“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.”
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.”
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.’”
“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.”