EXCLUSIVE: Seven years after Hamilton began previews at the Public Theater and gave the business of Broadway and touring a shot in the arm, its lead producer, Jeffrey Seller, is following a similar playbook. He’s underwriting The New Group‘s world premiere of Black No More.
With music and lyrics by Tariq Trotter, whom Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda called “one of the greatest rappers alive,” the show begins rehearsals on Monday ahead of a first preview Jan. 11 at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Seller has raised $1.8 million for an offering of up to $3 million to enhance the developmental production, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Prospective investors have been told it’s fully subscribed. Seller declined to comment.
Based on George Schuyler’s 1931 satirical novel about a machine that turns Black people white, the show aims to be as provocative as Miranda’s hip-hop-heavy musical about the American Revolution. It’s highly anticipated within the industry, due in part to Seller’s stellar resumé and its A-list creative team and cast, including choreographer Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening), book writer John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and director Scott Elliott, artistic director of The New Group.
“Collectively, we feel like this play has the potential to change the landscape of musical theater,” Trotter, also known as Black Thought, said during a National Public Radio concert last year. He performed a song from the nascent show that meshes hip hop with jazz. People who attended an early reading described the score as varied and quite catchy.
Like Miranda, Trotter will appear in his own musical. He’s taking a leave from the Tonight Show’s house band, The Roots, to play the inventor of the race-changing machine that the novel describes as “a cross between a dentist’s chair and an electric chair.”
Brandon Victor Dixon — best known as Judas in NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar and Alexander Hamilton’s nemesis, Aaron Burr, in Hamilton — plays the first customer. As a newly transformed white man, Dixon’s character moves from Harlem to Atlanta, where he goes to work for a white supremacist organization and marries the leader’s daughter, who rebuffed him when he was Black. Other actors who’ve signed on include Jennifer Damiano, Walter Bobbie, Lillias White and Ephraim Sykes, who dropped out as the title character of the upcoming Michael Jackson musical, MJ, citing scheduling conflicts.
Black No More marks a reunion for Seller, who heretofore hasn’t been publicly associated with the show. The Roots performed at Hamilton‘s Broadway opening night party at Pier 60 and produced its bestselling original cast recording.
Seller and fellow producers Robyn Goodman and Kevin McCollum worked with the New Group and Vineyard Theatre to develop the unlikely hit Avenue Q, a satire of Sesame Street and the challenges of young college graduates, which beat Wicked for the 2004 best new musical Tony Award. That show also launched the career of composer-lyricist Bobby Lopez, who later co-wrote The Book of Mormon and Disney’s Frozen franchise.
In 1996, Seller, McCollum and Allan S. Gordon produced the blockbuster musical Rent. Its author, Jonathan Larson, died the day of what was to be its first preview at New York Theatre Workshop and is the subject of the new Netflix movie tick, tick…Boom! It’s directed by Miranda and — small world — features a number performed by Trotter.
Like any underfunded nonprofit, the New Group could use the buzz and royalties associated with a hit. Founded in 1995, the company has a respectable $6 million operating budget but just $1.5 million in assets as of August 2020, most of that in cash. The Public Theater, thanks largely to its stakes in various productions and tours of Hamilton — one of the many Broadway shows it helped develop — earned $24 million in royalty and subsidiary rights income in 2018-19, its most recent full season.