How Hamilton’s Cast Got Broadway’s Best Deal
Of all the prizes bestowed on Hamilton, the greatest might be the one its cast won for itself.By Richard Morgan | September 28, 2016
Photograph by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times via Redux
Offstage last year, the cast of Hamilton was proofreading a different kind of script—one they’d written themselves, hoping for a sliver of the hit Broadway show’s runaway profits.
Like so many letters that are difficult to write, this one was heavy with kindness. Twenty-two members of the musical’s original Broadway cast—including breakout stars Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Leslie Odom Jr., all of whom would go on to win Tonys—had signed it.
“We love you. We love HAMILTON,” it began. “The one million infinitesimal and distinctive decisions you’ve made in service of this property … are destined to be studied on the level of the material itself.”
The letter, sent Aug. 31, 2015, was addressed not to the show’s composer, librettist, lyricist, and biggest star—Lin-Manuel Miranda—but to lead producer Jeffrey Seller, the man the New York Times would later dub the “CEO of Hamilton Inc.” In it, the cast made its case for what could become one of Broadway’s most lucrative profit-sharing deals.“We CREATED this show”
“There was undeniable genius on the pages we were given at the start,” the actors wrote. “There was a collective genius in the approach to the material. That is what we brought.”
They were, in their words, “begging.” They gave Seller a week to respond.
Diggs wrote in an e-mail to his cast mates: “This letter is brilliant.” Given the stakes, it better have been.
Hamilton had been on Broadway just a few weeks, but its longevity had been evident since its sold-out, thrice-extended Off-Broadway run at New York’s Public Theater. Earning rave after rave, it would go on to win 11 Tonys, a Grammy, even a Pulitzer.
Of all the prizes bestowed on Hamilton, perhaps most remarkable is the one its cast won for itself: 1 percent of net profits, plus a smaller share from most future productions. That retroactive agreement—announced in April, when the show was making $500,000 a week—shocked the theater world. Not since A Chorus Line a generation ago had Broadway’s bean counters offered such retroactive generosity.
Three days after the deal was announced, the cast’s union scheduled a special meeting to field the flood of actors who felt they deserved similar contracts for their work in other shows. The Public postponed a new musical that couldn’t reach an agreement with its cast. The Hamilton victory was a bell that could not be unrung.
Now, as Hamilton the phenomenon spawns Hamilton the franchise—its Chicago production opened Tuesday—cast members’ e-mails reviewed by Bloomberg reveal a fraught struggle to renegotiate their contracts and artistic identities.
The letter was just the beginning.
A day after it was sent, Seller responded, according to two actors, by offering lump-sum checks—ranging from $29,000 to $36,000 and totaling almost $800,000—to make up the difference between the performers’ minimum weekly Off-Broadway salaries and the Broadway minimum.
“There is NO counter offer that we should accept under ANY circumstances,” Odom wrote to his fellow cast members in the e-mail thread, pointing to royalties the original Broadway cast of The Book of Mormon had negotiated. “I’ve re-spoken with 3 original company members from Book of Mormon today. … There is no guarantee that our royalties will be the same as theirs. But if they’re even close … this is ground worth standing.”
The cast unanimously rebuffed the offers.
A week later, Seller delivered checks to actors’ dressing rooms half an hour before a show. Accompanying them was a note that read: “This brings to an end this powerful issue that has been weighing on many of us.”
Confused by the note and wary of the checks, the cast—represented by Javier Muñoz, who was at the time Miranda’s alternate for the role of Alexander Hamilton—appealed to its union president on Sept. 9.
“Is it a buyout for all of us? Can some people choose to take the offer and others not?” wondered actress Phillipa Soo in an e-mail.
That night came intense discussions among the cast on how to proceed. The temptation the checks presented had sharpened the differences between its members—its veterans and its newbies, its comfortable and its scraping-by. At least one performer cried all the way home. Muñoz said he couldn’t sleep until 4:30 a.m. Later, he told the rest of the cast in an e-mail that Miranda had called him that morning to warn against infighting, lest the Broadway press hear of it.“It’s messy, and scary, but possible”
Muñoz withdrew from his role of representing the cast, citing his allegiance to Miranda. “The line I navigate with Lin is delicate and precious,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I won’t turn away from him in any way, in any form, for any reason.” Goldsberry would take over his leadership role.
The next day was restive and filled with lingering anxiety over Seller’s checks.
“It was not a good day for the movement,” Odom wrote in an e-mail. “It was pretty brutal actually.”
That week, the widely adored #Ham4Ham shows—goofy one-off, preshow sidewalk performances to entertain the hordes of $10-seat lottery hopefuls—flirted with the chopping block, as actors wondered whether they should keep performing them unpaid.
“I just know that it’s hard for me to separate Ham4Ham from the overall theme of compensation for our worth,” wrote actor Okieriete Onaodowan. “I feel as if I shouldn’t do them, and would love to graciously let Lin know until this 1% is resolved it’s hard to do a Ham4Ham because it isn’t vital to the life of the show.”
The rub, as understudy Jon Rua noted: “No other job is better than this right now!”
In response to the grumbling, Miranda pleaded—”please please please”—with actors by e-mail: “This is a ridiculously good platform to do a thing and have the internet talk about it all day.” Jason Philip Bassett, a stage manager who performed Ham4Ham that week, was more blunt: “Can you leave it at the door tonight and simply do a show, please?” The cast cooperated, but the Ham4Ham shows would become less frequent until the deal was completed. Miranda has said to expect them in Chicago.
Still, the cast’s e-mail discussions grew tense and terse, as they worried they were being unappreciated at best, swindled at worst. The show’s second act, Muñoz wrote, “was created during the rehearsal process of the off-bway production.” Sydney James Harcourt, an understudy, said rehearsals had also involved “huge blocks of time” in which the choreographer called in actors with “no structure, not setting the show, just mining our brains.”
Rua repeated a line that came up frequently in their discussions: “We CREATED this show.”
Other actors were less insistent. Like Muñoz, Christopher Jackson, a close friend of Miranda’s, kept a low profile in the discussions. “I just don’t feel comfortable addressing contracts and deals that have already been signed,” wrote Jonathan Groff, who had not originated his role of King George III.
Cast members worried that other actors or their agents would make their own deals. “We as a group need to appear as [a] unit. A union,” wrote Onaodowan. “Now is the time to be honest with the group if the price is too high for you.”
Miranda, who attended many of the meetings, was asked at an Oct. 2 company meeting what he thought. According to a cast member who was present, Miranda said he supported the actors but wasn’t inclined to join their fight since he hadn’t been looped into it earlier.
Miranda’s publicist, Charlie Guadano, did not respond to calls for comment.
In an email, Hamilton publicist Sam Rudy disputed the timeline of events depicted in the cast members’ correspondence but declined to elaborate. He said Seller declined to comment.
Only a handful of the Broadway 22 who signed last year’s fateful letter remain in the show. But in addition to the 1 percent of net profits from New York, all 22 will now share in 0.33 percent of the net profits from Chicago and all other U.S. productions, except Broadway and future revivals.
The actors in the Chicago show are being paid at least $1,974 a week starting next week.
More Hamilton shows are set to open next year—a Los Angeles production in August, a national tour in March, and a London production in October. And with premium tickets selling for $849 on Broadway and $500 in Chicago, the profit-sharing yield for the actors who signed on to the deal will only grow.
That pool has expanded to 38 people, including Off-Broadway stage managers and Groff.
Among them, adding to his existing profit-sharing stream, is Miranda himself.
“We are more like the men (and women dammit!) in our show than I personally have ever allowed myself to explore, especially in the messiest moments of last night,” Sasha Hutchings, an understudy, wrote the day after that restless, weepy night last September. “They forged a way where there was no precedent, just as we are striving to do now. It’s messy, and scary, but possible.”