.
2. A grand entrance
Hamilton makes his entrance on this staircase, which, during the song “Alexander Hamilton,” angles toward the ground like a ramp coming off of a ship. “In our opening number, we get to watch Hamilton alight in New York Harbor,” Korins says. The nautical ropes and pulleys featured throughout the set carry over the theme of ship-based immigration, he adds.
3. Work in progress
Between the first and second acts, these brick walls grow 8 feet taller. “We add to the height of the walls because the country is progressing and that foundation is getting bigger,” Korins says. The things hanging on the walls also change between acts, from rifles and tools to parchment and quill pens, “because the war is over and now it’s time to govern,” Korins says.
4. Brick by brick
These brick walls are actually made of plastic and wood, and they come together in big blocks for easy assembly. As for the color of the brick, “I think we tried 33 different shades before we found the right one,” Korins says. “We knew we were having a multiracial cast and we wanted to make sure [the actors] all popped against the background.”
5. Furniture to go
“There’s a lot of stuff that happens at a lot of desks in the show,” Korins says. This desk is a faithful reproduction of Alexander Hamilton’s writing table, though it’s fortified to withstand actors jumping on it, Korins says. “It’s on a rolling cart, and all those sacks on the bottom play into the opening number, when we are talking about Hamilton working in St. Croix at the trading post, trading rum and sugar cane and all the things he can’t afford.”
6. A real whirlwind
Built into the floor of the set is a spinning circle of wood, with another, independently spinning ring of wood around it. These “turntables” — which allow the actors to stand still and move at the same time — were inspired by the whirlwind of history that sweeps up Hamilton, as well as the literal hurricane that hits the Caribbean island where he was born. “There’s also this cyclical relationship between Aaron Burr and Hamilton, where they were basically spiraling around each other their entire careers and lives,” Korins says.
7. Secret stashes
The cubbies in the walls hold goblets, swords and other props that the actors need to find quickly. They also inspired some swag. “On the opening night of the show on Broadway, I had made replicas of 4-foot-tall sections of the wall and gave them to the producers and members of the creative team, and I said, ‘This might be a good thing to put your Tony Award in.’ I think everyone I gave them to won a Tony. The problem is, I didn’t build one for myself, so I guess that’s why I didn’t end up winning.”