Right Hand Man: Meet Hamilton Tony Nominees

On a scale from one to “the other 51,” how energized are you for Sunday’s Tony Awards? We couldn’t be happier for Hamilton’s well-deserved 16 Tony nominations, and of course all of us have been rooting for Lin and Leslie, Phillipa, Daveed and Christopher and Renee. Nobody would argue that Hamilton isn’t #blessed with an incredible cast – but the musical’s success owes just as much to the behind-the-scenes team. Here are a few bios of LMM’s right-hand men:

Best Orchestrations – Alex Lacamoire

Alex Lacamoire is part of Lin-Manuel’s cabinet of geniuses, and incidentally all of them (+ Andy Blankenbuhler and Tommy Kail) happen to be nominated for Tonys this year. Alex has worked with Lin since In the Heights, the show for which he won his first Tony in the same category. Alex collaborated with Lin again for Bring It On the Musical, also serving as a co-orchestrator with Tom Kitt (Next to Normal). Needless to say, they’re trusted bros and work like one mind. And their working relationship is unconventional of sorts – usually an orchestrator begins collaborating with the show’s writer on pre-existing songs. But for Lin and Alex, it’s a team effort. Lin sends Alex a first draft recording of a song, and Alex constructs sheet music from there. Lin leads the way but Alex is in The Room Where It Happens from the jump.

“Lin is the architect. He builds the house. This is the foundation, this is the chord, these are the lyrics, this is the melody. I add the colors. It’s the back and forth. Lin leaves me spaces to contribute, and I’m thankful that becomes part of the song.” {x}

 

A perfect example of this is when Alex accompanied Lin to the White House in 2009 for the now-famous performance of what is now the first number of the show, Alexander Hamilton. Back then, the idea was just a Hamilton Mixtape – there was now musical in existence. They worked on that song and all the others to create what you hear on the soundtrack now. Also, if you’re a Hamilfan or just genuinely interested in the process of making a musical, watch that interview above. And read this interview. There’s a lot, kids.

 

Best Costume Design of a Musical – Paul Tazewell 

If you’re reading this there’s a good chance you have a copy of Hamiltome on your book shelf. Go to it and read the part about Paul Tazewell’s costume designs, and try to come away feeling anything but amazed. You can’t, can you? If you’re reading this there’s also a good chance you’re a regular Tony viewer, so the name Paul Tazewell probably sounds a bit familiar. His other nominations include A Streetcar Named Desire (2012), Memphis (2010), In The Heights (2008), The Color Purple (2006) and Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk (1996). Tazewell has experience designing both contemporary and period costumes, but Hamilton called for something a little different. The costumes in Hamilton are nothing short of amazing. They evoke the Revolutionary era, but they aren’t exactly straight out of Colonial Williamsburg, either:

How we used period influence in the costume design and the set design for HAMILTON was indeed the major question for the design team. Because HAMILTON is about an actual and year specific period of time that is very well known, it was important to decide if it would be a filmic recreation of the American Revolution/Colonial Period or if we would do the opposite and have the contemporary sound and telling of the story require me to design with a more modern style, as in contemporary fashion and street clothing. […]

[…]  I was also able to start to work out the look for the dancing ensemble which obviously needed to function well for movement and allow them to do everything that Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography required them to do, as well as create a neutral look that would be able to work seamlessly from Revolutionary Soldier, to men and women on the streets of Colonial New York City, to statesmen of the newly created United States of America. It also became important to have the principal characters stand out from the ensemble. [x]

To read more about Tazewell’s inspiration for specific characters’ costumes (like the Schuyler sisters and Thomas Jefferson), as well as the ensemble’s neutral parchment-colored look, read this excellent interview from Tyranny of Style.

Best Lighting Design of a Musical – Howell Binkley

Hamilton’s lighting design is courtesy of Howell Binkley, a five-time Tony nominee and one-time winner for Jersey Boys. One of those nominations was from In The Heights, so Lin was keeping it in the family yet again. For this production, Howell designed his lighting track by track, creating scenes based on the emotion evoked in each song.

“I gave each song a different look, as each song is a different story, and I wanted to give each one a different quality of light, different texture, and a different flavor,” Binkley adds. “The cast is often on stage watching the action, so I needed to sculpt them without taking away from the main characters. The color came from the mood of the song and the flavor of the music and the subject, rather than a motif for each character. For example, in the song ‘Hurricane,’ the palette is blue-green, turquoise, and yellow—vibrant but not always pretty, as Alexander Hamilton faces inner turmoil before he publishes his writings.” {x}

He also noted that designing the lighting for the show was “like a rock ‘n’ roll cueing sensibility yet with the subtleness of watching a sunset. It’s that extreme, sometimes right in your face, sometimes very intimate, from love scenes to duels.” This description is so on point – from hip-hop numbers to traditional musical theater songs, of course the lighting has to be different – just like the founding fathers, he’s building a nation in the middle of change.

Best Direction of a Musical – Thomas Kail

Tommy Kail is Lin’s Right Hand Man if there ever was one. Tommy was a few years ahead of Lin at Wesleyan University, where they both went to school and ran in the same theater circles. They co-created Freestyle Love Supreme (where they met Chris Jackson and Daveed Diggs) and directed In The Heights, for which he got a Tony nom. One of the great things I’ve noticed about interviews and such from Tommy re: Hamilton is how much he understands the story of the show. He’s not just directing a group of actors across the stage, he’s using them to convey a fairly untold story to an audience who will hopefully be just as moved and immersed in Hamilton’s take as the cast is.

LMM: When you hire Tommy as a director you get a two-for-one because he is also one of the best dramaturges around. He has such an incredible sense of story. A lot of the dramaturgical decisions that went into the structure of this show are from conversations with and suggestions from Tommy. It’s not just about making stage pictures or staging the show with him; he is with you every step of the process in terms of shaping the show and forming the show. He lets you know when you are treading water, if you can get somewhere faster. It’s actually kind of hard to overstate it. {x}

And since they’ve worked together so closely and for such a long time, their partnership works like magic and that magic shows on stage.

TK: One of the most striking things about Lin is his openness once he trusts you. That’s the fundamental difference between working now and when we first started; neither of us has to prove anything to each other in terms of our intention, which is always to make the thing better—to make the song better, to make the moment better, to make it sharper, to make it deeper. Lin knows implicitly that all I’m trying to do is service the piece. He learned that very early on with In the Heights. Effectively, our shorthand has gotten shorter. It’s now almost subliminal and non-verbal. There are times when I can just look at him and he knows exactly what I’m going to say and vise-versa. {x}

Best Choreography – Andy Blankenbuehler

On one hand, hip hop. On the other hand, an 18th century ball. HOW? If anyone was to figure out how to make it work, it would be Andy Blankenbuehler. Andy worked with Lin on In The Heights and Bring It On (noticed a theme yet?), and for Hamilton his choreography was informed by not just the music but also the setting and costumes – you move differently in heavy boots and jackets.

Blankebuehler’s big challenge in choreographing Hamilton was keeping the choreography from becoming repetitive while maintaining a cohesive style throughout. Andy solved this dilemma by creating several recurrent “movement phrases”  – I’m just like my country, I’m young scrappy and hungry, for example:

The ensemble is a choreographer’s chance to give voice to things that aren’t being said by the main characters, and for Andy, the ensemble’s point of view had to shift to emphasize different characters’ points of view:

The biggest collaborative thing was figuring out the ensemble’s perspective, the ensemble’s point of view because the strength of the ensemble’s point of view, I think, determines the strength of the musical. If their point of view isn’t clarified, the audience doesn’t invest in them as the lens for the piece. We had constant conversations with ourselves, but also with the cast of like “Right now you’re being Aaron Burr’s ego,” “Right now you’re being a jury that doesn’t have an opinion yet,” “Right now you’re being a jury that’s going to say, ‘Ok, I’m going to listen to Aaron Burr and see what he has to say and I’m going to stand in his shoes.”’  [x]

Modern audiences connect with Hamilton because some feelings and relationships are universal – and it was no different for Blankenbuehler:

I spoke at [the Drama Desk Awards] last year and I was really emotional because that week my daughter was cured of cancer. It was after three years of like chemotherapy every day. And so my family went through a fight for life for three years.

I said that that night in that speech. One of my favorite moments is the rowers and the end of the show when Hamilton’s dying and they’re rowing next to him. Literally, that’s how I felt because of my daughter. And so it’s those moments that are conceptual that I’m really proud of and I’m so thankful that the writers, Lin and [director] Tommy [Kail] and [musical director] Alex [Lacamoire], are trusting dance to accomplish that. [x]

 

Scenic Design – David Korins

Another previous collaborator (Bring It On), David Korins brings a decade of Broadway experience: he has designed sets for Dear Evan Hansen, Misery, Godspell and many more. For Hamilton, Korins took his inspiration from 18th century New York ship yards, the vestiges of which you can still see in the city. The set contains sturdy beams, ropes and platforms, similar to those a young immigrant Hamilton would have first encountered landing in the new country.  Then there’s the turntable, enabling the play to move forward and back through time, to spin faster as Hamilton’s world spins.

With more minute details, Korins shows the transition from the scrappy, under-construction colonies to a new country with a government and politics of its own:

“We go from rifles and racks to scrolls of parchment and maps and fine china, because now they are coming home to govern the country, and start writing laws.And you know, no one sees it. We lose ropes, we tie things off, we buoy and hunker down and become the fledgling nation that we are. No one sees it. They see the turntable, and they’re like, ‘Congratulations, you made a turntable!” [x]

 

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3 thoughts on “Right Hand Man: Meet Hamilton Tony Nominees

  1. Pingback: HamilTour in the Greatest City in the World | Cookies + Sangria

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  3. Pingback: Who To Root For At The Tonys In A Post-Hamilton World | Cookies + Sangria

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