WASHINGTON — Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, and riding to school at Sidwell Friends, Thomas Kail passed our national monuments daily. Who knew it would spark him to direct one of the biggest musicals ever to hit Broadway?
“Every day driving in on that long drive from Alexandria, you’d go by these monuments,” Kail told WTOP. “These people — Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, [Abraham] Lincoln — they’re places you drive by as a child. Then all of a sudden, you become an adult and you start to really understand the significance of what it means to make a monument to pay honor to something.”
Kail returned home Sunday night to receive the National Archives’ Records of Achievement & Heritage Award, alongside “Hamilton” writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda and author Ron Chernow, who wrote the Alexander Hamilton biography upon which the Broadway musical is based.
“It’s an extraordinary honor,” said Kail, whose mom is an archivist in Georgetown. “To be at the archives, it’s incredibly humbling. We’re all so proud to be there. … What we’re trying to do is honor the musical theater that inspired us, investigate this country, explore the promise of this country. … I’ve spent so much time trying to make history feel relevant, because it always felt that way to me.”
Born on Jan. 20, 1978 — 37 years to the day that “Hamilton” would later premiere off-Broadway — Kail grew up a die-hard fan of his hometown Washington Redskins and Baltimore Orioles, hoping to become a sportscaster like Frank Herzog or John Miller, practicing his calls with a tape recorder.
“I was playing sports and was obsessed with listening to Redskins games,” Kail said. “I can go deep on the 1991 Orioles, the 1987 football season, the 1991 football season, reading Tony Kornheiser write about Doug Williams and Mark Rypien. … I did a play called ‘Lombardi’ a few years ago and Sam Huff and Sonny Jurgensen came up to see the show and I ended up going out to dinner with them. Just hearing those men say my name, ‘Can you pass the bread?’ I can’t tell you [how surreal that was]!”
In addition to sports, his family enjoyed the creative arts. But while his two sisters made him watch “Grease” (1978) on a constant loop, he never could have dreamed that theater was in his future.
“We’d go to National [Theatre], we’d go to Kennedy Center, see something at Arena Stage. But it didn’t occur to me that on the title page when it said ‘Directed By,’ that was a job you could have.”
That wild idea was first presented to him by an inspirational teacher at Sidwell Friends.
“I had a teacher there name John Elko who really altered the course of my life,” Kail said. “He asked me to take an acting class. … It really opened up my eyes to a possible landscape to explore.”
It became a reality in college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he graduated in 1999. It was here that he became aware of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was a freshman when Kail was a senior.
“As I like to say, I was not talking to freshmen,” Kail joked. “Lin was this precocious freshman who I’d heard about and then when I graduated, the next year in 2000, Lin wrote a proto version of ‘In the Heights,’ an 80-minute, one act [show]. A couple of my friends, John Mailer and Neil Stewart, saw that and said, ‘When we start our theater company in a couple years, we should find him and produce it.'”
So when Miranda graduated in 2002, he met with Kail, Mailer and Stewart to discuss “In the Heights,” an ensemble piece chronicling three days in the life of Washington Heights, a Dominican-American neighborhood in New York City. Kail recalls an immediate spark when speaking with Miranda.
“The first time I thought, ‘They say the kid’s pretty good. We’ll see what he’s got,'” Kail said. “Then when he came to the Drama Book Shop, which is where my theater company was in residence … Lin sat down there and we just started talking. I just saw instinctively that his motor revved really high and he was able to absorb ideas. … I started asking questions, what if this, what if that … He was exactly on my frequency. … It was very clear that some sort of spark was happening between us.”
The meeting carried over into a meal and beyond, turning into a six-hour conversation that became “In the Heights.” The show premiered on Broadway in 2008, earning 13 Tony nominations, winning four, including Best Musical and Original Score for Miranda, as well as a directing nomination for Kail.
They were now the toast of Broadway, the hot new hands of modern-day musical theater. But their legacy was about to explode as Miranda grabbed a copy of Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton,” chronicling the founding father and first treasury secretary of the United States.
Thanks to the glory of Gmail, Kail knows the exact date Miranda shared his spark: Aug. 1, 2009.
“He sent me a G-Chat that said, ‘Hey, I’m reading this biography,’ and I just said, ‘Great, what else are you doing?’ It didn’t even register on me. … Later in August 2009, he told me how this book really sparked for him and that he wanted to meet the writer and that he had an idea to write a song. Not a musical, but really a collection of songs. … It took him months and months to write that first song.”
That song earned a standing ovation from President Barack Obama at a White House poetry jam.
“I was terrified,” Miranda told WTOP. “I was performing something I had only previously performed in the shower and to my girlfriend and maybe Tommy Kail … What happened that night is what has happened in real life. They laughed because it’s a crazy idea, then they get sucked into the story, just like I got sucked into the story when I read Ron’s biography. … You see it in miniature in that evening.”
“He performed it and no one saw it, and then through this sort of strange circumstance, they had recorded it and they put it out on YouTube, and then the world had this song. … I saw this electricity shoot offstage and electrify this audience, and then I just tried to encourage him to keep going.”
Keep going he did, penning song after song in what would become “Hamilton: The Musical.”
“We kind of built it together, brick by brick,” Kail said. “This was something that, from that first song, existed as one brick in the wall. Then he wrote another song, which became ‘My Shot,’ and that became another brick. And then we had these two things and we just started building together.”
In fact, it was important to Kail that both of them read Chernow’s biography separately.
“I said to Lin, ‘Let me read the book and let’s not talk about what we want the show to be until we’ve both read it clean,'” Kail said. “‘I want us to go through the book and on our own write down what could be a good song, what’s a character that sparks, what’s an ida or a moment or a scene and let’s see where our lists overlap.’ … We had so many things we shared that we thought should be told!”
Next, orchestrator Alex Lacamoire was brought on board to test out a dozen songs in front of a crowd of 400 people in January 2012. From there, they went into casting, going against type for many of the characters to create a multicultural cast that would reclaim American history for all Americans.
“What ‘Hamilton’ does is it embodies the energy of the creation of the United States and makes it relevant and hip for today as it was in its time,” documentary filmmaker and past recipient Ken Burns told WTOP. “Our founders, for the most part, were not interested in sharing it with everyone. When Thomas Jefferson said, ‘All men are created equal,’ he meant ‘all white men of property.’ We don’t mean that anymore, and ‘Hamilton’ celebrates the fact that we don’t mean that anymore.”
The role of nemesis Aaron Burr, who killed Hamilton in an 1804 duel, went to Leslie Odom Jr.
“‘I’m the damn fool that shot him,'” Odom Jr. told WTOP, quoting his song lyric. “Lin works with an improvisational spirit. It feels like we spin this yarn every single night. It exceeds our expectations.”
The choice was an easy one for Kail and company.
“Leslie actually saw one of our early workshops in 2013,” Kail said. “From the second he walked into the room, it was just, oh, there’s Aaron Burr. He had a confidence, a skill level, a complexity that felt like it was really well-suited to the role. His energy is very distinct and different from Hamilton’s.”
If Odom Jr. got the “duel” role, Daveed Diggs got the “dual” role, playing two founding fathers.
“Daveed Diggs, who played Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette, was someone that I’d met through a very good friend of mine at Wesleyan, Anthony Veneziale, who had started Freestyle Love Supreme with me and Lin, which is an improvisational hip-hop show,” Kail said. “We thought, ‘Who’s a better rapper? Who’s more charismatic? Who’s better looking? Oh, Daveed. We should call him.”
To play America’s first president, George Washington, they turned to Christopher Jackson.
“Chris and I met in 2003 when we were putting together ‘In the Heights,'” Kail said. “Chris knew about this show in 2009 when Lin said to him offstage, ‘I’ve got our next show and I’ve got a part for you.’ A week later when I saw Chris, I said, ‘Mr. President?’ And I think he knew what was going on.”
Filling the vital role of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler, was rising star Phillipa Soo.
“I had seen [her] in a show called ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Comet of 1812.’ … I turned to a casting director and manager at intermission and said, ‘Is it gonna be you or me? Because that’s the real thing,” Kail recalled. “I told Lin and Lin went to see her in the show and he thought she was terrific.”
Eliza’s sister, Angelica, was an equally important role, for if anyone still doubted the market for sister stories, look no further than the success of “Wicked” or “Frozen.” Enter the gifted Renée Goldsberry.
“Renée Goldsberry, I met through the audition process. She walked in and delivered ‘Satisfied,’ and I thought, she’s smarter than Lin, she’s more skilled than Lin, let’s put her in the world! Lin agreed.”
As for the title role of “ten-dollar founding father without a father,” it always belonged to Miranda.
“I said to Lin after ‘Heights,’ all right for the next one, will you please just sit next to me so we can solve this together?” Kail said. “And then he performed that song at the White House, and I thought, ‘Okay, for the next one?!?’ So I knew pretty early that he should originate the role of Hamilton.”
On Jan. 20, 2015, “Hamilton” made its off-Broadway debut at The Public Theater. The address? 425 Lafayette Street. It seemed historic markers were following Kail like those monuments as a kid.
“I knew that something was happening that was exceptional,” Kail said. “There was an app that gives away a pair of tickets. … When I asked how many people had signed up for it, they said, ‘Usually it’s about 500-750 people.’ I said, ‘How many people signed up for these?’ and they said, ‘12,000.’”
Buzz began spreading at the intimate 290-seat theater, in part thanks to a glowing New Yorker review. Seven months later, “Hamilton: The Musical” finally moved to Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre with previews starting July 13, 2015. On July 18, President Obama caught a preview with his daughters, Malia and Sasha, before the show officially opened on Aug. 6, 2015.
“None of us ever expected that it would have the reach that it did,” Kail said. “We’re incredibly grateful that people have received it in this way and we’re humbled by the reception.”
There was no hotter ticket in town as theater goers knew they were witnessing history. Fittingly, on Tony night, “Hamilton” garnered a record 16 nominations, winning 11, including Best Musical, Best Book (Miranda), Best Original Score (Miranda), Best Actor (Odom Jr.) and Best Director (Kail).
“The whole thing was such a celebration of the show and the whole community,” Kail said. “We never felt like that night was about us. It was a celebration of what it means to work in the theater, what it means to be a part of this community, and because of what had happened just hours before [in Orlando], it was a chance to be together with a resilient community that could give people strength.”
Of course, success breeds exclusivity. With all the accolades, ticket prices shot through the roof.
“It’s a very complicated thing. We made a show about everybody for everybody that not everybody can see,” Kail admitted. “That’s one of the reasons we put the album out so quickly, so people for $20 could have a connection to the show. That album is a really beautiful document of the show.”
Indeed, the soundtrack won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, allowing legions of fans to learn the lyrics and memorize the melodies before ever having seen the show. The same goes for the hardback book, “Hamilton: The Revolution,” co-written by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter.
“The album is not the show, but is a way to touch it,” Kail said. “The book by Jeremy McCarter and Lin, ‘Hamilton: The Revolution,’ is not the show, but it’s a way to have supplemental information and enhance the experience. All of these things hopefully contribute to people feeling connected to it.”
Still, Kail says the show’s creators are looking for more ways to make the show more accessible.
“We’re very conscious of it; we’re trying to do everything we can,” Kail said. “We have programs through the Rockefeller Foundation where 20,000 students from 11th grade in New York City come to see the show every year. … Then we also have a lottery where there are 23 $10 tickets for every show. … Starting at the top of next year, there will be 46. So that’s 50 tickets a night, 400 tickets a week, 20,000 tickets [a year] plus the students, we have 40,000 people seeing the show for $10.”
If you can’t make it up to Broadway, the national tour is coming to Kennedy Center in 2017.
“This is one of the beautiful things about being in Chicago. As of Sept. 27, 1,900 more people a night will be able to see the show. When we open in San Francisco and then it goes to L.A., that’s another 2,000 people. Eventually it’ll come to D.C. and start going around the country. … I will absolutely be there in D.C. and will have directed that production and make sure the show is as excellent as possible, because I want everybody to have the full experience of the show. Our job is to deliver that.”
Until then, Kail will be busy pinching himself about Sunday’s prestigious Records of Achievement Award at the National Archives — as well as his chat on WTOP, his beloved radio station as a child.
“This incredible honor that the Archives is bestowing on the three of us is a very big deal, but I think the WTOP part of it might actually be one notch below,” he said. “You have no idea! If the 12-year-old version of me right now knew what would be happening, it would be a very strange time warp. Longtime listener, as they say. … I feel like I’ll start working there tomorrow if you guys would let me.”
Listen to the full conversation with “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail below:
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