Penn State

Penn State grad peels back curtain on social media, Broadway’s ‘Hamilton’

Penn State alumnus Mike Karns speaks about his experience working with the Broadway musical Hamilton on Sunday, at Carnegie Building on campus.
Penn State alumnus Mike Karns speaks about his experience working with the Broadway musical Hamilton on Sunday, at Carnegie Building on campus. psheehan@centredaily.com

Moments before resuming the role of Aaron Burr in Broadway’s “Hamilton” in February, Leslie Odom Jr. handed his phone to a gangly twentysomething standing just off stage.

Before going on, Odom Jr., who won a Tony for his portrayal of the Founding Father’s rival, had performed for another audience, one not inside the famed Richard Rodgers Theatre. Instead, he had played himself in the show’s first Facebook Live. It was, for the nearly 82,000 viewers who have since watched it, a hit.

If you’re looking for a mind at work, look no further than Mike Karns.

“Even if you were in the theater, you wouldn’t have been able to have that cool experience,” he said. “I want to give you an experience where you feel as though you can’t put a price tag on it.”

Since graduating from Penn State five years ago, the former stage management and lighting design major has since found the spotlight on himself as the social media maven behind “Hamilton,” the cultural zeitgeist of a musical that has inspired a book, a documentary and enough fan videos to break the internet.

The latter is where Karns comes in. Peeling back the curtain is his specialty, with insights as creative as 360-degree videos of the cast to the popular “#Ham4Ham” series ranging from W. 46th St. in New York to the White House.

His company, Marathon Live Entertainment, is barely three years old. But being the part-raconteur, part-impresario behind “Hamilton’s” social media presence is a good ice-breaker in Broadway circles. Already, his company has worked with stars the likes of Odom Jr., Lea Salonga, George Takei and Sting.

On Sunday, as part of Penn State’s Global Entrepreneurship Week, Karns advised students on how to market their brand in the age of social media — and with a little luck, find similar success.

“I think you’ve just got to hustle,” he told a group gathered in the Carnegie Building. “Hustle over everything.”

When he landed “Hamilton,” Karns was still working out of his backpack. The bespectacled 27-year-old looks like the lead singer of a hip indie band or the go-getter for a tech startup. As social media manager for the show, he’s a bit of both, weaving creative ideas with the ability to “make it rain” — or millennial parlance for bringing in revenue.

It’s a language companies depend on him to translate. Fortunately for them, he’s well-versed.

“I think that it is expected of me: I’m the young dude who comes in and crushes your social media,” he said. “That’s the brand I’ve created for myself and that’s why people hire me. (Producers) want their son’s best friend to come in and run their social media. That’s me.”

He can’t rap, however. He said he leaves that to the pros.

Alicia Campbell, who attended a smaller session where Karns dispensed one-on-one advice, said seeing someone relatable yet successful in her field was invaluable.

“It’s nice to see how he connected the dots backwards,” said Campbell, who studies theater performance. “I think it’s a great time to be an artist.”

Morgan Kaufman, who also attended the smaller session, agreed. She said Karns, with his experience in the business of Broadway, helped her distill her talents into a presentable package.

“It’s nice to see someone who came from our school do what he’s doing,” she said.

Five years ago, Karns was Kaufman’s age. One internship led to another, and connections forged there have helped him today, he said. Two months ago, for instance, his company was signed to work on the Broadway revival of “Miss Saigon.” Six summers before, he had interned with the company that represented the show.

He hasn’t slowed down since.

“The fact is that it’s a 24-hour business,” he said. “Social media doesn’t stop.”

Kind of like Hamilton himself.

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