Berman: Broadway hit 'Hamilton' has roots on a Royal Oak stage
‘You want to make a musical?”
It was the spring of 2012 and the stage producer Jeffrey Seller and lyricist/performer/genius-grant winner Lin-Manuel Miranda were at lunch in New York. Miranda, who had written two handfuls of hip-hop and rap numbers based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Alexander Hamilton, wasn’t entirely surprised by the question.
“He said, ‘I am going to write the rest in your house, next fall,” Seller recalled, in an interview from his New York office. The two had shared history: Miranda was also the creator of Tony Award-winner “In The Heights,” also produced by Seller, and Seller’s Long Island summer house was a favorite creative hideaway space for Miranda.
Today, only a few months since its August opening, seats for “Hamilton” on Broadway are going for as much as $2,500 each, as theater-goers vie to spend nearly three hours in a darkened theater, reliving the life of the nation’s first treasury secretary as a medley of hip-hop storytelling. Its multi-hued cast, which includes black and Hispanic actors as founding fathers, is the kind of rare, combined popular and critical sensation that Broadway (and American history teacher) dreams are made of.
But the reason I’m writing about the show is two-fold: Because Seller, who grew up in Oak Park and graduated from Oak Park High School and the University of Michigan, came back to celebrate the Royal Oak community theater Stagecrafters 60th anniversary over the weekend — a tribute he agreed to in recognition of Stagecrafters’ role in his own life. Looking forward, he’s instrumental in creating an opportunity for 20,000 New York public schoolchildren to see the show on Broadway next year — most of them kids who would not otherwise get to a Broadway theater. He promises he’ll work for that to happen in Detroit when the show eventually makes its way here.
Seller’s career began at Stagecrafters as an actor, when the theater was still in Clawson, and he was 11 years old. The show was called “Speaking of Murder,” and Seller had a meaty role playing a child in an otherwise all-adult drama. After he joined the theater group, he began to consider the question: Who picks the play? The answer, he eventually realized, was the producer — the behind-the-scenes figure whose personal charisma, taste and psychological astuteness are the key to unlocking investors’ wallets and actors’ talents and then assembling multiple elements into a successful production.
“I have no idea what the world will like but I know what I like,” he says. “I want to be surprised. I want to hear a sound I’ve never heard before. I want an illuminating experience in my life expressed in a way I have never heard quite that way before.”
As it turns out, many of us are instinctively stirred by these same wishes, even if we would not be able to visualize “Rent” — rustic, unformed, performed in a downtown storefront theater — transformed into a Broadway production, as Seller did, in his 20s.
“This is a bigger hit than ‘Rent,’” he says, referring to in-house research. Republicans like it as much as Democrats do. Grandparents are as enthusiastic as their teen grandchildren. President Obama, who watchedthe first “Hamilton” song performed in the White House in 2009, attended the sixth preview show in August. Now the show is reaching out to young audiences, making tickets available at cost to the Rockefeller Foundation. The philanthropy will pay $60 a ticket for 20,000 kids; each school child will pay a token $10. Not coincidentally, that’s the U.S. bill with Alexander Hamilton’s face on it.
Listen up foundations, Kresge and Knight and other culturally minded philanthropies. When the show tours, Seller intends to replicate that formula, and to call on foundations here to play a role in bringing hip-hop Hamilton history to Detroit young people. It’s a way to engage young people in history and theater. Even more, it’s a way to regenerate those Broadway (and history teacher) dreams.