James Burns ’07 – Taking the Scenic Route: From Theatre Fairfield to Broadway’s Hamilton

James Burns ’07 – Taking the Scenic Route: From Theatre Fairfield to Broadway’s <em>Hamilton</em>

James Burns ’07 had been active in theater since the third grade, when he was cast as Noah in his school’s production of A Technicolor Promise. But by the time he arrived as a first-year student at Fairfield University, he’d decided that he preferred to be backstage rather than in front of an audience. His decision paid off.

It was at Fairfield that Burns, 33, received the initial direction and guidance he needed to attain his present career as an associate at the acclaimed firm of David Korins Design in New York City.

“I was fortunate to be part of a very talented cohort during the time I was involved in Theatre Fairfield — both in terms of faculty and students, Burns said. “My stagecraft professor, Susan Haggstrom, took so much joy in building sets for student productions at Fairfield, and all the faculty members I came into contact with were willing to stretch themselves to better educate us.”

Burns conceded that he chose to enroll at Fairfield “mostly because my sister (Elizabeth Burns ’05) attended,” adding, “I didn’t really know what I wanted to study going in, but I liked Fairfield’s size and Jesuit background.”

After he received his BA from Fairfield with a theater and German double major, Burns worked as a stage technician at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts for several years, and designed sets on the side.

I was fortunate to be part of a very talented cohort during the time I was involved in Theatre Fairfield — both in terms of faculty and students.

He eventually decided to pursue his master of fine arts in scenic design at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and received his degree in 2012. He joined David Korins Design in 2014.

David Korins Design, founded in 2004, is a multidisciplinary design and experience firm that specializes in creating spectacularly detailed, 360-degree worlds. The 2007 Fairfield graduate has worked with Korins on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, on hospitality projects, and on numerous other events and experiences.

David Korins Design contrived the tech-heavy set for the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, the playhouse for The Pee-Wee Herman Show’s stage run, and the complicated maze that comprised the television set for Grease: Live.

The company has done concert sets for everyone from Kanye West to Mariah Carey. However, David Korins Design’s most noted work – and what Korins personally hangs his hat on – is the set for one of the most successful musicals of all time, Hamilton. The Tony Award-winning show has played to sellout crowds in New York City, Chicago, and London, since it opened three years ago.

“I unfortunately didn’t have much involvement in the original production, though I did build the staircase for the scale set model,” Burns related. He did later work on the set for the touring version that opened in San Francisco in 2017.

Through work, Burns remains immersed in all things Hamilton. He is currently working on The Hamilton Exhibition, scheduled to open in Chicago in the spring of 2019. “It’s a historical exhibition, exploring early American history through the lens of Alexander Hamilton, using narration by Lin Manuel Miranda and music from the show.” Burns described working on Love U, Teresa with Korins as his “most exotic” undertaking since joining the design firm. The play pays musical homage to Taiwanese pop star Teresa Tang, who passed away in 1995 but remains one of the most popular Asian musical artists of all time. For Love U, Teresa, “The producer wanted a Western staff to apply the Broadway treatment to a Chinese story, a Chinese musical,” said Burns. “It was a jukebox musical on steroids. We had to do a lot of research about China’s history in the last 30 years, and how it affected everyday people.”

Burns, who lives in Westchester, N.Y. with his wife Anna (Stabile)’07, MBA’10, and the couple’s two daughters, predicts that Broadway will see a resurgence of original works. “That might be hopeful,” he admitted, “but shows like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen demonstrate that a good story does not need to be released in movie theaters before it can make it on Broadway.”

While Fairfield is in his past, Burns’ connections with the University remain strong. 15 years after first setting foot on campus as a student, “I still keep in touch with the group of friends I met in Campion during my freshman year.”