Jeffrey Seller had made a name for himself as a prolific Broadway producer with “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and “In the Heights.” Then in summer 2013, he made his directorial debut in Dallas with “Fly,” a Wendy-centric musical adapted from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan novel “Peter and Wendy.”
Seller then flew back to New York for the first public reading of a show he was producing: “Hamilton.”
Seller’s world was turned upside down, and he would go on to win his fifth Tony Award with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical. He shelved the beat-driven vision of Barrie’s tale — until now.
A new production of “Fly,” opening Sunday at La Jolla Playhouse, stars Storm Lever as Wendy, an adventurous teenager whose escapades in Neverland — alongside a stunted Peter Pan (Lincoln Clauss) and a comical Captain Hook (Eric Anderson) — dispel the overly romanticized fantasy of a never-ending childhood.
Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”) wrote the clever book, with catchy music by “In the Heights” orchestrator Bill Sherman and insightful lyrics by Joseph and Kirsten Childs (“The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin”). The musical also features genre-hopping choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler and Stephanie Klemons of “Hamilton,” and thrilling flight sequences designed by aerial-effects expert Pichon Baldinu of the Argentine troupe De La Guarda.
Seller, 55, sat down with the Los Angeles Times to discuss his return to “Fly” and what it’s like to direct actors as they soar across a stage, as well as to explain how Disney’s “Hamilton” movie will let everyone into the room where it happens.
Where did this version of “Peter Pan” come from?
I used to participate in a drum circle every Monday night in the summertime in Bridgehampton [N.Y.]. Everyone would come to the beach with different drums or even coffee cans, and it was a wonderful group party.
I thought, what if the music of Neverland only came from instruments you could find on an island? No saxophones or trumpets, just drums and strings you could theoretically make from vines. That was back in 2010.
Why did you make “Fly” your directorial debut?
I actually directed all throughout college [at the University of Michigan]; that’s how I earned my work-study money. When I got to New York, I ultimately put down the directing hat and just produced, which has worked out well for me.
But from the get-go, I had a comprehensive vision of what it would look like. I had this idea that Neverland would be populated by these trees — these gorgeous, multicultural women who’d be the life force of the island — and pirates who are balding and over the hill and a little overweight and on a ship made of trash. No swashbuckling studs here! [He laughs.] It wouldn’t work to get another director for this because you can’t tell a director exactly what to do — at least I don’t.
After we did it, we paused and said, “Not good enough yet.” If you are not ready, you wait. That gave us all the opportunity to work on other projects, get more juice and come back with fresh eyes. We took two years off and picked it up again about two years ago.
How has producing “Hamilton” affected your approach to restaging “Fly?”
“Hamilton” is a musical theater miracle. I think Lin was touched by divinity when he wrote that, and he and [director] Tommy Kail and Andy Blankenbuehler and [orchestrator] Alex Lacamoire, that was beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. One could say, why would you ever try to make a musical? Nothing is ever going to be as good as “Hamilton.” But I’m a student of the American musical theater and I’m always trying to learn. I’m saying, I want to make another good one; I’m going to keep trying.
It’s also made me more critical and rigorous, in terms of not settling. It helped me look at our old opening number and say, “Throw the whole thing away, start over.” We cut Wendy’s brothers and a subplot that, in many ways, was the most compelling story. It had the prettiest song, but it almost hijacked the show. It was hard, but we cleared all that runway for Wendy’s story.
In “Fly,” Wendy is the hero, whereas Peter isn’t exactly likable.
That’s following the lead of the novel, which J.M. Barrie wrote after the play became a big hit on the West End. The first character Barrie names in the novel is Wendy. So in our show, she’s the writer of her own life, not the reactor.
That novelization also has an existentialism that’s not in the play. It asks, what does it mean to grow up? What are the benefits, what are the costs? If you choose not to grow up, like Peter, you get to live forever, but you might wind up pretty lonely. And if you choose to embrace the process of growing older, you have an opportunity to have a very rich life.
Musical numbers feature actors up in the air. What’s the toughest part about pulling that off?
In traditional “Peter Pan” productions, only Peter flies up and down, side to side; if anyone else is flying, they only go up and down. But we have three tracks that go up and down, side to side. So sometimes we have three characters flying simultaneously, singing and acting and controlling their swinging and landing in the right spot at the right moment. All of it has to be absolutely perfect so no one gets hurt.
Just to finalize one cue could take three hours, and we have about 100. It takes so, so long and requires so much patience from everyone. I hope it’s worth it because it really is beautiful.
Are the Lost Boys all played by child actors?
They’re three kids and two adults — if I fooled you into thinking it’s five kids, that’s great! In Dallas, I thought everybody needed to be completely age-appropriate to deliver the genuine essence of youth. I was wrong — that’s OK, that’s what the process is for. So this time, we mixed them up so there’d be enough grounding, vocally and movement-wise.
Let’s talk about the “Hamilton” movie. There were multiple bootleg videos of the original Broadway cast online …
We rigorously worked to remove them immediately. I had a full-time person on that!
... and clips from that shoot were included in a PBS documentary. What’s left for fans to look forward to?
What’s so unique about this iteration of “Hamilton” is that by shooting it over two live performances with 16 cameras, and then having another two days to do dolly shots and close-ups with handhelds and no audience, we’ve captured a very different perspective of the story.
I’ll give you one example: When Eliza [played by Phillipa Soo] wails over the body of young Philip [played by Anthony Ramos], you are going to experience an intimate moment with Eliza that you can never experience watching the show live, no matter how close you’re sitting.
“Hamilton” has multiple national tours and is running on Broadway, the West End and, soon, in Australia. What if the movie discourages ticket sales for these live productions?
I don’t think it will. For a lot of people, I think they’ll go, “That was so good, I gotta see it live.” And if you’ve already seen it once or twice or three times, you’re going to love experiencing it in this unique way.
What this movie does is it makes “Hamilton” more accessible to more people, regardless of their ability to travel or pay standard theater prices. If you live in Wyoming or the Dakotas or in northern Maine where the tour is just never going to go, you still have a chance to see this. If you could never, ever afford $80 or $90 but you can go to a movie for $15, this will be your opportunity to see “Hamilton.” It’s for everybody.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions); ends March 29
Tickets: Start at $25
Info: (858) 550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)