‘Hamilton’ puts Detroit native Jeffrey Seller in Tony spotlight
Jane Shaffmaster can’t remember if Jeffrey Seller, the Detroit-born producer behind mega-hit “Hamilton,” was a dynamite dancer or not. But she knows he sure could sell.
Shaffmaster choreographed a Stagecrafters kids’ production that Seller appeared in 35-odd years ago. She said the then-sixth- or seventh-grader displayed remarkable talent in getting local businesses to pony up for program ads.
“Who do you know who likes doing that?” Shaffmaster asked with a laugh, noting he also was darned good at it. “And so,” she said, “a producer was born.”
By most accounts, “Hamilton,” which was nominated for an unprecedented 16 Tony Awards, is the odds-on favorite to snag Best Musical. If it does, much of the credit will fall on Seller, whom friends in both Detroit and New York City describe as an artistically driven producer with a rare gift for spotting talent — and steering his productions to stupendous success.
Even rarer in the world of showbiz moguls, they say he’s a surprisingly nice guy. Intense, but nice.
“He has the fastest mind I think I’ve ever met,” said Henry Nettleton, a 2015 University of Michigan Musical Theatre grad who interned in Seller’s office last summer, “and a remarkable willingness to teach. He’s very much a shepherd for younger producers.”
Seller himself was unavailable for comment — no surprise, industry insiders say, in the week leading up to the Tonys. But in November he told The Detroit News he’s always on the lookout for projects that surprise him.
“I want to hear a sound I’ve never heard before,” he said. “I want an illuminating experience in my life expressed in a way I have never heard before.”
Seller’s big break came in 1996 with the rock opera “Rent,” a smash hit he produced with his former business partner Kevin McCollum.
He later gave the same treatment to “Avenue Q” and then “In the Heights,” the first hip-hop musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and composer of “Hamilton.”
All three were commercial hits, and each took the Tony for Best Musical in their respective years.
“Jeffrey doesn’t just get people together and raise the money,” said Brent Wagner, the just-retired head of the University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre Department. “He adds a real artistic vision that helps the writers improve the work, nurturing them from beginning to end.”
Bethany Knox, who cast “Hamilton,” said the Oak Park native is very hands-on.
“His point of view is so trusted,” she said. “I always say, ‘If you can be there, please, please, do.’ It’s his decisiveness,” Knox added. “There’s no waffling. He’ll say, ‘This is what I think we should do, and this is why.’ And everyone breathes a sigh of relief.”
The 51-year-old producer graduated from Oak Park High School in 1982 and the UM School of Literature, Science and the Arts four years later. He always tells people he really got hooked on theater years earlier, as an 11-year-old actor in Stagecrafters’ “Ragamuffins” children’s program.
Seller headlined the theater’s 60th-anniversary fundraiser in November, and he told the 200 guests he wouldn’t be where he is now without the Royal Oak theater.
Stagecrafters community development manager Vonnie Miller said Seller told his audience that during an early rehearsal, he saw a business-like man taking notes and asked who it was. “That’s the show’s producer,” someone said.
“So he went up and asked him what producers do. And the producer said, ‘Everything.’ Jeffrey told us he knew right then that’s what he wanted to do,” she said, “back when he was in sixth or seventh grade.”
Seller’s ability to create opportunity is legendary. As a college senior with no reporting experience to speak of, Seller got the Ann Arbor News to let him write a six-part series about the Musical Theatre Department’s world premiere of Sheldon Harnick’s “A Wonderful Life.”
In New York, shortly after his college graduation, Seller wrote famous playwright and composer Jonathan Larson to say he wanted to work with him and make great things happen on stage.
Somehow the unknown kid from the Midwest caught his attention. Seller ended up working with Larson over six years to bring “Rent” to the stage.
Andrew Lippa, a 1987 UM Musical Theatre grad and award-winning composer and writer of musicals from “The Addams Family” to “The Wild Party,” grew up in Oak Park with Seller.
“His family bought my family’s house when I was 6,” Lippa said.
He describes his lifelong friend and one-time lover as “passionate, joyful and tenacious.” But fame, Lippa said, isn’t of much interest to Seller.
“He doesn’t like the spotlight on himself,” Lippa said. “His goal is to help artists create things. His legacy, I think, is going to be as a producer who deeply believes in writers.”