by Marilou Carlin12/12/2017
The last time Jeffrey Seller (BA '86) worked with his lifelong best friend Andrew Lippa (BM '87) was in 1989, when the recent graduates collaborated on a musical called A Pound of Feathers. Lippa wrote the music, Seller directed, and it was staged at a temple on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; tickets were only $12.
A lot has happened in the ensuing years.
Lippa had a breakout hit with The Wild Party in 2000, winning him the Drama Desk Award for best music, while the show won the Outer Critics Circle Award for best Off-Broadway musical. He also wrote the music and lyrics for the Broadway hits The Addams Family and Big Fish, and the acclaimed oratorio I Am Harvey Milk. Meanwhile, Seller became a much-celebrated Broadway producer, winning Tony Awards for Rent, Private Lives, Avenue Q, In the Heights, and the record-breaking mega-hit Hamilton.
Though the two remained fast friends-a relationship that began in Oak Park, MI when Seller's family bought the Lippa family's home-it wasn't until 2013 that they got the chance to resume the collaborative roles that they relished during their time at U-M.
That year, Lippa was working on a musical adaptation of The Man in the Ceiling, a Young Adult novel by the legendary cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer, which Lippa discovered in 1996. "It was so moving to me, and I loved the characters," he said. "Those are the criteria I use for everything that I work on."
Twenty years had passed since Lippa first met Feiffer and proposed adapting the book into a musical, but in 2013 the two artists completed a working draft, with music and lyrics by Lippa and book by Feiffer. The story concerns a boy who dreams of becoming a famous cartoonist. Along with his parents and siblings, he lives with his uncle, a frustrated writer of musicals who shares with his nephew a quest for inspiration and hope.
Lippa sought his oldest and most trusted friend's input about the show. He got that and much more: Seller said he wanted to direct it.
"Andrew's music tethered to Jules's characters made me jump in," said Seller. "When they shared it with me, I fell in love with those quintessentially Feifferian characters who were trying to love each other in spite of all the problems that families face. I'm always moved by Andrew's songs, so this was just another case in point."
The Michigan duo soon became a trio when Benton Whitley ('08), a partner in the Broadway casting office of Stewart/Whitley, became the show's casting director. Whitley's office acts as the resident casting agency for Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, New York, a regional nonprofit theatre in the Hamptons. The artistic director, Scott Schwartz, tries to include a world premiere each summer and, after a reading in Manhattan, booked The Man in the Ceiling for a June 2017 premiere.
Starring in the show was yet another Wolverine, Danny Binstock ('06), playing the role of the father, who, like all the characters, appears both as an actual person and as a cartoon character. Whitley, who had known Binstock at U-M, called him for a first audition (and provided some coaching), and this was soon followed by auditions for Seller and Lippa, and then the Bay Street team.
"All along I felt comforted by the fact that I'd known Benton socially since college," said Binstock, "and the very first time I walked into the room with Andrew and Jeffrey, Andrew called out 'Go Blue.' That's a signature of his."
Lippa not only admits this is true, but says, only half joking, "Michigan is my favorite religion.
"As a composer/lyricist, when an actor walks into a room and it says University of Michigan at the bottom of their resume, not only do I circle it, but my colleagues will give me an elbow and roll their eyes and go, 'Now we've got to spend five more minutes with this actor,' and I'm like, 'You're damn right we do."
Whitley, too, admits a partiality for SMTD graduates; he often seeks them out for projects.
"Because I was a U-M musical theatre major, I know the training that the program provides," he said. "I know the graduates have been exposed to the skill set and have the particular professionalism and the intellect that people are looking for in New York."
One role that Bentley did not have to cast for The Man in the Ceiling was Uncle Lester, because Lippa decided to play the role himself. It wasn't part of the plan when he first read the book, even though the character is a writer of musicals. Lippa would have been too young for the role in '96, but enough time had passed that it now made perfect sense.
"The very day that Jeffrey met Jules I said, 'Oh, we need to find an actor for Uncle Lester who is very musical and very much understands the plight of writing musicals and, you know, perhaps someone, I don't know...like me.' They both laughed, but then Jeffrey said: 'If you're going to take a chance on me as a director, I'll take a chance on you as an actor.'"
As it turned out, the reunion of Seller and Lippa as collaborators was effortless.
"My theatrical education was, in part, side by side with Andrew," said Seller. "When we were at Michigan, we did shows together in which I directed and he music directed. And we actually wrote a musical together at Michigan. So working with him again was just going right back to a shared vocabulary that we had developed in college. What was different this time was that he was an actor in the play, and that was a joy."
"Jeffrey had the really hard task of being childhood best friends with the composer of the show," said Binstock, "but he was beautifully able to say 'no' at times, and steer our ship in a really nice way."
"There's not an artist I know who doesn't want somebody to say no to them," said Lippa. "It's really wonderful to be said no to because, as an actor, you then know not to go down that road again. 'Great, there's someone in charge, someone to shape this!'"
He added that Seller flawlessly executed the difficult task of bringing the writers' vision to the stage. "You need a director who can keep the ball going around and around, so the writing can keep informing the acting which can go back to the writing."
All four alumni agree that their shared roots added to the fun and flow of the project.
"The Michigan connection always creates a camaraderie that we all share from day one," said Seller. "Maybe that gets us a little further a little faster."
"The way in which a musician becomes an actor becomes a dancer, there's a cycle to performing in a musical, you have to be all of those things," said Binstock. "Michigan teaches all of those skills to everyone, but also allows you to home in on what's gonna make you special."
"That's obviously what it did for me," said Whitley, who, as a student, realized that what he loved most about musical theatre was the inherent collaboration: the community of the art form. "I realized that there was so much more than being on stage that I was passionate about, and that I was good at, and that I could actually pursue as a career, and Michigan helped me find that."
Lippa posited an analogy, drawing an appreciable laugh from his fellow alums: "Danny and Benton and Jeffrey and I have that sense of having all been cocooned together. Even though we went to Michigan at different times, we became butterflies at the same place."
The Man in the Ceiling is now being further developed for a production at another theatre in the near future.
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