'Hamilton' producer's 'thrilling' $1M gift to immerse Detroit kids in theater

It was a perfectly ordinary day three weeks ago when Rick Sperling walked into Detroit's Mosaic Youth Theatre, which he founded in 1992.

Amber Griffin, left, assistant director of acting, Rick Sperling, founding art director and Andrew Huff, associate director of theater programs, critique an audition by Celia Hughes.

His new executive director, Stefanie Worth, pulled him into her office, saying, "There's something I have to tell you." 

Nothing could have prepared Sperling, 52, for the coming bombshell. Oak Park native Jeffrey Seller, the legendary producer of Broadway's "Hamilton," was giving Mosaic $1 million. 

"I was stunned," Sperling said, speaking from his car in the theater parking lot. "It was," he said, groping for the word, "thrilling." 

For a tiny arts nonprofit with a 2017 operating budget of $1.5 million, the donation — announced late Wednesday — was a transformational bolt from the blue that over five years will fund Mosaic's four-week summer camps for younger kids and residencies in nine Detroit middle schools. 

The grant came from the Seller-Lehrer Family Foundation, which Seller, 54, set up with his partner, photographer Josh Lehrer. According to Sperling, the money is specifically intended for programs that introduce kids, often from highly distressed neighborhoods, to Mosaic's world.

Seller, in a statement, said he's admired Sperling since the 1980s, when the latter directed shows at Ann Arbor's Performance Network.

"(Rick) daily demonstrates that theater changes lives," Seller wrote. "His work with Mosaic has lifted and enriched the lives of thousands of young people and we are honored to help support a strong future for this extraordinary institution."

When you catch one of Mosaic's performances, whether at the Detroit Institute of Arts or the Redford Theatre, Sperling noted, you're mostly seeing high school kids in the theater's flagship after-school program. In all its parts, Mosaic reaches about 500 children a year, ages 7-18.

By contrast, he added, "This grant will make sure that our work is truly accessible to all young people" by reaching out to underserved schools where few have heard of Mosaic. 

Founded to fill the gaps in public-school arts education, Mosaic has a mission to help youngsters excel both on stage and in life. "Our model is all about mastery," Sperling said. "The work we do is about excellence and developing a strong sense of who you are."

Southfield native Clifton Ross III, a 33-year-old who's recorded a gospel chart-topping CD and is now a music minister at a church in Maryland, spent a year with Mosaic when he was a high-school senior. 

The experience, he said, revolutionized his life. 

"After being in Mosaic that short time," Ross said, "I realized I really wanted to pursue music professionally. Mosaic got me involved. It was like that medical thing where they shock you back to life: 'Yes! This is my path, this is what I need to do.'" 

He added that the program's reputation for rigor and exacting standards is well deserved. 

"They stressed professionalism," Ross said. "Show up for rehearsals on time. Don’t embarrass us. Don’t embarrass yourself — and this is how you do that. Principles you never forget."

The results are visible in playbills and cast lists. Mosaic alumni on Broadway include Celia Keenan-Bolger, starring as Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and Raena White, who plays the prison matron in the musical "Chicago." 

If he had to peg when Seller decided to give big to Mosaic, Sperling speculates it was probably after the troupe's performance last year at New York's Public Theater.

"We had a clear mandate from Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director," he said. "Oskar wanted a show about Mosaic's impact, artistic excellence and Detroit — and no more than 90 minutes, without intermission." 

Despite the fearsome challenge, it turned into "one of those magical nights," Sperling said, "where it all came together in front of the right people."

Among the right people were Mandy Patinkin, Gloria Steinem, and various Emmy and Tony-award winners. 

Seller himself had to helicopter in to make curtain.

At the end, the cast sang "Seasons of Love" from the musical "Rent," Seller's first huge hit as a producer. 

Sperling confesses he'd seeded the audience with Mosaic alumni, and in between choruses, one by one, they stood to announce what careers they'd chosen.

One said he was a corporate lawyer. Another identified herself as an actor, and a third said he was a professional dancer. Each and every one concluded: "And I was trained by Mosaic." 

Sperling, who will be retiring from Mosaic at the end of the summer, laughs. "There wasn't a dry eye in the house" — an observation that presumably applied to Seller, the budding philanthropist, as much as anybody. 


(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy