Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, Beetlejuice and more. Culturess spoke to set designer David Korins, whose visual creations have left a lasting impression on theater and pop culture.
If you look at some of today’s successful Broadway productions, David Korins has probably impacted what you have experienced. From the scrolling social media feeds of Dear Evan Hansen to Hamilton’s wooden structure, those artistic choices came from Korins and his design company. With another Tony nomination for Beetlejuice and the opening of Hamilton: The Exhibition happening in the past month, Korins spoke with me about his design process, creating a visual character and finding that integral visual moment.
David Korins has a long, impressive resume. From stage to screen to fully immersive experiences, Korins uses visuals to create a story. From quiet moments of introspection to vibrant explosions of color, these images compel the audience to embrace that visual character. Yes, the scene, the structure, and the design are like their own characters.
Working on Beetlejuice: The Musical
These characters are quite clear in his design for Beetlejuice the musical. While the musical is not a retelling of the Tim Burton movie, the design honors Burton and the visual world that Burton has created. In some ways, people tend to see a particular artistic choice or visual and associate it with Burton’s world.
Korins mentioned that the opening number is a way to “honor some of the greatest visual looking movies of our time.” Audiences should look carefully to see the nods to other Burton classics that have been woven into this theater experience. It is very clear how he honors “the Tim Burton world and landscape.”
In a way, Korins had a very daunting task in creating this Broadway production. Specifically, he said, “I can say this unequivocally, it is by far the most technically complicated show I’ve ever designed.” Given that the Maitland house is completely transformed four times within the production, he is definitely not overstating.
Pictured: Alex Brightman (Beetlejuice). Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2019.
With the enormity of the task at hand, the set design still pays attention to the little details. Since the design choices impact the performers’ approach to their own characters, Korins asks the actors for input. During the rough draft process, he said that he “100 percent [includes] them in the choices; it’s so much fun.” After all, if these characters were supposed to paint pictures on the wall, shouldn’t those actors have a say in how it looks?
That type of meticulousness is well appreciated by the actors. The stage and its design are integral to the story being told. Korins said, “I think that one of the most flattering compliments I’ve ever gotten in my professional career is by a performer who says ‘You know, when I take the stage, I have to do very little character development because I know exactly who I am and where I am because of the work that you’ve done.’”
Having watched many shows and productions over the years, it is always curious to see a show through someone else’s eyes. What I might see, what the person next to me sees, and even what the actor on the stage sees will never be the same. But all perspectives are equally important. Sure, I will never see the accurate telephone labels that face upstage, for example, but that design decision can have a ripple effect.
Korins said that “it’s storytelling through visual vocabulary.” Building from the inside out, he peels away each layer to find another detail, fact or circumstance that brought that theatrical moment to where it currently finds itself. Over time, it grows and evolves, just like the audience member experiencing the performance.
Bringing American history to life with Hamilton: The Exhibition
As a visual storyteller, David Korins is exploring the visual experience beyond the stage. In the recently opened Hamilton: The Exhibition, this 360 degree, fully immersive experience is not a retelling of the uber-popular musical, but it does bring some excitement to American history.
Hamilton Exhibition set. Photo courtesy of Rubenstein PR.
While much has been commented on Hamilton: The Musical, many people would agree that this production brought excitement back to learning about American history. Ten years ago, who would have expected high school students would be humming songs about the Battle of Yorktown or rapping cabinet battles? The musical invigorated a desire to learn about the past, which can impact the future.
In Hamilton: The Exhibition, the interactive experience takes a wider approach to exploring the man, the time and the impact of the Hamiltonian era. With Hamiltonian and early American historian Joanne Freeman and Gordon Reid, who is the world’s “foremost Jeffersonian historian,” consulting on this project, guests are empowered with knowledge to learn, understand and potentially make a difference.
Korins said that this experience looks to “the world and members of the country, and members of our community see and ignite further conversations about civic duty… and talk about where we came from, who we are now, and who we hope to be.”
Still, the visuals of the exhibit impact the overall experience. With more museums and experiences embracing Instagrammable moments, Korins is aware of that balance between the sharable and the substantial.
Hamilton: The Exhibition finds the right balance in creating integral and educational moments. While Korins suggests that there is a “choose your own adventure” element, the exhibit brings history to life in an engaging and electrifying way. He believes that “it’s impossible not to learn when you go to the Hamilton exhibition.”
Hamilton Experience set. Photo courtesy of Rubenstein PR.
That’s because that learning doesn’t come in a preachy way. The fully immersive experience appeals to guests on various levels. From the people who want to hear the musical soundtrack in a new way to those who want to spend hours reading all the little details in each room, the experience creates that moment where history and possibility become one.
While some people will pose for those Instagrammable moments or enjoy learning about our American history, anyone who experiences the exhibit will be changed, and that was intentional. Korins and his team took that impact into account — specifically saying, “if you can do both and make something that is really substantial and important that is also shareable, that’s better in my opinion.”
At the same time, Korins understands that the world today is fickle. He believes “on an individual level — as someone who creates cultural experiences — that if you can get people to engage as a community with each other and share ideas through holding up a mirror to society and having them look at a project and say ‘I see myself in this; I want to talk about ideas; I want to talk about those things that are pretty incredible.’ — To be able to just incite conversation, you know, the sharing of ideas and communal experiences is amazing.”
There is no doubt that Hamilton: The Exhibition is and will continue to spark conversations. Just as the musical ignited a change of perspective in the theatrical world, this exhibit will have people re-engaged with historical retrospectives. When history can come alive, maybe more people will focus on the legacy that they leave for the future.
Hamilton: The Exhibition is open now in Chicago. Tickets are available online.
Beetlejuice the musical has been nominated for eight Tony Awards, including a nomination for David Korins and his scenic design. It is currently running at Winter Garden Theater in New York City.