Back in 2009, Thomas Kail got more than an inkling that his friend Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new project was something special when a video from a presentation at the White House went viral, ricocheting around the globe, enjoyed by countless theater fans, young people and, interestingly, history teachers. Before an audience that included Barack and Michelle Obama, Miranda introduced a hip-hop number from a “concept album” he was developing called The Hamilton Mixtape.
“Then Lin and I started conversations, just the two of us, thinking about what else this could be,” says Kail, who overlapped with Miranda for one year at Middletown’s Wesleyan University but never actually met him until after college. “We found ourselves building it brick by brick and we [eventually] started to realize there is some energy around it, that it felt like it was holding together.”
But it wasn’t until early 2012 — when a selection of songs from what was still called The Hamilton Mixtape was presented as part of the American Songbook series at Lincoln Center — that Miranda and Kail knew for sure they had a viable stage work.
“That’s when it became absolutely clear,” says Kail, a native of Virginia. “That’s when [music director] Alex Lacamoire came aboard. It was the first time Lin and I had been in a room with an audience of 350-400 people to listen to the songs, which wasn’t a ton of people, but something was definitely happening. I felt it very clearly. I’ve spent my whole life sitting in audiences and reading audiences and understanding when they’re engaged and when they’re not. That [Lincoln Center] audience was very engaged and that was very encouraging.”
Years later, Kail would receive a Tony Award for direction when that concept album evolved into the groundbreaking Broadway smash Hamilton. The national tour of the musical plays a three-week run at The Bushnell in Hartford Dec. 11-30. Austin Scott plays the role of Alexander Hamilton, while Aaron Burr will be played by Nicholas Christopher, who was the Broadway production’s George Washington. Though the shows sold out in a matter of hours in early September, additional tickets may become available on bushnell.org closer to the show dates, and people can enter a lottery online through the official Hamilton app.
Even when the show opened off-Broadway at New York’s Public Theater in January 2015, the run attracted sold-out crowds, first based on Miranda’s reputation from his earlier work, In the Heights, and then via word of mouth. “Nothing had been written about the show yet,” Kail says, “and yet there was a momentum there. I just started to feel something that was slightly difficult to describe that was circling the show.”
When the off-Broadway run ended, many thought the show could immediately transfer into a Broadway theater. Instead, the strategy was to work on the musical a bit more, fine-tuning what the creative team already knew was something special. The show finally opened on Broadway on July 13, 2015, and immediately entered the cultural zeitgeist. “When Lin and I peeked outside after our 5 o’clock rehearsal one day [before the Broadway opening] and we saw 700 people standing in line trying to get 20 tickets for the lottery, I knew something was going on that I had not ever experienced,” Kail says.
Can’t get enough of Alexander Hamilton? Then head to the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford for more on the colorful Founding Father.
That enthusiasm exceeded their first Broadway collaboration, 2008’s Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights, which was itself a kind of phenomenon. The show began when Miranda, then a sophomore at Wesleyan, created a hip hop show of the same name. Word of Miranda’s talent made its way to Kail, who had previously graduated from Wesleyan as “a very mediocre history major.” Kail was living in New York and became part of a theater company with several other Wesleyan grads.
The group brought Miranda into its fold as soon as he graduated and began developing the musical, first in the basement of the Drama Bookstore where several of them worked, and later at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford. The show went on to win awards, tour and be optioned as a film. (It has a June 2020 release date.)
But as popular as In the Heights became, it paled in comparison to what their Hamilton collaboration would become seven years later. “Now having seen the show in so many cities across this country, the reaction to the show has been consistent,” Kail says. “It’s been a gathering place for people to sit in the dark and watch what’s possible, in a creative sense, in a theater that invites and allows everyone to come and be unified, to be galvanized.”
Kail’s current project — beyond keeping the five Hamilton companies in top shape — is a limited television series he is directing and co-producing with Miranda based on the lives and careers of choreographer-director Bob Fosse and Broadway actress and dancer Gwen Verdon. The eight-part series stars Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams and will air on FX next year.
Adding to the armload of honors the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning show has received will be a Kennedy Center Honor, which will be awarded to Miranda, Kail, Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler on Dec. 2. It is the first time a creative team and not just an individual has been honored. (The event will be broadcast on Dec. 26.)
“I was stunned when I heard the announcement,” Kail says. “The Kennedy Center Honors, which for someone who grew up in the D.C. area, well, it’s one of the first things you learn about when you’re a kid growing up. That I get to stand there among the incredible talents, with my three best pals and to be a part of it, well, it’s not something you certainly think is ever going to happen. I’m pretty darn lucky.”
Also coming up is the return of Miranda to the title role in Hamilton for a special month-long presentation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in January to benefit the hurricane-ravaged island. Kail will again direct.
“I just hope Lin remembers all the words,” he says, laughing.