'Hamilton' producer comes home in triumph
Setting off for New York City right after college, like Jeffrey Seller did in 1986, is both an exhilarating and fraught leap into the unknown. Some make it. Some get squashed like bugs.
The Oak Park native, of course, made it. Hugely.
"I knew I was going to be OK," said the 54-year-old producer of "Hamilton," which opened at the Fisher Theatre for a five-week run Tuesday, "when exactly 10 years after graduating from the University of Michigan, I came home with the best-musical Tony for 'Rent' in my backpack."
Now Seller's coming home again — he's speaking March 27 at the Detroit Economic Club.
But there's no backpack large enough for the 11 Tonys the rap musical racked up in 2016. Instead, he's packing something else worth bragging about — cheap "Hamilton" tickets for 4,000 teenagers at Detroit-area high schools with higher-than-average rates of poverty.
"I'm very proud of that program," Seller said last week, speaking from his office in Times Square's landmark Paramount Building. "In four years, we'll have served 250,000 Title I schoolchildren across America."
From Seller's point of view, it's about more than just giving the kids a good time.
"I believe that theater as an educational tool builds successful lives," Seller said, and he'd know. Seller started acting in elementary school with Royal Oak's Stagecrafters.
He gives that experience a simple, eloquent summary: "Theater changed my life for good."
The subsidized tickets are all part of the Hamilton Education Program — cheerfully abbreviated "EduHam" — that launched when the musical moved from New York's Public Theater to Broadway in 2015, and plays out wherever the show tours.
EduHam, however, is more than just a theater seat. Aimed exclusively at high schoolers taking American history, it comes complete with a short curriculum designed by New York's Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, focusing on key founding documents as well as the play.
Worthy as that all surely is, the real punch for kids is the chance to catch the musical where the Founding Fathers are all played by people of color.
"I’ve only gone to a couple EduHam performances," Seller said, "but the energy popping off those kids was tearfully beautiful. You get tingles and shivers, knowing that that’s our future, and that they’re seeing themselves up there on stage."
EduHam works like this: Each student pays $10 — "We want them to have skin in the game," explained Laura Matalon, the play's chief marketing officer. But if that's too steep for some families, the show steps in to help. (Detroit Public Schools is ponying up for all its students.)
Five local foundations, from Kresge to Knight, and the SMZ marketing group, will cover an additional $60 per seat for the two EduHam matinees in April. But even $70 a seat falls short of the actual cost, so the production covers the rest.
(Also contributing are the Royce Family Foundation, the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, the William Davidson Foundation and the Marshall Mathers Foundation.)
The brainstorm was jointly cooked up by "Hamilton" playwright and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, the director Thomas Kail, and Seller.
"Jeffrey's always been very interested in education," Matalon added. "We did an educational program with 'Rent,' too."
For his part, Seller said — never mind what you might think — "Hamilton's" phenomenal success hasn't changed his life.
"No," he said. "I've been in a terrific relationship with the same man for 23 years, and have a 16-year-old daughter and a son who's almost 15. With or without 'Hamilton,'" he added, "we've got to make them breakfast and get them to school every day. And I've got to find time for yoga."
The musical's ability to straddle the political divide delights Seller.
"It's the best our country has to offer," he said of the play, "and it gives me great satisfaction that Dick Cheney liked it as much as Hillary Clinton."
The legislature in deep-red Utah, Seller noted, ponied up money for EduHam when the show played Salt Lake City last year.
("Hamilton" tickets at the Fisher Theatre are still available, particularly in late March and early April.)
As for visiting Detroit, where Seller still has family, he said he's always dazzled by the changes.
"The city looks better every time I come back," Seller said.
"I was back in October with my son to visit my mother," he added, "and we ate at this great Corktown restaurant, Gold Cash Gold, and loved it. Then we took a ride around the parking lot of the old train station to see the rebirth that’s going to happen there."
Seller's got equally big plans for his March return.
"I'm going to stay at the Shinola Hotel when I'm back in two weeks," he said, "and can’t wait to have that experience."
Through April 21
Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
Tickets: $155 and up
ticketmaster.com or 800-982-2787
Jeffrey Seller at Detroit Economic Club
11:30 a.m., March 27
Masonic Temple, 500 Temple, Detroit