On May 1, Bay Street Theater will present a new work by storied Hamptonite Jules Feiffer and Tony-nominated composer Andrew Lippa. Directing this collaboration is Jeffrey Seller, one of the most influential and successful producers in recent Broadway history.
The producer behind current smash hit Hamilton, Seller is directing a staged reading of The Man in the Ceiling, a musical with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a script by the beloved Feiffer, based on the Hamptonite’s children’s book of the same name. The intimate, six-actor work-in-progress may seem like a far cry from an epic, multi-million dollar production like Hamilton, but Seller’s long career in theater—including iconic works like Rent, Avenue Q and In the Heights—shows his love of musical theater large and small.
“I fell in love with [Feiffer’s] characters,” says Seller. “I was moved by their musical expression, which was created by Andrew [Lippa]. That’s always what I’m looking for. I’m looking to find characters I can care about.” Seller’s love of compelling, complex characters is evident in Hamilton, which explores the little-known life and career of founding father Alexander Hamilton. Though the hip-hop/R&B-styled musical (written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda) covers early U.S. history in broad strokes, it’s anchored by strong characterization. Alexander Hamilton was a brilliant, flawed man whose drive to change the world was at odds with the pace and bureaucracy of everyone else around him. Other works Seller has produced have similarly interesting characters. Rent is about a group of queer artists in the AIDS-stricken East Village circa 1989. Avenue Q is a warped take on Sesame Street in which all of the characters are aimless 20-somethings dealing with sex, landlords and career disappointments. In the Heights shows three days in the lives of a tight-knit Hispanic community in Washington Heights through the lens of a bodega owner who yearns for something more but feels a responsibility to his neighborhood.
The Man in the Ceiling’s characters seem simple by comparison, but Feiffer’s creations are never as black and white as they may first appear. Jimmy, the protagonist, wants to be a cartoonist more than anything, but right now, he feels like a failure due to his lack of interest in sports and school. Feiffer and Lippa’s witty and interesting storytelling is what makes the story special, and the cast of characters has been trimmed from an earlier reading done last year to focus on the core family. Seller is also excited about telling this coming-of-age story because he has admired Feiffer’s work since he was a teenager. “Jules is a hero of mine,” he says. Seller appeared in Feiffer’s People when he was a junior in high school. “It was in 1981 that I became familiar with Jules’ brilliant and unique take on the world. It’s just another dream come true to work with my artistic heroes.”
Seller is also thrilled to work with Lippa again, having produced his musical The Wild Party, based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem. “It’s pure joy,” says Seller. “Andrew and I did some of our earliest work together in college. Our [shared] theatrical sensibility and shorthand hasn’t diminished.”
The busy producer is happy to be working at Bay Street, having been a patron of the theater for the past 15 years. “I have a house in Sagaponack,” he says. “I love the East End.” And although it would be fair to assume that working on The Man in the Ceiling while still producing Hamilton and putting the various national and international tours together must be difficult, Seller chuckles at the thought. “The juggernaut that is Hamilton consumes a great deal of my day,” he sighs happily. “[It’s helpful when] I can find a haven to disappear from Hamilton for a few hours to focus on a new creative endeavor, a new cast of characters, a new story.”
Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor, presents the 3rd Annual New Works Festival from April 29–May 1. Tickets are free, but reservations are a must as this event will sell out. For more information, call 631-725-0900 and visit baystreet.org.