On a recent episode of Recode Decode, taped just days before the final performance of "Hamilton" in New York with the show’s original cast, lead producer Jeffrey Seller told Recode’s Kara Swisher that Broadway is definitively better than high-tech novelties.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Transcript by Maya Goldberg-Safir.
Kara Swisher: There's so many things to talk about. The show, and I know, I'm probably the only person that's not gonna ask you for a ticket, I have seen it. It's a wonderful production, and I saw it early which was fantastic. And it’s become a cultural phenomenon. It's become a business phenomenon, it's become a lot of things. And we're gonna talk about the tech elements around it because of ticketing, there's been a lot of controversy about ticketing, and then about where live theater's going forward, so let's jump in. So, you're changing casts now, but you're expanding a ton. You just got back from London for example.
Oh yes. So. As it turns out, this Saturday night will be the final performance of Lin Manuel, who plays Hamilton. Of Leslie Odom Jr. who plays Burr, of Phillipa Soo who plays Eliza, and this is the end of their one-year contracts. But the truth is they've been doing the show since they started rehearsal in November of 2014. Because we did the show for five months with the Public Theater off Broadway first. It's time! I think these are artists who look forward to expressing themselves in different ways, and moving on with their own careers. And I encourage that, and I nurture that, and at the same time we have extraordinary artists who are ready to go into Broadway, and we're going into rehearsal on August first with our Chicago company, that starts previews there in late September, September 27th, so that'll be our second "Hamilton" company. And then we'll open our third "Hamilton" company in San Francisco in March. And then we'll open our fourth "Hamilton" company in London in the Victoria Palace Theater in October of '17.
And then you'll expand beyond that, also.
So then that'll be four and then we'll start an additional national tour in Seattle in February of 2018.
And is there a movie, is that correct?
There is not a movie. That is incorrect.
What I wanted to do before the original broadway cast left was record it for posterity. So with nine cameras and an extraordinary film crew provided by Radical Media, we recorded the show last week, or I should say we taped the show last week. So that we have a record of this extraordinary moment in time.
Right, with this particular cast. But no plans to broadcast or streaming or anything else.
Right now my only plan is to exploit this show in its live state in as many places as I can, because that is the true experience.
Right. So let's talk about that where live theater is, let's talk about that first. So you talk about the true experience and a lot of people feel in this digital age, and I'm not gonna use the term millennial, but anybody who is very interested in using their phones, you can walk down the street in New York, everywhere you go people are having an experience with their devices. Really, pretty much. It's probably the best relationship many people have. And live theater is a different thing.
Yeah, I have been completely energized and buoyed over the last five years in watching how in live theater I think we're experiencing a new Golden Age. Broadway attendance was over 13 million this past season. When I did "Rent" —
Which could be possibly due to "Hamilton."
Well it's definitely possible, it's in part by "Hamilton," but of those 13 million tickets, only a little bit over half a million of them came to "Hamilton."
So "Hamilton" is only part of a larger fabric. When I did "Rent" in 1996, somewhere between eight and nine million people went to a Broadway show, so our Broadway attendance is up almost 50 percent in 20 years.
And why is that?
I think that the live experience — experiencing art live, experiencing it with friends, with family, with people we love, is so rewarding an experience that people are searching it out amidst the digital age in which our faces are in our phones, seemingly every other hour of the day.
Mmhm, absolutely. And so they come to do this live experience and to have this experience of being in the theater, the lights go down, there's an analogue experience of being with people.
And the greatest thing is that we can use digital communication to help sell our tickets to help get our word out, but there's nothing about that digital world that's going to replace the experience of going to the theater and seeing the play live.
And do you feel like people grow? I want to get to that idea of using technology cuz you guys have used it quite well, and at the same time you've been plagued by some of the abilities of bots and other things to hurt you. But the experience of live theater: Do you imagine we're creating a group of people — younger people especially — who don't appreciate that when they're all in these digital spaces, and as we add VR and AR and everything else to it, it creates a different kind of customer or audience.
I am hopeful that all of these other products, tools, avenues, are going to result in young people wanting to go to a live concert, wanting to go to a live theatrical event, wanting to go to a museum. And I think if you look across all of those mediums — rock and roll concerts are doing very well, theater's doing very well, the Museum of Modern Art has had its biggest crowds ever over the last three or four years.
So talk about what you're trying to do when you're creating theater as opposed to when you started. You started as a booker, right?
Well, I was always in the theater.
I started doing theater in the fourth grade and basically I never stopped.
What was the show you saw, I forget. The Times article was terrific about you, it was a show that you got — and I know exactly the feeling when I was young and went to a show it changed me, it was transformative.
Right. Well I was transformed by many things. I was transformed by the Purim play I was in in the fourth grade which of course is the famous story of Queen Esther, but in my temple they juxtaposed the story of Queen Esther to "South Pacific," and Gilbert and Sullivan.
[laughing] I think you should do that again!
I'm telling you! One musical I was in that very first show …
Theater has to change because we change.
Purim! Exclamation Point!
Yeah, it was Purim, but I was introduced to Rogers and Hammerstein, I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair... and Gilbert and Sullivan, and we sail the ocean blue and our saucy ship's a beauty. Um... then I wrote a play, then I was in a lot of plays, then I started going to the theater when I was 13 at the Fisher Theater in Detroit and saw virtually every single national tour that came in beginning with "Shenandoah," and then very quickly after "Pippen" and then "A Chorus Line" and then "Annie" and then "The Magic Show" and then "Sugar Babies" and on and on.
Yeah, I saw the original "Shenandoah" with, uh, John...
John Raitt and then the original "Pippin" with, uh, Rubenstein, it was quite something. Yeah, I lived in New Jersey so I took the bus in to theater all the time. So this concept that theater doesn't have to change — does it?
Or should it be a different experience?
Well, theater has to change because we change.
And, if you look at what "Rent" did in 1996, "Rent" changed theater. In 1996 Broadway was populated by the British pop musical.
Sure, and the spectacle.
Spectacle. You have "Cats," "Les Miserables," "Phantom of the Opera," "Miss Saigon." Those four musicals were the backbone of Broadway.
And also a lot of technical stuff. A lot of technical, and complicated productions.
When I collaborated with Jonathan, he used to say to me back in the mid ‘90s, that's not our music, those aren't our stories, those aren't our characters. And this is when I'm in my late 20s and Jonathan is in his early 30s. What did "Rent: do? It brought our — you know, I was
31 years old. It brought the characters that meant something to me, it brought young New Yorkers —
From the Lower East Side —
— who were striving to figure out what they were gonna do with their lives.
Right. And it simplified things.
It went drastically in the other direction.
It cut back all of that technical stuff and went straight into story, character, music.
So you don't imagine theater has to get more technical. Adding things in seats, and uh, there's all kinds of movement in sports, you get sports updates in seats, there's a lot of AR stuff going on.
And then shortly after "Rent," "Chicago" came back in a revival and "Chicago," when it opened in the '70s was not that big a hit, but the revival through fantastic dancing, really sexy women and men, and a completely stripped down production winds up running for 20 years.
Because people are actually interested in the music, in the strip.
I saw the original one. It was pretty good. It was Gwen Verdon, I think.
Yeah, that's who it was. So do you see that as a more of a trend, or is spectacle also there? Is there like a range of experience in live theater?
I think what's great about Broadway is that it's eclectic and there's always gonna be something for everybody, so you might have a spectacle at one end of the street, and then you might have a three-character musical that explores the deepest darkest secrets in an American family at the other end of the street.
I got that little cardboard box in the New York Times one Sunday and I was like "how do ya use this?!"
And do you imagine an experience that would be like VR? Have you used VR at all?
I have not used VR [but] a lot of different VR types have been approaching us.
Oh, do to "Hamilton" in VR?
To do some sort of a VR thing. I got that little cardboard box in the New York Times one Sunday and I was like "how do ya use this?!" [they laugh]
You don't have the right phone. I'm guessing you have an iPhone, correct?
I have an iPhone. And I kinda just like threw it in the garbage. I'm not interested in VR personally yet. Um, I don't need a virtual experience, I just want to have an experience.
Experience. But the idea of doing a virtual experience is really interesting. Go to the theater — just before this we interviewed some people, they're doing this, instead of Soulcycle you get the bike at home and then you have the class, a live class on your phone in front of you and you never —
I think I'd rather be in the class, with all the other cyclers, going through the same challenges I'm going through.
Well, actually you do.
Yeah I know, but they're on a screen and I'm gonna fight against it.
[talking over one another]
You're gonna fight it? So you, there's no "Hamilton" VR coming?
I'm a big Bikram yoga, and I don't wanna do Bikram in my bedroom by myself. I wanna go into that hot, godforsaken room and at least know there is someone struggling on my right and on my left.
Right, there's a pleasure in that. The struggle or the joy on either side. So you don't envision adding anything to theatrical productions that you do, like the idea is there gonna be a VR show on Broadway?
Well let's look at "Hamilton." Lin gets this crazy idea that "I wanna make a hip hop retelling of the story of the American founder, Alexander Hamilton, he's not one of the A list founding fathers.
And he creates this story in such a way that it becomes the biggest hit in Broadway history. There's no virtual reality. There's no high tech, there are no fancy sets. It’s the storytelling, baby. And all I wanna know is, what’s the story.
One of the things that has been interesting to me is we're gonna talk about the business of it in a second, but I wanna get to the phenomenon, we're talking about — this is a show that did well because of the content, which I think a lot of people are realizing about a lot of things on the internet, it’s the content. Which, even though the tools are terrific. Um, just today there was a terrible thing that happened in Minnesota, but someone did a Facebook Live video of someone getting shot by the police. It was a sort of fascinating moment in the way we interact. And so there's all these tools, and the ability to be live, and the ability to do things, but in a lot of ways, simplicity does have to take over I think — a lot of people think — using these tools.
What you're describing in Minnesota is horrific. It sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, like from "Super Sad True Love Story," which I read a few years ago ...
Yeah, or "Black Mirror" or something.
… which was this, you know, dystopian view of the future. And I think theater becomes the antidote for all of those different activities and avenues.
I knew it was good! And I knew it would be successful. I didn’t know that it would go this far this fast.
Because it’s analogue, it has a moment of community.
Because it’s storytelling.
So talk a little bit about storytelling. Why has "Hamilton" struck a note? There's a lot of wonderful plays, there's a lot of really tremendous things, what do you think are the elements about it?
Well first of all I like to preface this, I must preface this by saying, I can give you a hypothesis that is no better than anybody else's. I have worked hard on "Hamilton" for the last six years, like I worked hard on every single musical I've ever done. I did not predict that it would be become this kind of a phenomenon. I knew it was good! And I knew it would be successful. I didn’t know that it would go this far this fast. And I am asking myself that question all the time, what is it about this show right now that's making it strike a chord for so, so many people. I do believe that this show right now represents the best of who we can be as a country, as citizens and as people.
And as flawed people because the characters are all flawed.
Which I think is more powerful.
But I think that this show represents the best values and the best impulses of this great country. And I think that, I know for me, this show taps into a sense of patriotism I feel for my country that I have never felt in my life. As a 51 year old man who was born in the Johnson administration, grew up through Vietnam, Watergate, the impeachment of Nixon, the oil crisis — and I'm from Detroit, so Detroit was always going down, there always seemed like there was never any good news there. And it just felt to me like, it feels to me like "Hamilton" is tapping into what’s great about our country! And its values are those that we can all ascribe to whether we are men or women or black or white or brown or Democrat or Republican or old or young.
And yet it’s the backdrop of possibly the most horrifying election in history! [laughs]
And maybe that's one of the reasons that "Hamilton" provides such a great antidote!
Right, so when you contrast it to that, what’s happening now, do you think it changes people's attitudes, or it makes them better people?
I think "Hamilton" makes people ask themselves, what am I doing with my life?
Right, absolutely. So when you first started to go up … you did "Rent" and one of the things that struck me in the story in the New York Times is you thought "Rent" and others could have done better in a different environment. Now I know every producer says it, right, it should have done, but is there a time now, using social media and ways, that this gets around in much more powerful a way?
Well, what I was speaking about in that article is that the audience for "Rent" was largely young. When we started off on Broadway because of the rave reviews and all of that, the more traditional Broadway audience absolutely came to the show, but they didn't quite get it. And I don’t think that they enjoyed it and I think that there was an inverse relationship to age and enjoyment of that show, which was: As you got older, you enjoyed it less. And that's just what that show was! Because of its unique nature in telling the stories of young twentysomething New Yorkers, you know, living out their own "La Boheme" story. Once again, I mention in that article that I thought that the label of hip-hop and Latino pushed against some of the success that we might have had to a greater degree with "In The Heights." I mean "In the Heights" was still a big successful show, it won the Tony for Best Musical, it ran for three years, it had a three-year tour, it was a very successful show! But I did believe that there was a certain degree of racism and a certain degree of fear of hip-hop that made people not wanna go see "In the Heights."
And yet this show has all those things.
And then this show comes around and it has all of those things.
But because it is about perhaps the founding fathers, because it is about our American Revolution, because it is about Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison ...
Four white guys, yeah.
Right. So we give them comfort! It's about those four white guys! And then we turn everything upside down on its head, who plays them, how they express themselves, and then audiences discover that they love who plays them and they love how these men express themselves in this unique musical way.
You've also sold it marketing-wise in a different way. It’s not been very "this is a hip-hop musical." It’s interesting, it’s very iconic. I've found your use of social media fascinating, like just iconic pictures, just not much information. The golden ... I think you took over Penn Station, I remember walking through.
It was great. But it didn’t, I didn’t know what to do, I just was aware of it. Talk about how you think about getting it.
Well, I want my advertising to give you a feeling, I don’t wanna tell you what the show is. An advertising image can’t do that, advertising is too fleeting. My opportunity to affect you is a split-second opportunity, so all I'm trying to do is see if I can capture something visually for you that might give you some feeling. And I think that's what we try to capture with the "Hamilton" artwork, that uses this very lush beautiful gold — which is money! Which is wealth. It’s beauty. It’s gold. And then of course it has the American star which has the patriotism, and then it has the swagger of that man at the top of the star, who represents the rebel! Who founds our country!
I don’t use Snapchat because I heard it’s dirty!
Right, which works perfectly. And you use a lot, in social media, do you consider that a big part of the marketing of the show? Because all your stars are active, they do a lot. You're always on Snapchat or viral videos. Do they do that themselves, or is that part of your planning because I literally see them and they're using it beautifully.
A lot of the stuff we started by design and I was smart enough to hire a young 25 year old — who understands social media and understands its effect on young people — who would come into my office every day and pitch me five ideas. Granted, I would always reject three of them, but two of them I'd say go with that, and we found that there is a great audience who wants to take in and interact with the show and with the actors in that kinda way and that just feeds their enthusiasm for the show!
Did you reject something that worked? Did you say no way, like a Snapchat? Do you use Snapchat?
Oh! [laughs]] I don’t use Snapchat because I heard it’s dirty! [laughing] And I have a 14-year-old daughter, who we wouldn’t allow to have Snapchat on her phone. Oh no!
Don’t. I have a 14-year-old son, so don’t. I advise against it.
Yeah, and then this Times writer said, "Oh no! Snapchat's good for our generation!" First of all, I don’t need anyone to see my face at every minute of the day. You know what I mean!
Yeah, I'm talking about for "Hamilton." I get you, yourself.
Yeah, I don’t know if we're using Snapchat. I know we're using, you know, Twitter and Facebook and all that stuff. I don't use it, all I do is Instagram, which is a nice way for me to share pictures with my family and myself with my friends.
But your kids, you must be learning from them!
My kids are really on the cusp because we didn't allow our kids to have phones for a long time. Our daughter's 13, she now has a phone but we have the Norton Family Utility, so she can’t even use Safari, she can only use those apps that we —
What are you doing? Why?
Because we are helping her to stay innocent.
And not be exposed to a lot of the bad stuff that a lot of teenage girls are exposed to.
Yeah, that's true, yeah.
And our son who's 12 doesn't even have a phone yet, but we've promised one for the fall.
For the fall. And then you'll be, they'll be doing Snapchat all the time, just FYI.
I'm not letting it! It’s not gonna be on there!
Really? Why not? They have to use, Snapchat's okay. I'm gonna tell you it’s okay.
Really? All I hear is it’s about teenagers sending naked pictures of themselves to their friends.
Perhaps that's in New York, but otherwise, they use it very creatively!
I live in New York! [laughing]
They can be creative with it, more than you think so. I think the problem is anyone over 16 really doesn't get it, doesn't understand the utility of using it. It’s like text.
Right, and it’s ephemeral, right?
Well, allegedly. Now they have a new thing where you can —
Right, they have the non-ephemeral version of Snapchat.
Right, they do actually! So in terms of where the show is going in terms of — so you don’t wanna put it, so you don’t wanna stream it, you never wanted to stream it, you never wanted to do —
Like an NBC live show of it.
We will not do an NBC live show.
Alright, but the idea of streaming it is —
I want you to work hard to buy a ticket and come to my theater in Chicago, or come to my theater in San Francisco or Seattle or Portland or any theater I'm going to go to and interact with the show in a live way. That is going to give you an experience that you can’t have in any other way!
Do you wanna have sex, or do you wanna have a virtual reality experience of sex?
So let's get to getting the tickets. It’s been a really —
It’s kind of like, can I be crass?
Yeah, go ahead.
Do you wanna have sex, or do you wanna have a virtual reality experience of sex?
[laughing] A lot of people might answer the second!
[laughing] Well I wouldn’t!
It’s really an interesting question because it’s getting pretty good because there's a new thing called Haptic Touch, do you know about that?
No! Of course I don’t know about that!
They're developing it at places like MIT, but it pushes back at you, so it will feel as if someone —
So there's friction!
There's friction. It’s really interesting, it’s a really interesting thing. And in Artificial Intelligence, you won't know the difference, you won't know what real is.
I hated that movie, "AI."
The Steven Spielberg movie.
Yes. I know. But a lot of that's coming. It’s really interesting and it’s really scary, too, at the same time. But that's some years from now and we'll be dead, so that's fine.
[laughing] Or not because we'll just live and live and live! From all this new —
Let's talk about the — yes, you can have your liver replaced, you can have your liver printed at some point.
My liver's great, I take Bikram yoga, I flush it out every day.
Alright, but those who don’t do that may have to have their liver printed out in a 3-D printer ... but that's another topic. Let's talk about technology affecting "Hamilton" because one of the issues you guys have been — Lin and you and others, you wrote a piece for the New York Times — is these bots. Bots are a big deal in Silicon Valley right now, they love 'em. Everyone loves bots right now in Silicon Valley. You don’t love bots so much.
Well, you know what, what you're bringing up is something so interesting which is that there's no question that digital media has helped us to publicize our show, to advertise our show and market our show. Through all of those social media avenues we've talked about. Bots are another form of digital, they're a digital tool, but this is a nefarious digital tool. It’s using a robot to go onto the Ticketmaster website and cut the line and make the site inaccessible to the average person so that the bot can go scoop up and buy thousands of tickets in minutes and then —
There's also people involved.
Go — oh yeah, well those, of course, these bots are completely controlled by bad actors who are secondary ticket sellers. And then they take all of those tickets, and then they go resell them on the secondary market. So two bad things are happening. One is that the consumer who wants to buy a ticket for the regular price can’t get it because the bot bought it first, two is now it’s on the secondary market.
Yeah, at StubHub.
At StubHub, at VividSeat, at SeatGeek, they all try to act like they're —
Which you never thought you would know about.
Oh my, I never thought I'd know any of these things. I know about all of them now. So that hunt, that ticket that was $177 is now being sold for three or four times that so that the general user can’t afford it, or if they can afford it, all those extra moneys are going to the people who don’t deserve it.
And not the people who do the shows. So you say you shouldn't let them — Fight Robots to See Something You Love. And then from the economic point of view, they're pulling — what was the number? bots doubled the price?
Someone wrote that the bots or the secondary market pulled out another 60 million dollars in the last year from our show.
From your show.
I don’t know! I don’t know if that's true or not, but that's what someone said.
Well, they've created a market for it ...
So if we grossed over the last year 75 million or 80 million, another 60 million was grossed by the secondary market.
Now, scalping has been a problem forever.
1850s, 1860s, yeah, it started in this country.
And here's a show —
In the mid 19th century —
So here's a show that everyone wants to go to. There's always gonna be scalping.
But they've moved it to a new level, is what you're saying.
What can you do to prevent it? You got New York to make the laws more difficult.
We've finally been able to get the New York State legislature to criminalize bots. So that at least gives the Attorney General the ability to bring someone to court and put them in jail for using a bot.
That's the question.
They will not. That's the issue. I mean, the money they're making is so great, on your show, for example. The ability to fight back is pretty inexpensive.
It’s pretty inexpensive is what it is, comparatively.
So there's that. More important, we've worked very diligently with Ticketmaster to continue to create new software that can overcome the bots. So for example once we, well, what we did is we pulled back all of our own ticket-selling tools so that for example we didn’t send the barcode, we don’t send the tickets out right away, you don’t get the tickets until two weeks or four weeks before the show comes. And then Ticketmaster's been able to identify the bad actors, identify the bot-bought tickets — the bot, the bought — tickets. And um, in the middle of May I went and refunded nine million dollars in the course of a week of bought tickets.
To the bots. To the bot companies.
That's right, yep, we refunded it.
The nature of theater is that I actually don’t have full control over my ticketing.
Why not sell them just on your own site? Why do you need to use Ticketmaster? And another thing, why can’t you just ... then you have total control. Well, you could still be attacked by bots.
Well, my site would never have the technical sophistication that Ticketmaster does, because I'm at least able to piggyback off their intellectual resources that are much greater than mine, because they're a bigger site. So that would actually make the problem worse if I could do my own site.
Cause you couldn't fight the bots really.
But what you're also asking is why do I have to rely on Ticketmaster and ultimately that's an interesting thing about the nature of theater which is that I actually don’t have full control over my ticketing. I am renting a theater from a landlord, and the landlord made the deal with Ticketmaster, so I'm in a bit of a feudal —
Does that change for producers like yourself?
It never changes, it has never changed. Could it change!
Well, I'm just thinking of how Hollywood right now is taking back control, producers are taking back control, creators are taking back. They do go to Netflix, they have a way to distribute. I mean, you have to be more technically literate.
Right, right. The Broadway system is a very closed system.
Right, so you don’t think you can do that.
It’s a legal monopoly.
Do you think that Ticketmaster and StubHub, StubHub more and others like it, are culpable in this?
Well first of all you can’t put Ticketmaster and StubHub in the same —
Ticketmaster is a primary selling source ...
And they're trying to get rid of the problem.
… and they're trying to get rid of the problem! So Ticketmaster is my ally, and they're actually doing a good job because I've been able to make some headway in combating the bots and getting those tickets available to the general ticket-buying public. StubHub is the eBay of tickets, anybody who has a ticket can go post their ticket on StubHub for any amount that they wish, and frankly I can’t stop it, and I'm not going to try.
Right, so if a regular person bought "Hamilton" tickets and feels like making some money ...
If a regular person buys six because that's the limit and they decide to put two of them on StubHub, I don’t have enough time to deal with that, that's just the way of the world. That's okay by me, that's not what I'm trying to stop, and there will always be a market for that, and more power to them. I'm trying to stop a bot controlled by a nefarious actor ...
From using StubHub.
… from using my site to buy up all the tickets so that the general public - so that you, Kara, can’t get one.
Right, so have you been working with StubHub and others on this? Do they care?
StubHub is the place they go with them.
Right, but can you stop them via StubHub, have you been in discussions with them?
No I've never had a conversation with StubHub.
And if that's the crazy marketplace, you don’t wanna go to them and say, there's something funny going on here? You think that's useless?
Yeah I think it’s useless. What are they gonna do? [laughs] What are they gonna say?
Say we're not gonna sell tickets by third-party sales kinda thing, or something
They're gonna say, "We don’t know how we get our tickets!" What are they gonna say?
Well, should they be prosecuting in these new laws? If you're letting, if you're selling illegal whatever?
Right, I think we have to step softly like, you know what I mean, I think we need to go after these bots, I think we need to go after them with laws, that will slow them down, and then I think we have to go over them with better software, so I think we need to win intellectually.
That's how I wanna win.
I do wanna talk to you about the next thing, you've been a theater producer your whole life.
A theater geek, essentially, since you've been a kid.
I'm not a SeatGeek, but I'm a theater geek.
Not a SeatGeek. I never heard of SeatGeek.
It’s just like StubHub.
Yeah. You are doing other things, you signed a deal with NBC to produce television shows.
Yes. Crazy, right?
What does that mean? You do know — it’s [with] a guy who has a great experience, too.
Well I have been an acquaintance of and admirer of Bob Greenblatt, the head of NBCUniversal, for a long time. Frankly, it all goes back to how much I loved loved loved "Six Feet Under" when he was the producer, and it was on HBO, and I used to just design my whole Sunday ...
Was that the best finale of all time?
… and watch "Six Feet Under."
Best finale I think of any show.
I think it was so touching.
Well not up there with "The Brady Bunch," but ...
Did they have a finale? Wait a minute, did they have a finale!
They actually didn’t have a finale but there was Greg's graduation where his hair turned orange.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
The only show I might have loved as much as "The Brady Bunch" was "Six Feet Under." So I've admired Bob all these years, Bob loves theater and over the last year, I hooked up with a great guy named Floaty Suarez — and anyone who has a name called Floaty Suarez ...
Like that, you need to go into business.
You wanna be in the room with that! And then they said, will you work on some TV shows? Or will you bring us your ideas for TV shows?
Had you ever thought of doing television? Television's changing, by the way, because of digital, too.
Well television is having its own golden age, right.
But interestingly, very digitally!
But if you go back 15 years, all the people who wrote scripts for fictional television were very scared that that era was over because of "Survivor" and all of the reality television shows, like it was the end of scripted television and now we're in a completely golden age of scripted television.
Which is due to Netflix and Amazon and others too.
All those other sources, yes!
Where some of the best television is being made ... some of them.
Absolutely, you know, absolutely. So with all that in mind, I'm a storyteller. And I said, if you're ever expecting me to do a procedural or a cop show or a hospital show or a lawyer show, I won't be that guy. I love making shows about family.
Okay, hence "Brady Bunch."
Hence "Brady Bunch."
Hence my love for "Six Feet Under."
"Six Feet Under," absolutely.
My love for "Families," starring Sada Thompson and James Broderick, and Kristy McNichol.
I remember every single actor on that show!
Oh my, and Meredith Baxter Birney.
And "Good Times" and all of the Norman Lear shows. So I thought, this is a fun time in my life, let's see if we can get anything going. If we can, good; if we don’t, that's okay. The best time to go make a TV show is when you don’t need to, and I dont need to, so let's see if we can make something fun.
So what do you think of where television is going, given how people watch it, the binge watching, how people watch it on phones, the way they watch in different ways.
Well, television is a medium that is all about a screen. So from my perspective, whether they watch it on a screen on their phone or on their televisions or on their computer, what’s the difference? I think it’s great.
So is there something different about what’s happened? It’s just the storytelling, the same thing ...
I think it’s still about character. It’s still about the human condition.
Cause a lot of people are experimenting with shorter shows, different-sized shows, seven-minute shows, things like that. Do you watch a lot of that?
No, I don’t watch any of it. [laughs]
So you're thinking just the more traditional, 30-minute —
Look at me, I am sitting here, I am the guy who still opens the door of my apartment at 6:30 in the morning and I really like the first action of my day ...
The New York TImes.
… which is to pick up the hard paper.
You're a dying breed, [laughing] I'm sorry to tell you.
I know! But I love it and I'm not letting go.
Alright, well, you know, I do that but I do it on my phone. I pick up my phone.
Oh and then yeah! And then I'm on my phone looking at the New York Times all day. I mean, this is the problem and the fun thing about the New York Times: More people are reading the Times than ever before in their history, they just haven't figured out how to monetize.
Yes, they're just making less money than ever before.
And you know what, maybe they're gonna have to be okay with that. Maybe not making $400 million a year is just gonna have to be okay.
Yeah, well, losing money is what they're close to at this point.
No they're not losing money!
Yeah, but I'm saying it’s more difficult for them at this time.
Yeah so maybe they're only making 20 or 30 million dollars a year.
Or maybe someone will buy them, someone will buy them, someone like Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post.
Well you know in St. Petersburg the newspaper is owned by a not-for-profit.
Right, that could happen too.
So maybe the formula has something to do with the way NPR works, which is the other media outlet that I consume the most of.
I think the idea of doing a Broadway musical live on TV has been an enormous boon to both TV and theater.
So what do you — do you have any ideas? You're not gonna tell me your ideas, but you wanna make a show!
Do I have any ideas? Of course! I have three ideas, we're gonna see what we can do.
But you're gonna make a show, doesn't have to be a theater presentation.
They didn’t come to me because — I didn’t wanna do one of those live shows.
What do you think of those?
I like some of them more than others! But most important, you know, because I am me I'm gonna have critical opinions, but I think the idea of doing a Broadway musical live on TV has been an enormous boon to both TV and theater — I love it! And I think it’s helping theater and I think it’s helping to spread theater throughout the whole country in a way that will absolutely translate into more people wanting to see live theater, so I love it from that perspective, I loved "American Idol" and "The Voice" from those perspectives, because it was bringing performing back into America's living room in a powerful, popular way, so it wasn't just about football. Football may be as popular as ever, but there are a whole bunch of people who are more interested in a talent show! And I guess I'm on the talent show end.
Many people are!
And so I've really liked seeing how talent shows became very popular again.
Would you ever do a reality show?
No, I would never do a reality show, no interest in it.
But the content, like a dramatic presentation is what you're thinking of.
Yep. I'm a storyteller, I'm a fictional storyteller. I am a book reader, I love reading.
You read hard books, don’t you.
Novels. You know what, I have both, I often buy them on both and I'm reading a beautiful astonishing, sad, gut-wrenching novel called "The Little Life" right now, and I have it on both my iPad and — I do have my iPad — and I'm reading ...
Or do you like to read it better — do you have a preference?
Yeah, I'm reading the hard copy. You know what happened to me? Every time I started reading books, I was reading books on my iPad, it was fine. But then I would forget the name of the book I read because I wasn't ...
… relating to it! Where now, i'm reading "A Little Life" and I am with the cover every day! So I'm not gonna forget the title of this novel.
Yeah, I just started reading books as book, like real books, because I realized I do everything digitally and I just wanted to try it. But I cannot read a newspaper anymore. I can’t pick it up, I can’t do it!
Yeah, the print.
I don’t know what it is, I can’t do the folding anymore, it’s gone, it’s all gone.
Right, so now, you don’t get the benefit or the liability of their editing.
Well I do! I do! I see what they feature because they do feature it on the app. They push you toward the —
But if I look at my New York Times on the app all day and then I see the paper later, there will always be an article in the hard copy and I'll be like I never noticed it!
Right, that's true, because you link to links.
Somehow it’s just like boom boom boom, you don’t notice it.
Yeah, they're doing a great job with both things. So let's finish talking a little bit about where you think media's going. You're obviously a traditionalist but you're not a luddite, you don’t consider yourself a luddite. What do you — you read the newspaper, you read books, you watch a regular television where you get up and turn the — no, I'm kidding, you use a regular television? Or how do you watch? Binge watch-y?
I'm such, you're gonna call me a luddite now! I've had moments where I can't even figure out how to get the Amazon TV show on my TV, like I can't — I can do it in one house but not in the other, because what is my favorite TV show right now? "Transparent"! Of course! Of course! Family!
Yes, of course, of course. What do you like about that?
I like that it is a show about these five family members who are desperately trying to connect and they're all so lonely.
Right, and they're awful people, too!
But they're trying! And yeah, they do awful things! They do awful things to each other. And yet they're not awful.
Yeah. But you watch — you dont watch in regular time, you watch when you feel.
No, so I watch when I feel like it but anyway, so if I can figure out how to open that goddamn Amazon Prime TV thing [laughing] on my TV! Cause you gotta go out of the cable and into some other place.
Just push the smart TV button, I can help you if you'd like.
Then I'll watch a couple episodes of that. Yeah, so I'm good for two at a time.
Anything else you consume at the same time?
I can't binge watch cause I'll fall asleep.
Do you? Yeah, I binge watch all the time.
I fall asleep in the theater, too!
You know what I've recently been binge watching for some bizarre reason? "Madame Secretary" with Tea Leoni, cuz she's flawless, and she always has the answers.
Huh. How does anyone have time to binge watch?
I just do it. I sit up at night and do it. Yeah, it’s interesting. What else do you consume? Do you try to avoid technology? You obviously have kids so you can't completely avoid it although maybe you can.
Yeah, well, I go to the theater a lot so you know unlike many people I'm probably sitting in a seat in a theater 30 times a year, so that’s a lot of my viewing time, right? So after I've sat in the theater and read my book and taken care of my kids and I still like going to movies, by the way! I still like the actual event of buying a ticket.
I'll be doing theater until I die.
Of physically going.
And going and buying popcorn and sitting in that movie theater and watching, you know, whatever the movie was this year. Was it "Spotlight"? I loved "Spotlight"! Yeah, for me those are great events.
Mhmm, so you still do that.
So I still like to do that, that's pretty old-fashioned.
Yeah, it is. Fewer people are doing that, which is interesting.
I like to do stuff where people come together.
Yeah, absolutely. Do you expect to stay in the theater?
I'll be doing theater until I die.
Until you die.
It's who I am. It’s where I derive pleasure, it’s where I derive reward, it’s where ... I feel emotionally alive. And it’s where I am occasionally thrilled when I'm watching something new that surprises me, that takes me somewhere I've never been! That stimulates my ear in a way it’s never been stimulated before, where I can go, oh my god! I've never heard it like that before! And that's how I felt when Lin started playing songs for me from his budding new musician "Hamilton."
It’s called "Hamilton Mixtape," right?
That's right, it was called that, "Hamilton Mixtape." I asked him once if he would like maybe cut the mixtape, and he resisted.
It was a good move. And that touches you, that moves you, and you think it’s possible in this digital age.
I know it’s possible. And I know that's why Broadway sold 13 million tickets last year and that's why "Hamilton" is sold out from now until the end of next May.
That's why "Hamilton" is sold out for its first six months in Chicago already!
And San Francisco, I think.
And San Francisco, we haven't gone on sale yet, but I think it will be sold out there, too. So all those Silicon Valley guys who love bots [laughing] and VR ...
Please! Insult them!
Yeah, they're gonna be jumping over each other at VividSeat, playing five, six, a thousand dollars to get tickets to our show.
Sadly they can afford it!
Guess what they wanna do? They wanna come to the theater, and they wanna sit in that seat, and they wanna have that communal fire-side experience.
Right. Maybe they can help you, they do know a thing or two about technology, but they do have the money to pay for the tickets! Sadly for you. Good for you, good for the bots. Last question: I always ask anyone in an interview — I interview a lot of entrepreneurs, you're clearly an entrepreneur, and I'm not gonna say can you top this because you've had such a career! "Rent" is — was — mind-blowing, and then you keep topping it, but what’s a mistake you made as an entrepreneur?
A lot of entrepreneurs listen to this show. What’s something that you learned from and wanted to do, and what’s something you did really well that you said, okay, that was really smart as an entrepreneur.
Okay, so "Hamilton" is part of these four musicals I did that were big hits and they all won the Tony for best musical, but for every one of those I've had another new musical that I loved and worked really hard on that did not work. Whether that was "The Wild Party," or that was "High Fidelity" or that was "The Last Ship," I fail all the time. And I have to be willing to fail in order to succeed. So that's one thing. And I always look back on my failures and say, what did I do wrong? And what could I have done better that would have made a difference for that show to make it successful.
Every time I don’t follow my heart, that's where I'm bound to get into trouble.
So give me an example.
Instead of unsuccessful. Example: I look back at "HIgh Fidelity," and I ask, what went wrong with that show that ended up running 10 performances on Broadway? And you know I learned from it: I should have never done it. I didn’t like, I didn’t like the movie! [KS laughing] And I wound up doing it because I believed so fervently in the artists that were making it.
Alright, but you didn’t like the movie.
But I didn’t like the source material! And what was my mistake? I didn’t follow my heart. My heart was saying, this isn't working, and my head said, keep going. So what did I learn as an entrepreneur? Every time I don’t follow my heart, that's where I'm bound to get into trouble.
Have you followed your heart and gotten into trouble?
And that happens, too. Yes, of course.
[laughing] But I think you're right.
Or like financial, sometimes I have to follow my heart, and sometimes it doesn't work out. I followed my heart with "The Last Ship," absolutely.
And what happened there from your perspective?
The audience didn’t want it. It was all about death. Every single theme of that show went back to death: death of industry, death of family, death of romantic relationship, death of town community.
Sondheim has done pretty well with that.
No he hasn't. I mean, yes and no.
You're right, you're right, critical success, but not ...
Yeah! And that show was a beautiful poem about loss! And I don’t think the audience was up for it.
Alright, very last question: If you had to pick one show, and not one of yours, what was the one that affected you most, or that you thought was most successful in your eyes, and success can be defined any way you want.
Well, my first experience, actually.
Coming to a Broadway musical when I was 17 years old. I had just graduated high school in Oak Park, Michigan. My cousin brought me to see "Dreamgirls" and there was something about the story of those young people wanting to make it big, and Jennifer Holiday, that moved in the theater in a way that I had heretofore never been moved before at age 17, and I don’t know if I've ever been moved that powerfully after either because it just had that power — it was a seminal moment in the theater.
And I am not going.
And I'm not tellin you. I'm not leavin. And I'm not leavin.
[laughing] Alright Jeffrey, thank you so much, this has been a delight. I am a theater buff, and I am a huge fan of yours. And I know the cast gets a lot of attention and Lin does but you know a lot of the success has to do with the people behind the scenes, and I really appreciate you coming to talk about it.
Thank you, Kara.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.