Seth Stewart is a natural competitor.
It was this spirit that led him to become a cast member of the breakthrough international hit Broadway musical, Hamilton, and enjoy an existence guided by living his truths.
However, he has learned along the way that when ambition collides with reality in the entertainment business, you experience the ultimate shenanigan: that surreality is considered legitimate.
Coming from a small town in Ohio, he felt the surge from the ultimate reality check, sports. He needed an outlet for his frenetic energy and the various fields of athletic dreams were his first conduit.
“I started wrestling at the age of four because I was a very hyperactive kid. This is back in the mid-eighties when they were diagnosing ADHD kids but that was also a time when parents weren’t quick to put you on a pill.
“The doctor recommended that I do a lot of sports. I wrestled for 8 years and then I started playing pee wee football through high school. I played football for twelve years and that gave me my mental tenacity.”
The bi-racial product of a Black father with Southside Chicago roots and a Hungarian-Polish mother, that mix melded into a collage of creativity that inspired him to dance, at a very young age.
The Alvin Ailey Effect
“When I was sixteen, it was known that I wasn’t getting good grades but I did something right and we went and saw Alvin Ailey when they came to Cleveland,” said Stewart. “I was in the six rows and it was the first time that I had seen an entire performance just of people of color and it changed my life.
“After watching that show, I got on my books for the next two years. I had nothing less than a 3.8 GPA because I knew that there was a program out there that you could go train like that. It was the first time that I’d seen people dancing with power and telling our history through movement. That brought me to Fordham University’s BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) program. I didn’t even care about school, I just wanted to perform.”
While pursuing the Ailey/Fordham Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, he “put in a little work that nobody sees,” doing embarrassing shows, working at theme parks between summer of college breaks because he was financing his dream. However, by his second year of college, he had the itch to audition.
“We were training modern and ballet and I was going to become a classically trained dancer, I was. But our training was only within a certain realm: modern ballet and West African, and I loved it. But I talked to a lot of people and I realized that you don’t make a lot of money being that type of dancer.
“I knew that I wanted a wife and that I wanted to live a certain way one day and it wasn’t going to be the numbers that I wanted. Sorry, I just knew at 18 and 19, especially how much you have to put your body through a grind every day being up training and dancing anywhere for 6-8 hours a day so I started auditioning.”
Sacrifices were made.
Stewart dropped out of school and didn’t tell his family back in Ohio. He told no one and lived on the streets of New York City alternating from couch surfing to holing up in abandoned buildings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
By this time, the Ailey/Fordham program had kicked him out but he was already on another path he just needed a miracle.
The Big Break
“I was auditioning for little things and nothing was coming up. Then I went to audition for Madonna’s tour and there were like 2,000 people auditioning here in New York. I made it through the first two rounds after two days of auditioning and then they flew me out to L.A. and I went to audition and I made it to the last 20 people and they were only taking 16.
“I was just crushed because I had been living not even off of a meal a day for almost a year so I didn’t care about her, I just want to eat and do what I love. That was the part when I had to call a break and I went back home to Ohio and I told my family what happened, that I dropped out of school and all this stuff. My older cousin is a high school basketball coach and I’m sitting at his game and literally during a timeout her people call me and they’re like, ‘aye we made a mistake like we want you to join the tour.’
“I lose my sh*t during the timeout. My Pops is right next to me and he’s losing his shit and my cousin is looking at me like, ‘what are y’all doing’ (laughs) and I just ran out the gym and that’s how it all started right there.”
He was a twenty-year-old single man traversing the world with Madonna. The key to every city was granted and a 360 from abandoned buildings to flying private jets and staying in 5-star hotels begins.
“I didn’t even know how many stars went up there but I was in them all over the world and that was their first mistake. It was amazing. I loved the stage and I loved the energy. It was the first time I performed for 100,000 people in Dublin, we performed for 100,000 people for two nights and I felt what I wanted to feel like a kid when I watched Michael and Janet Jackson with people passing out in the crowd because they were watching them perform.
“I was on a stage like that and to me, it was those two nights dancing in the rain for 100,000 people that made me say I knew I was right, I knew I had to trust myself. It just took a long ass time to get there but not really. At 36, 37 right now I have to go back to those same lessons that I had and the same trusting in my gut that I had in my twenties now. That’s my biggest advice to people about success, you have to trust yourself even if you seem crazy to yourself or others around you.”
The Lee x Tyson Effect
Stewart looks to two athletes for inspiration: Mike Tyson and Bruce Lee. Like him, they are uber competitors and through sheer determination made it to the world’s greatest stages. They were also victims of their success in many ways and Stewart was now on a similar collision course with the duality of greatness.
“In my career, not many people do what I do, bouncing between the commercial world and Broadway; you’re either in L.A. performing for artists and doing films or you’re in New York doing theater and I just do both. I think that was a major reason for my success. I’m not the best at everything but I can do anything you put in front of me, like, I’ll figure it out.”
Stewart began working with a creative team of producers, for a show called “In The Heights”. It would be the same team that would eventually produce “Hamilton”.
“It was such a weird thing because you have white producers and white directors and choreographers but who are still giving people of color a voice for the first time without being murderers or playing that old Southern thing. ‘In The Heights’ was the first show where Puerto Rican and Dominican people could be humanized without being seen as the old West Side story gangs. It was such a weird position to be in so they were more brand new then and the show was about family and home. It wasn’t even a beast then but you knew Hamilton was a beast once that first opening number started sounding.
“It was their first Broadway show, it was my second. I got called back to do this show and initially, the creative process off-Broadway was amazing. In short, from a very early jump, we were only supposed to do off-Broadway for three months and we got extended another three months. Now within that first three months, we were doing the show at the Public Theater, downtown by NYU, it was only like a 300 seat theater but we were sold out every night and we had celebrities come in within the first month or two.
“Then more celebrities were coming so we knew the show was going to be a hit and I had a great experience off-Broadway because it was an intimate theater, you’re getting close to your castmates; you’re building something. We weren’t financially getting the same respect that we were giving. So much so that we all had to dip into our savings and I had come out of there in the red not even in the green or at even…”