Who Tells Your Story? - ‘Hamilton’ producer rewrote the game

Posted: September 9, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Courtesy photo. Broadway producer Jeffrey Seller joins the lineup of Crystal Bridges' Distinguished Speaker Series with an evening of conversation with KUAF radio host Kyle Kellams.

"In New York, you can be a new man."

These words are the theme of the opening number in "Hamilton," and introduction to the man himself in the stage show that tells his story. Some 30 years prior to the debut of the musical phenomenon, they also proved to be a defining theme of Tony Award-winning producer Jeffrey Seller's own life. The lower-middle-class kid from Oak Park, Mich., outside Detroit, purchased a one-way ticket on a cheap airline to the Big Apple to take on the world. What has followed is surely one of the most impressive rap sheets in the industry with Seller's producing, among other projects, the innovative hits "Rent," "Avenue Q," "In The Heights" and "Hamilton" -- each revolutionizing The Great White Way in its own right.

FAQ

Distinguished Speaker Series:

Jeffrey Seller

WHEN — 7 p.m. Sept. 12

WHERE — Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville

COST — $5-$15

INFO — 418-5700, crystalbridges.org

"I try to please me, and I hope if it pleases me, it will please others as well," the producer says of what draws him to a project. There's no way to guess what audiences will or won't connect with, so it all has to come down to what moves Seller, he explains. "One could almost see that as a selfish motivation, but my point is I can only please myself and then hope others come along.

"And 'Rent' moves me," he says, pointing to the example of his first smash hit, celebrating its 22nd anniversary. "When Mimi enters the stage for the first time to ask Roger to light her candle, in the most glorious pop/R&B duet, I knew that story was for me, and I hoped it would be for others, but I didn't know for sure. And it turned out it was."

While the "classic story of young bohemians living out their dreams and dramas, making their way in a new city" will always be relevant, will always be interesting, Seller muses, some of his other ventures were certainly gambles. Though "Avenue Q" is about so much more than foul-mouthed puppets who simulate sexual acts on stage, and Lin-Manuel Miranda pitched the life of Alexander Hamilton -- America's first treasury secretary -- as the embodiment of hip hop, a more cautious man might have missed the potential in such investments.

"My job as nurturer, cheerleader, producer is to say yes," Seller shares. "And by that what I mean is, if I'm in the business with Lin-Manuel, then I am in the business of supporting him. I'm not in the business of telling him what's a good or not good idea. Was it a bold idea? Of course. Was it an unexpected idea? Sure. But my job is to say, 'Wow. Where ya' going?' and then see where he takes me.

"When he shared with me about a year later maybe four songs, he was on a roll creating something that was dynamic, riveting, and kind of ravishing to hear. Of course, at that moment he was talking about making a concept album, not even a Broadway show. So I said, 'Great. If I can be of service, then I will be of service.' And that's how it works with an artist like Lin. Maybe that's called leading from behind," Seller concludes with a thoughtful laugh.

Seller is always happy to share stories like this -- the wonderful, unique, bizarre and sometimes implausible moments that make up his journey from Detroit to becoming a man who has played no small part in the accessibility and relevance of the musical theater world.

"And then one of the things I'm also most happy to talk about is the degree to which we've had an impact on young people through our Hamilton Education Program, in which, in four years, 250,000 kids from Title I schools are seeing 'Hamilton' for $10 each," he says proudly.

It's not just the students who can catch the show for cheap, though. In a precedent set during his "Rent" days, Seller and former business partner Kevin McCollum are responsible for the lottery system, repeated by nearly every Broadway show since, giving viewers the chance to win $20 first- or second-row tickets. (Although, the price is lowered to just $10 for "Hamilton," of course -- known as "Ham for Ham": "Hamilton" for a Hamilton.)

"It was very satisfying to me when I read one day the Metropolitan Opera was going to do that, and a person could buy a $20 ticket and get a seat in the back of the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera," Seller reflects. "I thought, 'Good. We're making theater accessible to everybody, regardless of their ability to pay traditional prices.' And that value has been deeply important to me because I'm making sure that the me of 30 years ago, the me who's 24 in New York City, can afford to see a show. That's important to me, and that's important to our future."

NAN What's Up on 09/09/2018