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‘Hamilton’ Director and Set Designer on Musical’s Origins, Adapting for L.A., Initial Ideas That Were Tossed Out

Pegged as a conversation about the scenery behind hit musical “Hamilton,” talk really turned to the show’s birth Wednesday at NeueHouse in Hollywood.

Opening night is Aug. 16 at the Pantages in Los Angeles, where it runs till Dec. 30. For those watching the show in L.A., director Thomas Kail said he wanted them to experience the “Hamilton” they are expecting from the Broadway run. In an interview before the public conversation, Kail and set designer David Korins talked to Variety about the touring production’s sets, which are being moved in five vans.

The set was reverse engineered so that it could be taken down and set up quickly. While the L.A. stint covers nearly four months, in other cities the run is much shorter. “The whole set is conceived to feel big and strong and permanent,” Korins said. “So it’s kind of an interesting trick to make something that has to move so quickly and so nimbly look permanent and solid.”

Kail said: “That’s actually what I love about taking a show down on the road. You get to do something, which is, I think really important — you bring the show to the people.”

Kail explained the show’s origins, including his collaboration with creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. “After 2 1/2 years there were two songs. Two songs does not make a musical, but it’s the Rosetta Stone.” He then told Miranda, “Let’s step this up, we’ll be as old as dirt by the time this is done.”

They read Ron Chernow’s book on Alexander Hamilton that inspired the tuner and marked everything that seemed to make a scene or a song and made a “Venn diagram” of what they both liked. “We were building this brick by brick. There was no road map,” Kail said.

Kail had worked with Miranda and the rest of the creative team: musical director Alex Lacamoire (who was in the audience), choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and lighting designer Howell Binkley, among others in Miranda’s previous show “In the Heights.” Korins was working on set designing “Passing Strange” at the time, and said he felt a twinge of regret he wasn’t part of the team.

“I was not jealous of the show, but jealous of the collaboration,” Korins said. So when he heard about “Hamilton” he wanted to be part of it.

“David’s work is the secret ingredient of the show,” Kail said. “When we work with people at the top of their form it seems it fell into place, but it took him 20 minutes to come up with the idea.”

Miranda, he added, doesn’t write stage directions, but gives them leeway to work it out for themselves.

Many of Korins’ initial designs were set aside, including the twin turntables that are the highlight of the show. “Double turntables are difficult to pull off,” Kail said explaining why it was originally set aside. “We want to make sure whatever we do aids and enhances the show.”

Some they returned to, while others are just hinted at now. Among ideas that were considered and tossed aside were a giant parchment and quill, a gilded picture frame, a ginormous column and scaffolding, to show they were building the country.

“Our story is not about the people who built our country, but the people who built the scaffolding for the people that built the country,” the director said.

“We knew them as old, crusty white guys, but in the show they weren’t going to be old, crusty white guys,” Korins said.

“The show doesn’t feel contemporary because there’s an iPod, it’s contemporary because of its integrity,” Kail said. “Nothing is more powerful and economical than your imagination.”

(Pictured: David Korins and Thomas Kail at Behind the Scenery of “Hamilton: An American Musical”)

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