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?
There will never be a moment more exciting than bringing Rent to Broadway. There will never be a moment sadder than the death of Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent, on the day of the first preview off Broadway. And there will probably never be a moment more fun than winning the Tony for Avenue Q, when it was considered the upset of the century.
I'm a very lucky man. My avocation is my vocation. What I did for fun as a child, I do for a living as an adult.
As a producer, what do you look for in a show?
It's visceral, purely visceral. I feel it or I don't. But what do I look for? I want to be surprised. I want to have an experience I've never had before, which was certainly the case with Rent, Avenue Q and my newest production In the Heights. When I attended the first reading of In the Heights and the show started with the opening number, I had never heard a Broadway musical sound like that. I was instantly hooked. We hope that the young artists toiling away at writing new musicals have the ingenuity to find a way to get guys like me into the room. And usually the right ones do.
What did you see in Rent when you first saw it?
I felt like I loved those characters. I knew those characters. Rent seemed to be speaking to everything I was feeling about the world. I don't want to be a booker, I was thinking. I want to be a producer. Rent's got that issue all tied up in it. How do I pursue my dreams without selling out? How do I create an alternative family? Rent spoke to me so directly, to feelings and values that I had as a young person in my late 20s, early 30s.
Do you have any idea how many times you've seen the show?
God no. Probably more than 50. More than most, but not as many as some. I'm sure there are Rentheads who have seen the show more than me.
How do you feel about the closing of the show on June 1?
I thought, wow, Rent has defined so much of my adult life. It has defined my career. It cracked open my career. I kind of divide my life into pre-Rent and post-Rent. Closing is sad because we come to expect of a show that it will always be there, and then when we realize it is time to close, we're reminded of the cold reality of life, which is that everything comes to an end. But I'll get over it. The great thing about musicals is that they live on after we do them on Broadway in a way that is unique. Remember, most people who experience musicals, like I did as a kid, don't experience them on Broadway. They experience them when they do them in their Purim plays, when they do them in school, when they see them in community theater. And that's what happens to Rent next. So Rent moves on to the next stage of its life, and that will make me very happy.
What is Broadway losing?
It's losing those beloved characters. It's losing that groundbreaking, emotional, brilliant score. But Broadway moves on. Groundbreaking, fresh, surprising musicals are continuing to bang down the doors of Broadway.
What is Broadway gaining with In the Heights?
Broadway is gaining a whole new sound that people have never heard before. Broadway is gaining an extraordinary new artist named Lin-Manuel Miranda, who conceived the show, wrote the music and the lyrics. It's gaining a fabulous new playwright named Quiara Alegría Hudes, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year and penned the book to this. Broadway is gaining a whole new generation of artists and performers that it didn't have before and who are mesmerizing the audience every night with their story of life in Washington Heights. It's appealing to grandmothers and little kids and everyone in between as well.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a producer?
Forge relationships with the composers, lyricists, book writers and directors that you believe in. As a developing producer, you will rise or fall with the developing artists who you choose to nurture. Harold Prince teamed up with [Richard] Adler and [Jerry] Ross, [John] Kander and [Fred] Ebb, and most significantly, [Stephen] Sondheim. These were all his peers. Cameron Mackintosh teamed up with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Your job is to discover the next great generation of artists.