It’s hard to find someone today who has not heard of Broadway’s “Hamilton,” the white-hot hip hop musical that will be up for 16 Tony Awards on June 12. And the buzz is due in part to the efforts of two Penn Staters: Mike Karns (’11 B.F.A. Stage Management), social media manager for the show, and Sam Rudy (’76 B.A. English), the show’s publicist.
Karns is founder and CEO of Marathon Live Entertainment, a producing and social media marketing company. He had previously worked with Jeffrey Seller, lead producer of “Hamilton,” who asked if he would join the team for the new musical. Karns has quickly established himself as a mover and shaker in the theater industry, serving as co-producer for shows like “The Great Comet” and “Allegiance,” which starred George Takei, social media celebrity and one of Karns’ clients.
Rudy, founder of Sam Rudy Media Relations, had also previously worked with Seller, and said he was “thrilled” when he tapped him to serve as press rep for “Hamilton.” “It has been a singular experience in my 35-year career on Broadway,” he noted.
“Hamilton,” created by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, is about America’s first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. While the subject may seem an unlikely one for a Broadway musical, the show has reeled in millions of fans. “What I love most about working on ‘Hamilton’ is our ability to connect with many new fans of theater,” said Karns. “People who never dreamed of going to a musical are now riding with ‘Guns and Ships’ blasting in their car rather than the newest Drake track.”
According to Karns, the biggest challenge in promoting “Hamilton” on social media is sharing the team’s excitement without seeming overly confident. “My work is a balancing act of trying to bring these fans along for the ride while not appearing to be bragging about these amazing things that are happening for the show.”
In addition to the 16 Tony nods—including Best Musical—this year “Hamilton” has won the Drama League Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. In March, the cast performed at the White House.
“I sat in the East Room of the White House and watched as President Obama cried while Chris Jackson, who plays George Washington, sang ‘One Last Time,’ about Washington's farewell address,” said Karns. “A musical did that. I feel so unbelievably humbled to be a very, very small part of that revolution.”
Karns said his job is not only to promote the show through social media, but to take people “into the action.”
“I’ve learned that social media can serve to decrease the distance between brands and fans,” he said. “There are only 1,300 seats in the Richard Rodgers Theater for each performance, but I have the ability to take you backstage and into the action through social media. I love being that conduit to the people who love the show.”
In addition to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Karns reaches fans through the show’s YouTube channel, which features the popular #Ham4Ham series, videos of special performances put on by Lin-Manuel Miranda for people who wait in line for tickets through the show’s lottery.
Karns credits the Penn State School of Theatre with giving him the confidence to start his own business. “The program demanded excellence and nurtured entrepreneurship for me,” he said, adding he enjoys working with another Penn Stater, even though they never crossed paths as students.
Rudy, a Centre County native, also credits his Penn State education and experiences as laying the groundwork for his career. “I am very Penn State proud and acknowledge that the terrific education I got there—not to mention my first exposure to theater as a member of Penn State Thespians—and the lifelong connections I made in college have informed my life and career beyond measure.”
According to Karns, Rudy was the catalyst for him to get involved in the School of Theatre Alumni Group, where he now serves as president. “When I discovered that Sam was a Penn State alum, it was the first time I realized, wow, there are probably tons of alumni that I don’t even know are out there,” Karns said. “Now I’m working to connect our students as they enter the real world with allies and friends from the Penn State community to help them.”
Karns’ own “real world” experience, he said, has taught him the power of theater. “What I’ve learned more than anything else is the unending impact that transcendent art can have on people.”
Photo, left to right: Sam Rudy and Mike Karns