BWW Interview: Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee & The Starry History of Tony-Winning Paper Mill Playhouse
Yes, there was originally a paper mill built on the riverside spot where Millburn, New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse now stands. Samuel Campbell's Thistle Paper Mill opened for business in 1795.
A new mill was built after an 1860 fire destroyed the first building, and ownership changed hands several times until 1934, when socialite Antoinette Scudder and actor Frank Carrington saw the then-abandoned workplace as a perfect home for a local theatre.
Gregorio Martínez Sierra's asylum-set drama, THE KINGDOM OF GOD, which had premiered on Broadway ten years earlier, christened the space in 1938.
At first, the plays were the things at Paper Mill, as Scudder and Carrington stuck with straight drama and comedy. But their first musical offering proved so popular that they started filling new seasons with operettas and musical comedies.
At the conclusion of World War II, Millburn's close proximity to New York, literally 45 minutes from Broadway when the traffic is light, made Paper Mill an attractive place for some of the biggest stars of the stage to work, since they could easily travel to the theatre from Manhattan.
Tallulah Bankhead, Vivian Vance, Gloria Swanson, Carol Channing, Bert Lahr, Beatrice Lillie, Helen Hayes, Claudette Colbert, Eve Arden and Jean Stapleton were among the luminaries to be enjoyed at Paper Mill during those early years.
Bernadette Peters reprised her performance as Ruby in DAMES AT SEA. Chita Rivera played Reno Sweeney in ANYTHING GOES. Liza Minnelli starred in CARNIVAL!. Betty Buckley played Rose to Deborah Gibson's Louise in GYPSY. Laura Benanti earned her Equity Card in MAN OF LA MANCHA and Kristin Chenoweth made her professional debut in ANIMAL CRACKERS.
The company's most star-studded production came in 1998, when the cast of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's FOLLIES included Ann Miller, Donna McKechnie, Phyllis Newman, Liliane Montevecchi, Eddie Bracken, Donald Saddler, Kaye Ballard, Tony Roberts and Dee Hoty.
Paper Mill's educational programs have boosted the careers of an impressive list of alumni, including LES MISERABLES' Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway, THE BOOK OF MORMAN's Tony-winner Nikki M. James, CHAPLIN's Tony Nominee and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS star Rob McClure, SPRING AWAKENING's Ali Stroker, the first wheelchair-user to play a role on Broadway and "Dorothy" from NBC's national telecast of THE WIZ: LIVE!, Shanice Williams.
There were also setbacks. A 1980 fire burned down the entire building, but a 1,200 seat theatre was soon built in its place. Growing financial troubles led to a 2007 campaign to keep the theatre from closing its doors for good.
The Producing Artistic Director who helped Paper Mill get through that last crisis was a Broadway gypsy turned director/choreographer and eventually arts administrator, Mark S. Hoebee.
He was the one who received a message this past April 29th, saying that The Broadway League's President, Charlotte St. Martin, had something important to discuss with him. Could it be that this year's Regional Theatre Tony Award was going to Paper Mill?
"Given the season I thought, 'Why else would she be calling me?'", says Hoebee, "but I didn't want to count my chickens before they were hatched. I was thrilled to call back and get the news from her. I felt like a little kid on Christmas morning, jumping up and down, screaming up and down the hallway."
He couldn't scream about it too loudly though, because he received the news on a Friday and the official announcement wasn't to be made until the following Monday.
"It's the highest honor that any regional theatre can receive. To be recognized this way by the New York community is not only thrilling, but it's incredible encouragement for the work that we're currently doing. Not just on our mainstage but with our education department and our outreach access programs."
Hoebee made his Broadway debut in JEROME ROBBINS' BROADWAY and served as dance captain for NICK & NORA and VICTOR/VICTORIA.
"I started out with two careers at just about the same time. When I graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago I set out to be a dancer, but I also had gained experience as a choreographer so I began working as a dancer on Broadway and in national tours, but also supplementing that with choreographing, which eventually led to directing and choreographing in Chicago. I didn't plan it but both careers developed concurrently until I started leaning towards directing and choreographing as a full time opportunity."
That opportunity led him to Paper Mill where he directed DREAMGIRLS in 1990 and did several more shows as a visiting freelance guest director. Then, in 2000, the New Jersey company approached him with a life-changing opportunity.
"I was going to back and teach at Northwestern, but at the same moment Paper Mill offered me a job on staff. So I because associate artistic director. I never really thought about being an artistic administrator until I came here but it became my second home. Eventually I went to Producing Artistic Director. I was trained on the job and thrown into the fire by 'The Crisis.'"
Hoebee says the 2007 financial crisis was the result of an artistic vision that preceded his administration.
"Paper Mill had set the bar during the 1980s and early 90s with lavish, huge revivals, but we couldn't financially sustain that. We didn't change with the times and couldn't support that artistic model. When I came on board, Paper Mill was searching for a new identity. The audience was changing and New York had changed, but we were able to set the company into a new artistic direction."
That new artistic direction was partially based on appealing to potential audience members just like him.
"I had just moved to Maplewood, the town right next door. My partner and I had adopted a little boy. We were urban transplants in our 40s living in the suburbs. Someone who has moved from New York, has a sophisticated theatrical sense and wants to start a family out here in New Jersey. We were the audience Paper Mill was seeking so that's how the programming started to change."
"We became more family-centric and future-generational, looking for both revivals and new works."
The new works have included Broadway transfers like NEWSIES and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS. Paper Mill was also the premiere stop for Cameron Mackintosh's most recent LES MISERABLES tour, which is scheduled to now wrap up its run at Broadway's Imperial Theatre on September 4th.
While there's always the possibility of a new musical seen at Paper Mill transferring to Broadway, the theatre business is, as always, an unpredictable one. THE BANDSTAND, which opened the theatre's current season, is expected to hit New York soon, but two projects from last season, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and EVER AFTER, don't seem headed to Times Square in the near future.
"Being this close to Broadway is both a blessing and a curse," says Hoebee. "You get incredible talent both onstage and on the creative side because people in Manhattan can live at home and easily come out here to work. But for a long time Paper Mill was not seen as a place to try out a new show because it was too close to New York. That attitude has changed."
As Producing Artistic Directory, choosing what shows to do every season is, of course, the most vital decision to be made.
"There are several different factions of audiences at Paper Mill that we try to please. There are the older subscribers who have been with us for many years. There are urban transplants in their 40s who are looking for new product, but nothing too edgy. If they want edgy theatre they'll go to Manhattan. And then there's the family audience that has either moved out of New York to start a family or who grew up in New Jersey and are now raising kids, looking for entertainment options."
"So I look at these different factions over the course of a five-show season and try to make sure there are one or two things for each. Sometimes a show can appeal to everybody, sometimes not. You can have a show like PETER PAN, which has sophistication in its writing but is really a family show. Something where you can bring your kids or grandparents can bring their grandkids."
On the other end of that equation is the new musical A BRONX TALE, based on Chazz Palminteri's childhood growing up in a neighborhood run by crime bosses.
"It's not going to appeal to everyone" says Hoebee, "but can still be quite successful."
Paper Mill's recent seasons have been combinations of self-produced shows, co-productions with other regional theatres and hosting productions in commercial development.
"It's a crazy matrix and puzzle that every year looks completely impossible to do and yet somehow comes together. It's the reason I don't sleep between the months of November and February. November is when we really start talking about what's going to happen the following season and February is when we make the announcement."
"Commercial productions are the ones that are the most exciting but also the ones we have the least control over because we don't have the rights to them. The commercial producers do. We try to provide the most supportive environment."
Hoebee would like to have Paper Mill return to producing six show a season, instead of the current five. Other future plans include a program to commission new shows and to expand the educational programs to involve more children with physical challenges.
In the more immediate future, he's looking forward to enjoying the run of Paper Mill's WEST SIDE STORY; a production he directed that just opened on Sunday. It's a show he had planned on mounting much earlier, but this was a case where Paper Mill's location proved to be a disadvantage.
"We're so close to New York that we get closed out for the rights to certain revivals. It took us sixteen years to get the rights."