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"Hamilton" producer's love of theater started in Oak Park

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2019

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With a Broadway career that's included productions such as "Rent," "Avenue Q" and "In the Heights," Jeffrey Seller is no stranger to blockbusters and Tony Award winners.

But the Oak Park-raised producer has never had a phenomenon like "Hamilton: An American Musical."

The musical about the life and career of U.S. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and the birth of the nation, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2015, has made the leap from entertainment to iconic cultural touchstone. Blending hip-hop attitude, rap. contemporary pop and standard theater conventions as well as casts mostly of color, Lin-Manuel Miranda's masterwork has been performed from the Great White Way to the White House, and around the world. It won 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy, eight Drama Desk Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

It also set a Broadway single-week ticket sales record ($3.3 million in late November of 2016) and has been the hottest ticket in any town it plays, from residencies in New York, Chicago or London or cities on the national tour that began a year ago.

"I knew that as (Miranda) continued to develop 'Hamilton' that it was stellar," Sellers, a University of Michigan graduate, says by phone from the offices of his Adventure Man Productions in New York. "I knew that it was unique and I knew it would have some sort of success. I questioned whether a show with that density could be wildly popular; I didn't know, and I didn't care, 'cause I thought, 'Well, we'll do the show, it'll have some success and we'll see...'

"Did I know it would become a cultural, political, artistic phenomenon? The simple answer is I did not."

Seller's journey with "Hamilton" began during 2009, not long after Miranda's "In the Heights," a musical about New York's Washington Heights neighborhood, opened on Broadway. Miranda had been invited to a Poetry Jam at the White House and told Seller about a new song he'd written for his next project the opening title piece for a musical about Alexander Hamilton. A year later, Miranda showed Seller five more songs, but at this point he was thinking about a concept album rather than a stage production.

"My jaw dropped from their musicality, their eclecticism, from their swagger, from their intellectual heft," Seller recalls. "I said, 'I'll support you any way you want. You want me to help you make an album, we'll make an album, whatever.

"So when people say, 'What did you think, 'cause it's such an unlikely idea for a musical? Did you go, 'Oh, that's a terrible idea,' I say, a) it wasn't like that 'cause he conceived it an album first, and b) when an artist as ingenious as Lin says, 'I have an idea for a musical,' my job is to say yes and not to judge the idea.'"

"Hamilton," which Miranda based largely on Ron Chernow's 2004 biography, ultimately morphed into an actual musical, and the rest is history and historic. Though criticized in some quarters for historical inaccuracies and the target of some racist barbs for casting African-American actors in the roles of white figures such as Hamilton, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton became a touchstone whose impact can be found in everything from a follow-up "The Hamilton Mixtape" to the "Hamildrops" all-star album and a "Hamilton Polka" medley by Weird Al Yankovic.

The musical has also inspired the Hamilton Education Program (EduHAM) in which high school students create original songs, poems and theater scenes inspired by "Hamilton" that are performed at the theaters where "Hamilton" is showing.

"What 'Hamilton' has brought to the lives of everyone who has touched it and everyone who has experienced it is so positive, so heartening," Seller says. "'Hamilton' gives me hope for our country, for the sense of citizenship and patriotism it unlocks in people, and for the sense of belong it unlocks in people. When people of color come to see 'Hamilton' and say, 'That's part of my story, too. I am part of the fabric of this country,' that gives me satisfaction and pleasure every day."

Seller also acknowledges some pleasure when the Broadway cast addressed Vice President-elect Mike Pence at a show shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, voicing concerns about the new administration's policies and fears "that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights."

"I'm proud because that was one of the first instances where American citizens stood up and said, 'This is not normal...'" Seller recalls. "In many ways it was on the vanguard of the first protests against this heinous administration. I thought it would be a big event. I thought it would get a lot of attention, and once again it got far more attention than I even anticipated."

The excitement "Hamilton" is getting for its Fisher Theatre run, meanwhile, is also special for Seller. He caught the theater bug in fourth grade, acting in a Purim play at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield Township. A year later he wrote his own play and went on to act in the youth program at Royal Oak's Stagecrafters, at Camp Tamarack in Ortonville and at Oak Park High School. His own first Broadway show was at the Fisher when he was 13, seeing John Raitt in "Shenandoah."

"My father splurged and got the $10 seats in mezzanine," Seller says. "I'll never forget what that felt like." And his returns to the Fisher have been just as sweet.

"When I brought 'Rent' for the first time, in '98, I remember the giddy feeling to know it was MY show that was at the Fisher Theatre, where I sat so many times. And this time I could go backstage," Seller says with a laugh. "It's always special when I bring something home."

Seller has plenty of other projects on its plate right now including Sting's "The Last Ship," currently in Toronto and headed to Los Angeles early next year, TV projects he says are still in "preliminary stages" and four new stage musicals in development. A "Hamilton" movie adaptation "is not yet on the horizon," he says, but Seller has been involved in creating "Hamilton: The Exhibition," a 19-room museum display opening during early April in Chicago and eventually traveling to other cities.

"This is an opportunity to dig even deeper," Seller says. "It's a real labor of love we've been working on for two years not just looking at a bunch of stale, old documents, but really walking through the experience. We've really started something here. The appetite for ('Hamilton') things just keeps growing.

"I couldn't have imagined that all those years ago, either."

"Hamilton: An American Musical" shows March 12-April 21 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are available on a limited basis. A lottery for 40 $10 tickets will take place two days before each performance. Call 313-872-1000, or visit broadwayindetroit.com or hamiltonmusical.com.

Web Site: www.broadwayindetroit.com

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