Producer Jeffrey Seller on Bringing 'Hamilton' to Chicago
They say lightning doesn’t strike twice, but for Jeffrey Seller, that axiom isn’t true. Twenty years ago, the producer brought the once-in-a-generation hit Rent to Broadway, and now, he’s preparing to launch his latest phenomenon Hamilton in Chicago, where lines wrapped around the block the day tickets went on sale in June.
So, does all of the demand make him nervous?
“No, I’m not nervous!” Seller told Billboard emphatically. “What we have discovered is that when we put Rent on sale in our first city, which was Boston, it went crazy, and when we put Hamilton on sale in our first city, it was crazier. The audience for Rent was big and the audience for Hamilton is bigger.”
Seller partially credits that increased demand to the streaming market, which didn’t exist when the Rent album hit the charts in the ‘90s. Platforms like Spotify and Apple Music have made Hamilton’s original cast recording more widely available. While Rent peaked at 19 on the Billboard 200, where it spent 22 weeks, Hamilton has already smashed that record, hitting the No. 3 spot on the 200 with 38 weeks on the chart so far.
Chicago will be the first city outside of New York to get the hip-hop-infused musical about the “10-dollar founding father,” and performances are scheduled to begin Sept. 27 for an open-ended run. The Windy City is a favorite locale of Broadway producers for out-of-town tryouts. Seller started Sting’s The Last Ship there in 2014 before Broadway, and Tony winners like The Producers and Kinky Boots also made their first stop in town.
Hamilton is joining the ranks of many big hits that made Chicago a more permanent home, rather than a touring stop. Wicked was the first to launch an exclusive Chicago production, and the show ran there for three and a half years. The Book of Mormon followed suit, running for a year.
In addition to Chicago, Hamilton will launch a national tour in March 2017, with announced dates for San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., as well as a West End production in October 2017. And Seller is committed to maintaining excellence as the show extends its reach.
“My job as a producer is to ensure that the quality we bring to that production is every bit as good as the quality that we bring to the Broadway production every night,” Seller continued. “So when a consumer sees the show in Chicago, we can say, this is as good if not better than the Broadway production.”
And for Seller, that means hiring the right cast. He’s been working with Telsey + Co since his Rent days, though casting director Bethany Knox says casting Hamilton has been a slightly different experience. She found undiscovered talent through video submissions and open calls to fill the cast of East Village bohemians in Jonathan Larson’s musical, but for Hamilton, the show requires “a certain caliber of training because the material is so complicated.”
“My standards are even higher,” Knox says, adding that she hasn’t cast anyone through an open call so far and is finding talent more through top-tier acting conservatories. “I’m hoping that people start to work more on their rap skills, listening to hip hop and getting this music in their body, because it’s so important that they understand these rhythms.”
The casting also came with some challenges. For one, with the level of buzz around the show, many young actors cracked under the intense pressure of performing for the creative team in the audition room. “We had several people cry,” Knox says. “As much as you want to empathize with them… there’s no crying in baseball. You can’t cry.”
Also, director Thomas Kail, Seller, and Knox were looking for actors to put a new stamp on each role, with no prerequisite physical types for each character, making the process both challenging and exciting.
“We’re not casting people that are in any way facsimile,” says Kail. And now that they’re in the rehearsal room, Kail says that he’s encouraging actors to find something new. “We’re not interested in replicating in any way -- it’s not fair to the original company, nor is it interesting to work on.”
Another element that will be “better” in Chicago is the set. While to the naked eye, the design will look like a replica of the Broadway production, the PrivateBank Theatre in Chicago is six feet narrower than the Richard Rogers Theatre. Set designer David Korins says Chicago will also be the first time a brand-new version will be crafted for the stage, as the Broadway set is “Frankensteined” version of the one from the show’s Off-Broadway run at The Public Theater.
“The sceneography has become iconic even before it hits those other cities,” says Korins. “It’s been so high anticipated that people just know what it looks like, so there’s an extra added pressure that I want to be able to deliver that thing.”
And Korins has the resources to make the set perfect. Often when recreating sets for next productions, producers can skimp on the budget, as tours are often seen as a way to make money on a show that did not recoup its investment on Broadway, but that was not the case with Hamilton. In fact, Seller has had to spend far less on marketing and doesn’t have to advertise “like a normal Broadway show going on tour.”
With tours and next productions, oftentimes the original show’s director will create a blueprint for how to lead the show and won’t regularly attend rehearsals, but that won’t be the case for Kail for the foreseeable future. Kail will also continue to be hands on in casting and rehearsals for all the subsequent productions on the horizon.
“My involvement will be at a maximum capacity,” Kail said, adding that its been freeing to approach the show anew knowing that he knows how to make it work. “I feel like I owe it to the show and I owe it to the people that are working hard to come and see the show to be as much a part of it as I can. I really look forward to it. When we’re making the show Off Broadway and on Broadway, it’s like building a bridge that you’re also designing and constructing while you’re marching across it. It’s really hard to march across a bridge when you’re still building the other side of it. And now we actually know how to build the bridge, and the job is to march.”
But there’s one person who doesn’t have anything new to prepare for the next productions: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“If Lin brings a new lyric, I just send him out of the room immediately,” Kail says with a laugh, adding that the author has been in the room a bit for rehearsals. “Lin loves being around when he doesn’t have to work. He has worked very very hard for many years so it brings me great joy to see him sitting in the corner smiling and giving a thumbs up.”