For many, learning about the United States’ founding fathers was part of growing up in the public school system. Nothing special, it was just another topic to study. Even for those students who were fortunate to receive more than a superficial lesson, interest often ended at the classroom door. That was until 2015, when Lin-Manuel Miranda disrupted Broadway with a musical six years in the making. Hamilton has changed the way theatre lovers and communities as a whole view that era of our nation’s history, and the FSCJ Artist Series is bringing it to Jacksonville.
It’s an appropriate headliner for the presenter’s 54th season. With numerous references to popular rap artists, Disney movies, bisexuality and more, it’s “the story of America then, told by America now,” according to Miranda. In anticipation of the Broadway show, Folio Weekly caught up with FSCJ Artist Series head honcho Milt Russos to find out what our community can expect in the weeks ahead.
“Hamilton is a true phenomenon. It has caught the fancy of the public, and with its unique use of various musical styles, multi-casting and the use of ‘hip hop’ in the dialogue, it has brought an American history icon and the time period to a very broad audience,” Russos told Folio Weekly. “As an American history major, I can say it has done more for American history than any other production. American history has become relevant.”
Since 1966, the executive director has attended shows throughout the country, and brought many of them here. In the process, he has provided students and communities in Northeast Florida with the best of what Broadway and American theater in general have to offer, shaping the local drama scene in the process.
“As the Artist Series has matured over the years, I strongly believe the Series has also contributed to the maturing of the city,” Russos said.
Indeed, Jacksonville has become a hub for artists, musicians and performers. Community members continue to show up and local donors continue to step up, allowing organizations to share exceptional talent in the heart of what is now one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S.
“I have found the city to be more accepting and tolerant of new shows. We always stress that the public should always research the content of the productions. While Broadway ‘classics’ remain popular, we are finding the public is demanding more of the current Broadway productions,” Russos said.
As musicals become mainstream, Jacksonvillians are seeing FSCJ Artist Series’ name attached to more favorites year after year. For those who grew up in Northeast Florida, it’s been exciting to see how the Artist Series has evolved since its first season at what was then known as Florida Junior College.
“The Series was initially designed for the students. Students could attend free, and they could buy what we called in those days a date ticket for $1,” Russos recalls. “Very soon, we had requests from members of the community to attend, and the program expanded to accommodate the community interest.”
In addition to Broadway shows, FSCJ Artist Series has introduced generations of residents to off-Broadway shows, opera, ballet and other genres of dance. When locals choose to become Broadway Series subscribers, VIP Theatre Club members or donors, they are showing Russos and his team that Jacksonville not only wants but can also handle larger productions. Indeed, the entire operation has grown larger. According to Russos, the first season of the FSCJ Artist Series was limited by a budget of around $15,000. The budget this year? More than $16 million.
“In 1986, we presented our first full week of eight performances with CATS. CATS was a major turning point, as over 20,000 attended,” Russos said. “In the 1998-99 season, soon after the old Civic Auditorium was transformed into the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, we presented a four-week engagement of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera—another milestone which led to more major shows coming to Jacksonville.”
Part of the expansion Russos mentioned earlier involved major renovations to the Time-Union Center in the ‘90s. The upgrades to the three-venue facility, which is also home to the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestra and Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, among other groups and organizations, resulted in better acoustics and more seating. It gave Jacksonville a performing arts center capable of competing with other major venues throughout the state, allowing its tenants to put our city on the map. FSCJ Artist Series has thrived as a result of the renovations, increased community engagement and the staff’s ever-present dedication to the performing arts.
“One of the neat things about the Times-Union Center’s Moran Theater is that it has one of the largest stages in the Southeast. We can handle almost every large Broadway production,” Russos said. “We did have to make some modifications for The Phantom of the Opera and for The Lion King, and some of those modifications were used for other shows. It didn’t hurt to have those modifications for repeat engagements. In the case of Hamilton, no major changes were made to the stage house, but audiences should still expect a very large production.”
As with other travelling productions that make a stop in Jacksonville, residents can expect tour busses and a bustling Downtown for a couple of weeks. Sections of the Moran Theater have already sold out for Hamilton’s 16 performances. To give more people the opportunity to see the show, producer Jeffrey Sellers and the FSCJ Artist Series have teamed up and set aside 40 tickets per performance for a digital lottery. Winners will be able to purchase last-minute seats for $10 per ticket. Those who are interested in entering are encouraged to visit hamiltonmusical.com/lottery. Your first chance to win begins at 11 a.m. Sunday, March 15.
“My wife and I saw the production in New York shortly after it opened. We loved it. We were always fans of Miranda and also thoroughly one of his earlier productions, the award-winning In the Heights,” Russos said. “I can’t say I have a favorite part but can say that the fact Miranda was able to take Ron Chernow’s massive volume and turn it into a brilliant Broadway production is an awesome achievement.”
After securing their seats for Hamilton, attendees can go ahead and purchase tickets for the next Broadway show of the season, Anastasia. The Artist Series does not plan to disclose any specifics for its 55th season until Monday, March 16, but Russos was able to share some exciting news.
“The main Broadway season will include three major hits that are currently on Broadway and an additional two hit productions that were recently on Broadway and are now on their national tours. We are very excited about the lineup. Current subscribers will get their renewal brochures in April, and new subscribers can sign up for the wait list by joining our E-Club at www.fscjartistseries.org.”
The general public can expect more details as we approach April 8.