The Diary of a Broadway Merch Manager
By: Melanie Wallace
“Remember, you are meeting people on what is quite literally, for some of them, the best day of their lives.”
This is what I tell my new staff members when they are first starting off with me, to help them understand what they are about to experience. I am the Merchandise Manager of the Hamilton “Philip Tour,” and along with my assistant, we train about a dozen new staff members every 3 to 4 weeks as we move from city to city. Finding a few key terms to help them focus and process their workplace responsibilities for the next few weeks is crucial. In case I already lost you, I tour around the country 24/7/365 – checking my luggage at countless Delta kiosks and racking up Marriott points – with the actors you see on stage belting “he will never be satisfied!” as well as the stagehands you don't see who load in our show from Seattle to Providence.
I grew up as a painfully-predictably-cliched theatre kid, with shiny, happy, naïve dreams of becoming a successful working actor. I never had another thought of what I wanted to do. So, I did what every kid in that scenario does: I forced my parents to pour trillions of dollars into dance and voice lessons growing up, stubbornly refused to consider any alternatives, and plowed ahead to acting school after I graduated high school.
While in college, I started working part-time selling merch for The Lion King on Broadway, as what those in the industry call a “survival job” (a.k.a. just a job. A job to pay for things. Like any other job.). At that time, I still had shiny, happy, albeit misplaced, dreams of somehow becoming a working actor, despite the fact that every acting class, jury performance, voice and speech presentation, movement study, etc. induced such anxiety in me that I was sometimes sure I was having a heart attack, all the while still telling myself that was just what it took to become an actor.
However, somewhere mid-college, the shiny happy actor dreams started to slip away as the reality became a little clearer that maybe this wasn’t actually the life for me. When that realization hit, I had absolutely no net to fall into, or so I thought. I graduated with a degree in acting, a minor in creative writing, a student loan debt bigger than Jeff Bezos’s savings account, and absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with any of it. (Except the debt. I definitely knew I wanted to throw that mess out.) My thought process was: well, I’m already here (in New York City, where so many young people spend their lives dreaming to come and most never get the opportunity), and I already have this job I just fell into that I don’t hate (a luxury so many people never even achieve in their lifetimes), so I guess I might as well stay.
It wasn’t until two years later that I fully started to realize how lucky I was to have tripped, skidded, rolled down a hill, and landed where I was. I had stayed in my job selling merch and had been promoted twice. I suddenly had a staff who reported to me. A staff that I (with the help of my coworkers) hired, trained, and taught not only how to count cash and fold t-shirts, but also, more importantly, how to enhance the experience of every patron coming to the performance.
On an otherwise ordinary Tuesday afternoon, I was with a coworker brainstorming a project we were working on for a staff seminar. We had met at one of our mutual workplaces, the Nederlander Theatre, to hash out the details of our project, and as I sat on the floor of the mezzanine lobby, I looked up and realized I was sitting in the spot I had stood years and years before as I bought my first piece of Broadway merchandise (a “no day but today” t-shirt when Rent was playing there, obviously). But this time, I wasn’t there as a patron. I got to walk through the stage door (past the infamous signature wall I had read about my entire adolescence), say hello to all of the theatre staff as I passed through the orchestra and to our office upstairs, and then put my head down and go to work.
It took a long time for me to recognize that it was okay to abandon my shiny happy dreams of being a working actor in order to embrace a much better reality for me instead: I found a career path that played on my strengths of critical thinking, attention to detail, organization, customer service, communication skills, patience, ability passion for teaching and growing staff, and genuine joy in meeting people coming to see a show they love on the best day of their lives. To top it all off, I get to do all of this while still being surrounded by the beautifully rich and warm theatre community, which is possibly all that I wanted from the beginning.
Since that trip, skid, roll-down-a-hill moment, I have worked on 4 Broadway shows, opened a world premier show out of town (Frozen), toured around the country with 3 giant musicals (Beauty & the Beast, The Lion King, and Hamilton), met some of the most interesting, hard-working, and loyal friends and coworkers anyone could be lucky enough to have, and not once had to select 16 bars to sing in front of strangers, except at karaoke. I couldn’t be more grateful to have abandoned my shiny happy actor dreams for something that suited me much better, and if I had one wish, it would only be that someone had told me sooner that that was okay.
And now that I feel like Oprah dispensing the wisdom of life, I will go back to folding t-shirts in the Orpheum lobby in Minneapolis, which is, coincidentally, both shiny and happy.