From Medicine to Musical: How James Seol’s UVA Experience Led Him to the Broadway Stage
In September 2021, UVA grad James Seol (College ‘00) had what anyone might call an unforgettable evening. Except, that is, for the fact that he has very little memory of it.
Seol was making his Broadway musical debut in the cast of the award-winning musical Come From Away, the inspiring story of a group of citizens in Gander, Newfoundland opening their hearts and lives to airline passengers rerouted by the tragedy of 9/11. That would be special enough, but Seol was performing on the show’s first night back to Broadway after a shutdown of more than a year due to COVID.
“What a way to make a musical debut,” Seol marveled. “It was truly a rock concert.” The audience gave its first standing ovation while he and his fellow castmates were still backstage. “They broke out in thunderous applause for the band,” he said, “and they stood for more than a minute when we came out. It felt like they would never stop applauding.” And they didn’t, cheering each time a new character sang a line of the show’s rousing opening number, “Welcome to the Rock,” which Seol had performed with the cast a week prior on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Much of his debut performance, he says, is a blur. “I don’t have a ton of memories of it beyond making sure I was where I need to be and that I brought the props I needed to bring on stage for someone else.” One thing he does remember, though. It was sweaty. Very sweaty. “The amount of flop sweat that went through my undershirt and overshirt…there are other sweaters in the cast, but it just happened that my costume was one where you can really see it.”
Thanks to the magic of YouTube, there is a moment he will never forget – the show’s curtain call. That is when he got “screeched in," a Come From Away tradition that celebrates how the plane passengers were made honorary Newfoundlanders. The tradition is marked by new cast members drinking a shot onstage. “I took a shot of really terrible rum on stage in front of a packed theater on Broadway,” Seol said. “It’s a distinct honor, I think, and an absolute thrill.”
Such a thrill would have been hard for Seol to imagine when he first arrived on grounds at UVA, intending to be a pre-med student and chemistry major. That plan didn’t last long, he said. “I was absolutely miserable.” After thumbing his way through the course catalog, he would eventually find his way to psychology. “My dreams of being an actor were very much in their nascent stages.” The new path would ultimately help him, as he had already accumulated enough credits to allow him a light course load later in his academic career, giving him more chances to get on stage.
"I was very lucky because I worked pretty frequently at UVA, especially in my third and fourth years," he said. Seol appeared in shows including A Chorus Line and Arcadia, and credits professors in the department with a progressive casting approach that was, in many ways, before its time. "I think it was very early in the process of understanding what color-conscious casting was," he said. "We weren't having the conversations we are having now. People like Bob Chapel, Betsy Tucker, and Richard Warner really helped me understand the breadth and depth of what I could do."
His time at Heritage Theatre Festival (then Heritage Repertory Theatre) also helped him understand what he couldn't do so well. After performing in two productions, Seol decided he might want to get a taste for arts administration, and he signed on as company manager the summer heading into his fourth year. "I still apologize to Heritage Business Manager James Scales every time we cross paths. I am quite sure I was the worst company manager they ever had."
After graduation, Warner recommended him for a year-long apprenticeship at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. Then, it was off to Juilliard and a career that has found him on the stages of some of the leading regional theatres in the country. And now, he's arrived at his current "pinch me" moment, working with a company of people he calls "truly the most generous and genuine people I've ever come across." He gets to tell a story of generosity and genuineness in front of large audiences every night.
"I love irony, sarcasm, and a good black comedy," he said, "but I absolutely love the earnestness and the sincerity of this show, and I love that it celebrates a very sincere message in a completely unapologetic way. Here we are, in the middle of a pandemic, in a very polarized country and the world, and we get to tell a story that celebrates this group of people who, without hesitation, did every single thing they could to help complete strangers feel comfortable."
Seol is more than grateful for the opportunity to be part of Broadway's return, and he knows the show can impact audiences even after they leave the theater. "I love that night after night, there is a large group of people in the same room experiencing this story that has a chance to reignite that impulse in all of us to want to help people we don't know."