Jeffrey Seller has an eye and ear for what works on Broadway. Dubbed a "power hitter" on the Great White Way, the two-time Tony Award winner has produced Rent, Avenue Q, De La Guarda, La Bohème and High Fidelity. Smithsonian.com goes behind the scenes with Seller as he prepares for the end of Rent's 12-year run and the beginning of In the Heights, an energetic new musical about life in New York City's Washington Heights.
How did you get into this line of work?
When I graduated from [the University of] Michigan, I moved to New York. I found my first job doing publicity at a four-man pr operation that did a little bit of theater, a little bit of television. Less then a year later, I got a job in the famous Broadway producers Barry and Fran Weisler's office. They deposited me in their booking division, so at age 22 I was an assistant booker, booking national tours of Broadway shows. Though it was the least fun job in the office and the most removed from the action of putting a new show on Broadway, what that job taught me was the road. And the road is about 60 percent of the actual full Broadway business. I learned virtually everything there is to know about touring Broadway musicals. I knew every theater in America. I knew how to negotiate the deals. I knew how they picked their seasons. While I was booking shows by day, I was still producing theater by night. I was producing shows at little theater spaces all over Manhattan, and I was doing them with my friends, one of whom became Jonathan Larson [writer of Rent]. It was at that time in my life—when I'm about 25 years old—that I saw his one man show called Boho Days and wrote him a letter saying I want to produce your musicals. When Rent opened on Broadway, I was 31 years old.
What kind of background or skill set does it require?
My work requires an extraordinary passion for the theater, an extraordinary knowledge of the theater and musical theater and knowledge of the history of musical theater, particularly from the 1940s to the present, or Oklahoma to the present. Along with those qualities, I combine my salesmanship. When I walked into a local merchant's business at 13 years old and said, "Would you please put an ad in my program, and I'll put your business card in the program and you give me $20?" I was learning how to raise money. I was learning how to sell. Every great producer is also a great salesman.
What's an average day like?
In an average day I'm spending some time talking with my marketing director about advertising, planning the advertising strategies of my shows for the next quarter, making strategic decisions about spending money on radio versus spending money on television, making strategic decisions about what the content should be of a commercial for In the Heights. What should that commercial do? What should it look like? How should it feel? What should the poster of In the Heights look like? How do we arrive at those decisions? That's part of how I spend my day. I have some sort of phone meeting or live meeting with my director [of In the Heights] every day. I speak with the book writer everyday. I speak with the artists and composer every day. I'm speaking with the agents for the artists on a regular basis. I'm also planning my next two shows. I'm on the phone working on, what are we doing next year? Once a show is open and running on Broadway, I turn that show over to my team–my managers, marketing directors and publicists–because then my job is what are we doing next? That's how I ensure there is a next.
What's the most interesting part of your job?
The most interesting part of my job for me is nurturing the creators of the musicals, offering support, criticism, insight and hoping that I might influence them in a positive way that might result in a better work.
What has been your most exciting moment on the job?