Written by Justin Clarke – As seen on Theatre People
Seated in the Playhouse Theatre of NIDA, a full capacity house of students and theatre alumni sat with eager anticipation to hear four-time Tony Award® winner, Jeffrey Seller, talk all things Hamilton and musical theatre. Seller, who has won four Tony Awards® for Best Musical for Rent (1996), Avenue Q (2004), In the Heights (2008) and Hamilton (2016) and is ranked as ‘Broadway royalty’ from The Guardian, sat down to talk with Director in Residence David Berthold about his journey as a producer through a string of landmark and ground-breaking musicals, and how these efforts have forever changed the face of musical theatre.
Hamilton, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and produced by Seller is now playing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre and is the only production of the smash-hit musical playing in the world, a feat that does not go over Seller’s head. Hamilton itself sold over 250,000 tickets for its Sydney production, which gives credence to the fact the production itself has grossed over $1 billion worldwide in revenue since its inception.
With an impeccable gravitas of calm and experience about him, Seller talked the audience through the very beginning of his career, to the creation of some his greatest musical theatre achievements and what he sees the future of the musical theatre scene being in our post-Covid world.
“What does a producer do?”
Berthold began the conversation with the most obviously important question, “What does a producer do?” to which Seller eloquently broke down the facts. “It’s a great coincidence that my last name is Seller,” he quips, “Producers choose the plays…it’s my chance to ask, what kinds of stories do I want to tell? Whose stories do I want the world to know? I get to shape my artistic expression.”
Seller takes us through his origins, growing up in Detroit, USA in a family that was simply unable to provide him with the opportunity to indulge in the world of Broadway. It wasn’t until his first experience at a Summer Camp that Seller got his taste of theatre, which would go on to inspire him to create his first written, directed and produced production, Adventureland. This was a moment of his life which stood with him as his company now takes the same name; “There was nowhere else to go”, Seller explained when discussing the search for the name of his production company.
Rent and Jonathan Larson
“It wasn’t long before you then went to Broadway,” Berthold leads us into the next phase of Seller’s story. “Two months after graduating from the University of Michigan,” explains Seller as we are now led into a raw and honest part of his life.
“I remember I had broken up with my boyfriend of the time and I was going through my 25-year-old life crisis. [My friend] asked me to go and see this Rock Monologue called ‘Boho Days’…I’d never put the words Rock and Monologue together in a sentence before…and this guy comes out with curly brown hair and he smashes out at the piano the story of his angst, how he wanted to make something great and how in his head it was ringing ‘tick, tick, tick…Boom!’ because he was afraid his time was running out.’ That man of course turned out to be the late Jonathan Larson. “I knew I wanted to produce his work…so I wrote him a letter…that was in 1990 and in 1996 we opened on Broadway with Rent.” It is here that Seller begins to become teary. Larson famously passed away on January 25th, 1996 of an aortic dissection, during the final dress rehearsal before Rent’s Broadway premiere. “He never got to see it,” Seller tearfully states. “He wanted to create a production that told his story… ‘I’m going to make the ‘Hair’ of the 90’s’…and he did that, changing the musical theatre scene in Broadway forever.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton
The next segment of Seller’s conversation eventually led to the main topic, that of Hamilton, the invention of Lottery Tickets and EduHam.
“It was during the run of ‘Avenue Q’ that I was asked by my business partner to come to the Drama Bookshop to see these two men perform a production they were developing.” The two men being Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kale, and the production being the in-development In the Heights.
“[Lin-Manuel] first thought of ‘In the Heights’ after seeing ‘Rent’. So, it all came full circle for me.”
Miranda and Seller’s working relationship would go on to create a ground-breaking musical that told the story of, “America as it was, presented by America as it is.” Seller, knowing all too well the importance of young people needing to see stories that reflect their context, went on to develop EduHam, an education program that brought in students from New York to watch Hamilton for a smaller price (or free!) on a Wednesday matinee. These specific productions allowed students to work with the cast to break down the show, and allowed students to perform parts of the show on the stage itself. EduHam would go on to reach over 250,000 students across America.
The Obama-era Musical and Trump
Soon, it came time to ask the hard-hitting questions that underpin Hamilton’s themes. “The day Donald Trump was elected President, what was that like?” questions Berthold. “Excruciating,” replies Seller. “We all gathered the day after the announcement in the theatre, not knowing if we could or should go on. The cast and I, and the crew, shared our thoughts.” Those thoughts included “At least now we know what we’re up against,” and, “I’m afraid for my future.” But what came out of was the knowledge that, “Hamilton was more important now than it had been the day before.”
Vice President-Elect Pence would go on to attend a performance of Hamilton shortly after President-Elect Trump’s win. This was a visit which took to the news after Seller wrote the note, read out by Brandon Dixon who was cast as the show’s Aaron Burr at the time, which was read out to Pence at the show’s conclusion. “[Mike Pence] took it as a statement of our freedom to speech, but of course the man he was working for took to create a Twitter tirade against us…This led to threats, and us having to raise security immensely,” Seller explained, “But we wear it like a badge of honour that we believe this to be the first moment of resistance in that time.”
Seller then opened the floor up to the audience to lend their voice to the conversation.
Audience: “Do you have any recommendations on how we can create new musicals in Australia? We don’t have as large a scope as America in this regard, so what are the processes you suggest we follow?”
Seller: “Forge relationships,” Seller responded, “with groups of artists. Make your own theatre troupe and keep growing. Create your first production, and then it’s one foot in front of the other.”
Audience: “With Covid-19 impacting the world like it has, and the climate of theatre as it currently stands, what do you see being the new wave of theatre?”
Seller: “It’s anybody’s guess,” replies Seller. “But we have to ask how is Covid going to change us? How are the movement we’ve seen, like the Black Lives Matter Movement, the LGBTQI+ movement, the recent Asian-American movement we’ve seen, how are these going to change theatre? We will be creating theatre that tells all stories, not just some stories.”
Thank You Australia!
If there was anything that could be taken from Jeffrey Seller’s lifetime of experience amidst the brief snippet we received into his mind, it’s that “Australia has done it right. [We] have put in the hard work and now [we] get to be the only audiences in the world to see ‘Hamilton’ and share its messages.”
Seller ended with a largely raucous “thank you” for all the hard work that Sydney has put into its Covid-19 response, and another thank you for this day, of all days, to (finally) bring out the sunshine.