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How Hamilton stayed alive during the pandemic: An interview with producer Jeffrey Seller

What would you do if your business had to shut down for a year and a half? Would you feel helpless while you waited, wondering what would come next?

In this episode of the McKinsey Global Institute’s Forward Thinking podcast, co-host Anna Bernasek speaks with Jeffrey Seller, producer of Broadway hits Hamilton, In the Heights, Rent, and more, about the tumultuous year-plus that Broadway and live performances have endured.

Ahead of Broadway reopening in September and live performances coming back across the United States and other countries, the man is nonstop. Seller took us inside the room where it happened, sharing his experiences and thoughts, including:

  • How he shut down, pivoted, then staged a production in Australia during the pandemic
  • How digital streaming services like Disney+ and Spotify affected demand for performance tickets
  • Why he created an affordable ticket lottery to increase access to the magic of live, in-person performances
  • Why he’s still an optimist, but one who’s focused on resilience

An edited transcript of this episode follows. Subscribe to the series on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Podcast transcript

Michael Chui (co-host): Hi, and welcome to Forward Thinking. I’m Michael Chui.

Anna Bernasek (co-host): And I’m Anna Bernasek.

Michael Chui: Anna, I heard you’ve got some news to share with our listeners.

Anna Bernasek: Yes, I do. This is a special episode for me because it’s my last episode of Forward Thinking. And it’s with a friend of mine who I think you’ll really enjoy listening to.

Michael Chui: I’m sorry to see you go. It’s been wonderful having you as a co-host. But I’m glad you’ll be here with us one last time. And I’m intrigued about this guest interview.

Anna Bernasek: Here’s a hint. Have you seen Hamilton?

Michael Chui: The Broadway smash hit? No. It was on my list before the pandemic, and I still haven’t gotten to see it.

Anna Bernasek: Then you’re in for a treat, because our guest today is Jeffrey Seller, the producer of Hamilton and other hits like Rent, Avenue Q, and In the Heights.

Michael Chui: OK, got it. He’s like Hamilton’s CEO. I read the show will reopen this September. I wonder how he navigated a complete shutdown of the industry for a year and a half. That’s a long time.

Anna Bernasek: I talked about that with Jeffrey. And we also spoke about the ways the pandemic has changed the business of live entertainment.

Michael Chui: I can imagine it’s been a really challenging time. You know, we looked at live entertainment after the pandemic in a recent MGI report on the consumer demand recovery. And our analysis found that a two-speed recovery may be shaping up. I can’t wait to hear what Jeffrey found and whether he is hopeful that Broadway will come roaring back.

Anna Bernasek: Me, too. That’s why I asked Jeffrey what’s happening in his industry. And it might surprise you.

Michael Chui: OK, before you give too much away, let’s go to the interview!

Anna Bernasek: Jeffrey, welcome to Forward Thinking.

Jeffrey Seller: Thank you and good afternoon, Anna. It’s great to be here.

Anna Bernasek: Thank you for being here. Now, before we get to the fun stuff about reopening, which we all want to know, can you take us back to February 2020? Hamilton was this unstoppable hit. Everything’s going great. And then a couple weeks later, it’s clear with the pandemic that live entertainment has to stop. How did it feel to have to shut down Hamilton?

Jeffrey Seller: I don’t want to overstate it, but it felt like a little bit of death. It felt awful. I felt that we were losing our livelihood and the livelihoods of the hundreds of people that work at Hamilton and depend on Hamilton for their salary, for their benefits, and for their health insurance. I was in a little bit of despair asking myself, “What happens next?”

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Anna Bernasek: And Jeffrey, how did you work through that whole thing?

Jeffrey Seller: I went through moments of both optimism that this would pass in four months or six months, and pessimism that this would be the beginning of a new world order where pathogens and viruses are spreading around that change the way we live forever.

I followed the science and the data very closely. I coped by trying to learn—combing through all the data every single day. To put that in perspective, it was in late February that the New York Times said that this was going to become a worldwide pandemic during an episode of The Daily. It is going to completely change how we live right now and that somewhere between a third and two-thirds of all the people in the US could get it. And then I read yet another, worse article in early April in which Ezekiel Emanuel from the University of Pennsylvania said that live performances are not going to go back for a year and a half.

That put me in more despair. I was like, “How are we going to get through a year and a half?” Frankly, that was the moment that I collaborated with Bob Iger of Disney and my partners at Hamilton—Thomas Kail, director, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, author—to make the decision to put the Hamilton live-capture movie on Disney+ in the summer of 2020. Because we thought, “Well, we need to give something to our audience. We need to give some hope to the American people.”

Anna Bernasek: Was that a hard decision, when you think about moving from live entertainment to suddenly shifting entirely to digital entertainment?

Jeffrey Seller: Yes. It was not my original plan. It was a pivot. Knowing that we would not go back to work for over a year and knowing that I wanted to keep Hamilton at the top of many, many Americans’ minds, it was an easy decision.

Anna Bernasek: Were there any other moments like that, other pivots that you had to make? Part of it was learning. We really didn’t know what was happening, and you had to keep revising what the plan was.

Jeffrey Seller: No question. The truth is that live performance went into a coma, out of which it has not yet come. Many small theater companies pivoted to digital performances and Zoom performances, but none of that’s real. That’s not what we want as lovers of theater and live performance. It doesn’t meet that need. I think it was fine for the purposes of the pandemic, but I don’t think it’s a long-term solution.

The pivot we made with regards to the film was serendipitous because one, we had already made the film. It existed and it was finished. Two, we had already forged a partnership with Disney in which we were planning to put it in movie theaters across America around October 2021. So it was already in process.

The pivot was from screenings in movie theaters to Disney+ digital at home. Not the biggest pivot, but a very good pivot. Good for consumers, good for Hamilton. But that’s all I got, you know what I mean? After that, there is no more pivot. And live performance, whether that be rock concerts, symphonies, operas, dance, theater—none of those things can happen when pandemics are decimating civilization. That’s why I’ve said to all of my company members that it is a mandate that they must get vaccinated to return to work. Because the vaccines are a modern-day miracle. We must be so thankful to the scientists who developed them in record time.

Anna Bernasek: One of the ideas I wanted to discuss with you is this interaction between digital and live entertainment. But what I’m hearing from you is that, going forward, digital is not part of your thinking for productions. You’re saying it was useful in the pandemic. It was helpful to everybody, but that’s not where your mind is going now.

Jeffrey Seller: I think that there are many good usages of digital platforms for marketing in a much more efficient way, but theater only exists when you put an actor and an audience member together in the same room. That has been the case since Sophocles. And before that. Let us continue to build the kind of society that nurtures and enables that relationship.

Anna Bernasek: And amazingly, during the whole pandemic, you were able to take Hamilton to Australia.

Jeffrey Seller: That was one of the most extraordinary professional experiences of my life. It was only made possible because Australia was one of the few countries that were able to extinguish the virus through testing, contact tracing, and quarantine.

What was so amazing was that we were able to cast our company through a lot of Zooms. We had done a lot of casting live, with our artists in the room, but then we finished casting on Zoom with all the principals. This allowed our creative team from the US to watch them, relate to them, and then make their decisions.

Ultimately, when it came time to rehearse, of course we rehearsed live in studios at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. And it went great. The company is glorious: warm, ingenious, creative, and talented. The audiences came out. And the only mandate was that everybody in the theater wore a mask.

The consumer demand recovery and lasting effects of COVID-19

Will live entertainment, travel, and other consumer habits bounce back?

Anna Bernasek: Wow! Really glad it worked out. Right now, of course, it’s a little more challenging in Australia with the Delta variant. But let’s go back to before the pandemic for a moment. When you released the cast album, you released it on streaming platforms. How did you make that decision, and were you surprised by what happened?

Jeffrey Seller: Let’s go back even further. Spotify has a free music service for consumers who don’t want to buy the subscription. When we made the album for Hamilton all the way back in 2015, our record company, Atlantic, said, “We’re going to do Spotify.” And I said, “Are we sure we want to do Spotify? Maybe we want to do it the way Adele does it.” At the time, Adele would release a new album and would not put it on Spotify and [would] make people buy it so that it could become a best-selling album.

And they said, “No, we shouldn’t do that.” And I said, “Wow, so we’re going to give away that album.” Now we’re over two billion streams at this point. And there were many positive effects.

When I was young, a show would take years to get out to Michigan or Missouri or Portland, Oregon, because we would wait to buy an album and then listen to the album. We wouldn’t even hear about the album until it was on the Tony Awards.

Hamilton came out in August of 2015. The album came out on September 25, 2015. Within six months, kids all over the country knew Hamilton and loved it. What we were doing was creating an even bigger fan base that was going to sustain us with ticket sales.

I am absolutely sure that we sold more tickets to Hamilton, which is my bread and butter, than we ever would have sold without that album and without digital streaming. I also know when we released the Hamilton live-capture film on Disney+ in the summer of 2020, it was also available to stream in Australia. And six weeks after it was on Disney+, we sold more tickets than any show had ever sold in the history of Australia.

And now we’ve gone back on sale in New York, and we’re going to have a record-breaking advance again for when we reopen in September. All of these digital streaming platforms seem to be only making audiences crave it live and in person even more.

Anna Bernasek: This may be a good time to give our listeners a taste of Hamilton. Let’s hear a bit of the show and return in a moment.

[Musical interlude: “Non-Stop” by the original Broadway cast of Hamilton]

Anna Bernasek: Speaking of going nonstop, Jeffrey, I understand that you’re really going nonstop these days with reopening Hamilton. Tell us a bit about what that involves.

Jeffrey Seller: What’s so amazing is that we’re going to open six companies of Hamilton between August 9 in San Francisco and September 14 in New York City. So that will be San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Broadway.

Anna Bernasek: Can we talk about that? I can’t imagine it’s like turning on a switch.

Jeffrey Seller: No.

Anna Bernasek: What’s involved with that, Jeffrey? I mean, that must be massive.

Jeffrey Seller: We’re building six productions, which means we have to recontract every single employee because nobody was on contract anymore. If an employee has chosen to pursue different opportunities, start a new career, if an employee chooses to say, “I just can’t go back anymore,” we have to go cast that role again. Fortunately, we’re not doing it too much.

We’re also going back into rehearsal with every single company for four weeks. And re-teching in the theater in which the show will play. It’s really like mounting six new companies of Hamilton in the course of about seven weeks. Our creative team will be working nonstop to rehearse with every single one of those companies in their city to get them ready for that first performance.

There will be some muscle memory that we can rely upon. As an example, we have a company that was about to open in Los Angeles. They were opening on March 12. On March 11, they had a dress rehearsal. They were ready to go. After that dress rehearsal, we closed, and they never even had their first performance. What we need to do now is stimulate all of that muscle memory and, of course, that intellectual memory of all those words in their heads. That’s why we’re going to have four weeks to do it, so that everybody can build back at a human pace.

Anna Bernasek: And are you thinking further along after reopening?

Jeffrey Seller: With Hamilton, we’re always thinking two years ahead. So the answer of course is yes. We’re preparing a production right now for Hamburg, Germany. Those dates have had to shift a number of times because of the way COVID’s playing out in Germany. We’re also planning a Spanish-language production. So we are absolutely looking ahead at how Hamilton will continue to go all over the world over the next years, including an Asian tour.

And then I’m looking at myself and saying, “What happens, Jeffrey? How do I plan for a flare-up where we have to close a company for two or four or eight weeks?” And what that means is that in this new world, we’re going to have to keep saving our money and putting it aside so that we are prepared for other potential work stoppages.

Anna Bernasek: Jeffrey, what have you learned from the pandemic experience that helps you and informs for the future? I think you’ve said it’s building resilience into your business model.

Jeffrey Seller: It’s building resilience by saving more money. And it’s building resilience, I suppose, by trying to imagine every possibility.

I have the experience of having had Rent on Broadway on September 11, 2001. And as all of us who experienced that in New York City remember, it was beyond our imagination. It was inconceivable. Lo and behold, after that tragic event, Broadway reopened three days later. Didn’t have any tourists for weeks or months, but it did reopen, and people in the tri-state area rallied and came to Broadway to see shows to help keep us afloat.

The idea that I would have five Hamiltons all over the United States and in London that would all close within one week was inconceivable. What does that say about our human spirit that things keep happening to us that we say are “inconceivable”? Is it a problem of our own imagination? Or is it that we are optimistic mammals who try not to think about all the bad stuff that can happen in life?

Anna Bernasek: What do you think the answer is?

Jeffrey Seller: Oh, my God. I think we’re optimistic animals. I think we’re always looking on the bright side and thinking that tomorrow’s going to be OK. And I think that is a resilient human feature. But right now we need more people who think about the future and plan for the rainy day.

Anna Bernasek: Before we spoke today, I read an article where you were asked, essentially, “If tickets to Hamilton are being resold for upwards of $2,000, why aren’t you charging that in order to maximize profits?” And your response was, “Well, I could charge that. But what is that going to mean for Broadway?” It really struck me that you’re marketing something and thinking about providing access and making things sustainable. So do you still believe that? Even in a postpandemic world?

Jeffrey Seller: Oh, absolutely. I think that my job is always to try to balance forces that sometimes are incompatible. And sometimes my job is to figure out, where do the art and the commerce intersect? Which one should win in any given argument? And how to balance this unique form in which Broadway as an art form is also a profit-making business. Opera is not profit making. Dance is not profit making. String quartets are not profit making. But Broadway is profit making. And the investors want to see the show they invest in return capital. If I was to be a straight-up capitalist, I would have listened to Gregory, is it Mankiw? You know, that economist.

Anna Bernasek: Mankiw, yup.

Jeffrey Seller: He wrote an article saying that Hamilton is undercharging. And if all one was looking at was economics and Hamilton right now, he was correct. But I was looking at theater over the course of the next generation. And ensuring that theater is accessible to the many, not just the few.

And that’s why, by the way, I still found a way to create a premium ticket for $850. So I did charge what I thought was our fair share for people who want to come late, buy two seats in the orchestra in row F or G in the center. I would rather us get that $850.

But then what I also did is I took over 50 seats in the first few rows and I made them $10 each and put them in a lottery every day so that people can come see Hamilton regardless of their financial means. Because at $10, we were less than a movie ticket.

Anna Bernasek: Jeffrey, why does that matter to you? Why do you care about access?

Jeffrey Seller: Maybe because I come from a modest background. And I come from a family in which we suffered and in which my parents worked hard so that at least I could go to see a show and sit in the balcony for $10.

People who are regular, I want to see what opportunities we can afford them. I believe my job is to take care of people who have less opportunity, and to bring people who have less a little bit more.

I care about people who are not rich more than I care about people who are rich. People who are rich will take care of themselves. They’re fine. But people who are regular, I want to see what opportunities we can afford them.

And by the way, I’ve never said that out loud before. I feel like I’ve said something kind of crazy, to say that. It’s not that I don’t care, but my job is not to take care of the rich folks. But from my background, I believe my job is to take care of people who have less opportunity, and to bring people who have less a little bit more. And you know, I’m not a socialist but I do believe in equity.

Anna Bernasek: Well, I don’t know. I think we need more people like you, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Seller: Thank you.

Anna Bernasek: And I really appreciate that. I really appreciate that, when I read that about pricing. I think it’s a really important thing to think about in many of our businesses today. So, I can’t wait to get back to live entertainment. And I think a lot of people are looking forward to it. Is there any message you want to leave us with from your experience, from New York City, from theater—anything that you think people should know?

One of the things that I’m struck by is the resilience and the positivity and the optimism of New York City residents and people all over the world. And I believe in New York. I believe in our country. And I believe in our ability to come back and snap back. And live in a great and positive and sustainable way.

Jeffrey Seller: Well, one of the things that I’m struck by is the resilience and the positivity and the optimism of New York City residents and people all over the world. And I believe in New York. I believe in our country. And I believe in our ability to come back and snap back. And live in a great and positive and sustainable way.

When I read those articles in the newspapers about how New York real estate’s never going to come back, no one’s ever going to go to an office again, Midtown’s always going to suffer now, I don’t believe it. I believe people want to get out of their houses and come back to the office. And I want to get out of my house and enjoy the camaraderie and the creativity that comes when we all get back together again.

I think that’s what the theater is. The theater is about bringing people together to make something new. And I think that in many ways, that’s what we’re all doing in our offices in New York and all over the country. So let us get back together. Let’s make something new. And let’s have another roaring ’20s.

Anna Bernasek: Hear, hear. Thank you so much, Jeffrey. Thank you for talking to us today.

Jeffrey Seller: What a pleasure.

Michael Chui: That was a fascinating interview.

Anna Bernasek: Yes, it was really interesting.

Michael Chui: Anna, it’s been such a pleasure working with you on this podcast, I’ve learned so much and really appreciate all you’ve done. I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Anna Bernasek: Well, thank you, Michael. It’s been fun for me too. And I look forward to listening to more episodes of Forward Thinking in the future.

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