There are certain people whose energy charges the room. Jeffrey Seller is one of them.
Seller is the lead American producer of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mega-hit musical Hamilton, and has been involved with the project from day dot. When Limelight meets him at the sleek Sydney offices of Australian producer Michael Cassel on the day after the first Australian preview, his infectious enthusiasm ricochets off the walls.
The fact that he articulates so clearly, and speaks with the rhythms, emphases and projection of an actor or orator only makes his conversation more vital and compelling.
Jeffrey Seller. Photograph supplied
“I feel reborn because I am finally, actively working again and engaging again. I am even enjoying the process of putting on my shirt and tie because I know I am going to go out and meet with people and have conversations, and then share with people the wonderful experience of seeing live theatre again,” he says.
“Being in quarantine for two weeks was a reasonable price to pay for my ability now to be out and about with all of the citizens and residents of New South Wales, and enjoying the restaurants, going to yoga class and living life again. Hallelujah!” he adds with a laugh.
Asking him if he went to the first preview the night before is therefore somewhat rhetorical. “Oh course! I’ve gone to the theatre every single day since I was sprung from hotel jail! The electricity, the joy, the enthusiasm was so high.”
Naturally, Seller has seen Hamilton on umpteen occasions – at the Off-Broadway Public Theater where it premiered in New York in February 2015, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre when it transferred to Broadway that August, in Chicago the following February, and at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre when it opened there in 2017, among other places.
Then COVID struck and the musical, which was the hottest ticket in town wherever it hit the boards, had to shut its doors like every other show. Right now, the Australian production – which has its official opening tomorrow – is the only version of Hamilton on stage anywhere in the world. No wonder Seller is ecstatic to be here.
Asked if he still gets excited when he watches it, having seen it so often, he says: “You know what, there is always a moment that I see, experience, witness that affects me in its own unique way, every night. Whether that was enjoying Jason Arrow who is playing Alexander Hamilton launch into the peak of My Shot, “I’m past patiently waitin’ …” and taking off like a 747 and electrifying. That’s his moment of lightning and that gives me goosebumps. That makes me remember why I love this show so much. Last night, it had been a long day so by the time we got to the last 20 minutes of the show I was tired. Maybe that affected me because when young Philip [Hamilton’s son] was killed, I was crushed in a unique way, I just couldn’t take the pain of it. And when Alexander and Eliza sing “the unimaginable” [in the song It’s Quiet Uptown] and begin the very fragile process of forgiveness, when she takes his hand, I was incredibly moved by that small act. And that’s what I got last night.”
Now 56, Seller has been “a force on Broadway for much of his adult life”, as The New York Times put it. Besides Hamilton, he has produced Rent, Avenue Q and In the Heights, winning a Tony Award for all four. His other credits include Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème on Broadway, Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, High Fidelity, and the 2009 revival of West Side Story.
It’s no surprise to discover that he fell in love with musicals when he was still a boy, aged nine.
“I was in a Purim play in the fourth grade, which is the story of Esther and the Old Testament, and in my synagogue this very creative, ingenious director would juxtapose the story of Queen Esther against a Broadway musical. When I was in fourth grade they were doing their Queen Esther South Pacific so I was introduced to I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, and when Queen Esther complains about her husband King Ahasuerus they also used some songs from Gilbert & Sullivan. I remember being a sailor singing ‘We sail the ocean blue, and our saucy ship’s a beauty’. I like to say it was a very good and propitious start,” he explains.
“By seventh grade I was in many theatre community plays in school and then as a teenager I started to say, ‘well who gets to choose the play?’ And they said the Play Reading Committee for the theatre group, so I said I want to be on the Play Reading Committee. Basically I was the Play Reading Committee of one, choosing our group theatre plays when I was 13 and 14 years old, and starting to ask ‘what would be the most popular play for us to choose that would help us sell all our tickets?’. So I was always conscious of what are we doing, for whom are we doing it, and how can we persuade as many people as possible to attend. Through high school I was still acting in plays but also picking plays, selling ads in the programs, designing the fliers and writing the press releases, because I was a writer, I was the Editor and Chief of my high school year book.”
While studying at The University of Michigan, Seller became a drama supervisor at a summer camp and made study money by directing college productions.
“It was during college that I became knowledgeable of, interested in and perhaps obsessed by the career of Hal Prince who was a producer/director because when you are directing shows in college you kind of are the producer and the director,” he says. “I was doing the press, I was helping to design the posters, I was choosing the designers, so I always had a strong facility as both producer, publicist, marketer and director.”
Producer Jeffrey Seller attends the Hamilton Meet and Greet at the New 42nd Street Studios on 18 June, 2015 in New York City. Photograph supplied
Moving to New York, he landed a job as a booking agent of out-of-town shows for a producer, while staging shows with friends at night. “It was at that time that I decided I think my skills as a producer may be more valuable to me and to the theatre than my skills as a director,” he says.
“Of course I was lucky enough that the artist who I forged a professional friendship with when I was 25 years old, back in 1990, was composer/lyricist/storyteller Jonathan Larson who ultimately wrote Rent. So when Rent happened when I was 31 years old, I was suddenly able to say I am now a producer on Broadway.”
Their relationship began one fateful night when Seller went to see an Off-Off-Broadway workshop production of Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical Tick, Tick… Boom!.
“It was actually called Boho Days [at that time]. It was in September of 1990 and I couldn’t believe that this man who I had never met in my life was singing a cycle of songs describing his 30th birthday and his life in New York in which he was writing rock musicals that nobody wanted to produce,” recalls Seller.
“He was questioning whether he should stay with his longtime girlfriend who he didn’t think was the right person for him, but he was afraid of breaking up with and being lonely, and he was faced with the question, ‘should I finally throw in the towel and go take a job as a copywriter at an ad agency, or should I stay true to my dream even though it means I live in this crummy fourth floor wall-up where the bath tub is in the kitchen?’ And I was so moved by that story that I wrote him a letter the next day saying I want to produce your musicals.”
A week later, Larson rang Seller, “and that as the beginning of our friendship”.
Larson discussed his groundbreaking musical Rent with Seller pretty much from the beginning. Seller had always loved the popular operas and when he heard about Larson’s idea to create a modern version of La Bohème set in Lower Manhattan’s East Village, with characters who had AIDS instead of tuberculosis, he loved the concept.
“His first read-through for an invited audience was in June 1993 and it was still an inchoate piece that did not yet have a strong narrative and I remember that I gave him some pretty negative feedback about that workshop,” says Seller. “Then he continued working and in the fall [North American autumn] of 1994 he did a more fleshed-out workshop, which at that point had the participation of the director Michael Greif. In 1994, my then business partner, Kevin McCollum, and I then immediately signed on and made the commitment to do the show. And that was the beginning of our happy relationship with New York Theatre Workshop, which was the resident downtown theatre company in which the show began.”
Tragically, Larson died in February 1996 of an aortic aneurysm, just 10 days short of his 36th birthday, and just three weeks before Rent had its world premiere.
“It’s something I almost have to compartmentalise because it’s still too much, it’s too much,” says Seller. “I divide my life into before Rent and after Rent, in that Rent changed my life forever and I am always cognisant of Jonathan’s absence because he didn’t live to enjoy the fruits of his labour because he died three hours after the final dress rehearsal, and he didn’t get to go to it. Rent was forever a work of art forged in joy and tragedy – ‘the unimaginable’ to quote Lin-Manuel.”
Seller then came up with the lovely idea of staging Baz Luhrmann’s stunning, youthful production of La Bohème set in the 1950s, originally created for The Australian Opera (as Opera Australia was then known), on Broadway at the same time as Rent.
As he explains: “When I was in the formative stages of working on Rent, a friend of mine said he had seen a video of the Australian Opera’s young, vibrant production of La Bohème and I should check it out because it had many of the great qualities we would maybe want in our show. I watched it and I loved it and I just put it in the back of my head.”
“And then Rent opened in 1996 and became a big hit and somewhere around 1998 I reached out to Baz Luhrmann. I write letters, and I wrote a letter saying would you ever be interested? I thought wouldn’t it be fun to have Rent and La Bohème on Broadway at the same time, so let me reach out to that Baz Luhrmann guy.”
“At first I got no response back and then maybe six months later, maybe a year later, I heard from this gentleman who is still my friend today, Noel Staunton, the arts impresario and maybe father/uncle to Baz and CM [Luhrman’s wife Catherine Martin] who said ‘we are interested so let’s get together’. That resulted in a meeting in Baz in LA when he was finishing his work on [his film] Moulin Rouge. So we forged that relationship with them and lo and behold in the fall of 2002, I achieved that goal which was to have Rent running on 41st Street and La Bohème running on 53rd Street. That was great.”
Seller made his first trip to Australia when Rent was produced here, opening at the Theatre Royal in Sydney in November 1998 with a cast including Christine Anu, Rodger Corser, Miguel Ayesa, Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Prinnie Stevens.
“Rent was not as popular here in Australia as it was in the US though it had a nice run in Sydney and a nice run in Melbourne at the Comedy Theatre,” concedes Seller. “The British did not embrace Rent in the same way that Americans did either, although in retrospect Rent has had a very nice history in England.”
He is aware of the recent production at the Sydney Opera House, directed by Shaun Rennie. “One of my great pleasures is when I see young audiences are still getting something out of Rent; that it still has something to say to them. That is obviously a credit to Jonathan and it is also a credit to La Bohème and to that classic Bohemian story.”
Jason Arrow as Alexander Hamilton and cast members of the Australian production of Hamilton. Photograph © Daniel Boud
Rent was groundbreaking in its day but nothing compared to the extraordinary impact that Hamilton has had. The rapped-and-sung-through show has redefined the possibilities of the American musical, and made theatrical and social waves with Miranda’s requirement that it is primarily performed by actors of colour (apart from the actor who plays George III). The fact that the Australian cast features an extraordinarily diverse line-up of performers has happened at a crucial time in Australia where the debate about a greater need for diversity on our stages and screens has been gathering force.
Seller first met Miranda and Hamilton’s director Thomas Kail when his then business partner Kevin McCollum went to a reading of Miranda’s musical In the Heights and was impressed with what he saw – though advised Seller to wait for a while before seeing it himself.
“Kevin said at the time, ‘if you watch it now Jeffrey you are just going to reject it so I want them to work on it some more before you see it’, because I was a more critical viewer of new works perhaps. But they were this young, ragtag little theatre company working out of the basement of the Drama Book Shop in New York. Lin had, in fact, written a one-act version of In the Heights when he was a student, a sophomore at Wesleyan University. Back then he wrote it and directed it but was not in it, then he ultimately came to play the narrator Usnavi and of course collaborated with the wonderful Latina playwright Quiara Hudes who wrote the book,” says Seller.
“It was during the process of In the Heights [which opened on Broadway in 2008] that I developed a trusting, positive, fruitful relationship with Lin and with Tommy that led us to Hamilton thereafter.”
When Miranda first discussed Hamilton with Seller, he wanted to make a concept album in which, as Seller says, “he could showcase all of his hip-hop/rap muscles without regard to the rigour of a book musical. So all I had to say was that’s great and if here’s any way I can help you realise this concept album I will – finance it, find a distributor, I’m in.”
“When he played me the first few songs I was immediately captivated by their electricity. Lin was a procrastinator back then and writing very slowly so it was Tommy Kail’s idea that if he could book them a concert of some songs, he could get Lin to write faster. So he booked them a night at Jazz at Lincoln Center for January 2012 where Lin would maybe have eight songs by then, and I think Tommy’s secret agenda was that once they put eight songs together Lin would realise it was a musical and not just a concept album and then we’d be off to the races. And lo and behold he was right and the day after that concert I said, ‘are you ready, let’s go, because this is a musical’.”
“They performed eight or maybe 10 songs in January 2012. By the summer of 2013 we did another small workshop in which they did Act 1. There was not yet an Act 2. [Lin] said to me in the summer of 2013, ‘I want to go into rehearsal for the full show by the end of 2014’. I said ‘Lin you don’t even have Act 2 and you know how long it took you to write Act 1!’ And he said, ‘don’t worry I’m going to write it this fall’, and he did.”
“When we looked at Act 2 in December of 2013, my jaw fell on the floor because I said Act 2 is even better than Act I, how did he do that? And lo and behold in 2014 we did go into rehearsal and opened at the Public in January 2015.”
Famously, it was Seller who coerced Miranda sometime during the five-year writing process into changing the name from The Hamilton Mix-tape to Hamilton. “That may be my lasting contribution!” he says with a laugh.
Asked if he suggested many other changes, he says: “I have to say of all the shows that I’ve produced, this one underwent the least amount of change, the least amount of excruciating work to make what’s not right, right. As Lin and Tommy developed this show, they kept putting each building block in place and then we were solid. Lin wrote the opening number and it never changed. And then he wrote My Shot – which is the ‘I Want’ song for Alexander Hamilton – and it never changed, and that’s kind of how it developed. So, yes, I would sit and say ‘this is too long, can you edit this? Can you cut this? This doesn’t make as much sense to me’. Those contributions were fine but they were not integral.”
When you produce a musical as wildly successful as Hamilton, promoting ticket sales isn’t top of the list as that tends to take care of itself – so much so that people book many months ahead and there is a lottery for those who can’t afford the prices and are desperate to see it. So what is it like to produce such a mind-bogglingly popular musical?
“Making a musical is hard. Making a musical that is successful on Broadway is very hard. Only 20 percent of them are successful, which means 80 percent of them are failures and being lucky enough to produce a show and that can run and run and run means you have finally created something that can become a business. And that’s a wonderful thing because it makes enough profit to please investors who will invest in more shows, it makes enough dollars every week to employ many people who forge new relationships and buy homes and put children through school with it. Those are all positive things,” says Seller.
“And then, of course, those things all come with their own headaches when you now have a big business with multiple companies. I like to think of Hamilton as an enlightened business because at the end of the day we’re not regional theatre, we are not resident theatre, we march to the beat of the drum of selling tickets, ensuring that every week our income exceeds our expenses and as long as we do that we are in business. And when we don’t do that we are out of business, and that is a wildly different mission than running something like the Public Theater in New York or the Sydney Theatre Company or the National Theatre in London.”
“When I say ‘enlightened business’, because of the very unique intersection Hamilton has with politics, with diversity, with race, we have become involved in many activities that are not specifically related to that question of selling tickets. That’s where Lin as the author, Thomas as the director, and I as the producer have decided it’s worth our effort and our time and our money to ensure that we can operate without always having to put our eyes on the bottom line. And because of that we created the Hamilton Education Program in the very first year of the show, which has put more than 250,000 kids into the show who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to see it, and has now involved many more millions through our online program,” says Seller.
“And through that in the US we have created a racial justice task force that we call Ham4Progress that has worked on racial justice, racial equality and got involved in efforts like voter registration and voter turnout – so those have been the pleasures of producing a show that is popular enough to sustain more platforms.”
Hamilton is playing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre