Industry Insight - by Cara Joy David
Industry Editor Exclusive: Paper Mill Playhouse - Broadway's Closest Out-of-Town Tryout Home
About ten-and-a-half years ago, Paper Mill Playhouse was in such financial trouble it was on the verge of closing. This season the 2016 Regional Theatre Tony-winning theater is hosting two world premiere musicals and two east coast premieres. How did the turnaround happen?
Established in 1934, Paper Mill always attracted New York stars. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the New Jersey theater became known for big productions of revivals that many New Yorkers would travel to see. New musicals wouldn't have dreamed of premiering there. Its proximity to the Big Apple would likely mean unwanted attention. Plus, longtime Executive Producer Angelo Del Rossi wasn't great about turning over control. But then, in 2003, Del Rossi left and Michael Gennaro, from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, came on board. Gennaro wanted to bring new, riskier works to the house. Except the audience wasn't ready for them and revenues dropped. By late 2006 it was announced Gennaro was leaving. By mid-2007 it appeared that Paper Mill might not be able to complete its season. The non-profit had only $6000 in the bank. The town of Millburn and its residents rallied around the theater and saved it. All that help would have gone to waste though if significant changes weren't made. In 2008, Mark S. Hoebee was promoted to Producing Artistic Director with a mission to transform the organization.
A few years later, Paper Mill landed the world premiere of Disney's NEWSIES, which completely changed the way the theater was perceived. NEWSIES was not supposed to come to Broadway-- Paper Mill was to launch it as a licensing property. However, so many people loved NEWSIES, including The New York Times critic, it seemed a natural move to the Great White Way. And other producers started to think about the benefits of launching a show so close to New York.
"NEWSIES put us on the map in terms of being a place to come," Hoebee said. Hoebee pointed to three main factors that helped allow Paper Mill to become a "go to" premiere spot. First, tryouts have become increasingly expensive. If your actors live in New York City and you tryout at Paper Mill, they get transportation from/to the city but not lodging or a per diem (or at most it is a lower per diem). Therefore Paper Mill can save you money. Second, the idea of going out-of-town to work on a show far from snarky New Yorkers is all but gone thanks to social media. Sure, if you go to a small town you might be able to hide, but you'll also have less of an idea how your piece will fare in a metropolitan world. If you go to any major city, people post on chat boards after your first preview. We see illegal video from Denver, Chicago, Seattle, etc.. Third, the culture of Paper Mill itself has changed, with Hoebee wanting to be more of a partner on projects.
"When you host a world premiere, you have to be able to relinquish some of your control," he explained. "You'll never have the opportunity if you want to maintain total control."
Since NEWSIES, Paper Mill has hosted world premieres of HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, EVER AFTER, BANDSTAND, A BRONX TALE and THE HONEYMOONERS. THE HONEYMOONERS only recently ended its run, so it is too early to know its future. Of the others, all but EVER AFTER transferred to Broadway.
BANDSTAND producer Tom Smedes stated that three different theaters wanted BANDSTAND, but Paper Mill seemed like the best fit. "Mark Hoebee's artistic vision for the piece was in sync with ours and [director/choreographer] Andy Blankenbuehler's," Smedes wrote in an email from South Africa. "Additionally, Andy had worked at Paper Mill so it was like going home. Its proximity to NYC made it very easy for us to cast the actors we wanted as there were no issues about traveling across country and being out of NYC for two months or more. It also allowed us to invite co-producers and investors to view the piece with ease." Smedes noted they were able to make changes based on audience reactions at Paper Mill, but also that the audience reaction was "very similar" at Paper Mill and on Broadway.
Indeed, Hoebee estimated that 60%-65% of his audience travels to Broadway to see shows. "It doesn't feel like the audience eats away at a Broadway audience, but you are getting an audience that is really savvy, that sees a lot of shows," said THE HONEYMOONERS lead producer Jeffrey Finn. THE HONEYMOONERS is part of a season that also includes an old-school revival of ANNIE, the political satire THE OUTSIDER, the world premiere of the musical THE STING, and the musical HALF TIME (previously known as GOTTA DANCE).
THE HONEYMOONERS was expected to premiere at Goodspeed Musicals a few seasons back, but, after that production was scuttled, Finn looked for a different venue to host the show's debut. Other theaters were considered, but Paper Mill made the most sense to Finn: "I see the proximity to New York as only a pro. The actors and the teams are so happy to be there. And it is not as if you are allowed to be out of the spotlight anywhere. The world has gotten a lot smaller."
Not everyone is vying for a slot at Paper Mill. One producer I spoke to opted to premiere his show on the West Coast because, even with the pro-NJ financial incentives discussed above, his show simply got a better deal at another house. His team would have to kick in less enhancement money overall. Producers with edgier material also often don't believe Paper Mill will be an ideal fit. Hoebee noted he still goes after shows that pass for a variety of reasons, including financial and location reasons. After all, as small as the world is, more New Yorkers see a show at Paper Mill than see one at the La Jolla Playhouse. A show with bad reviews far out-of-town often faces different critics in New York; a show trying out in Paper Mill generally faces New York critics. That scares some producers.
Dori Berinstein, who, with Bill Damaschke, is bringing the musical HALF TIME to Paper Mill this spring, is not at all worried. "We think the show is in excellent shape and we're happy for people to talk about it," she said.
HALF TIME, which is set in New Jersey, is coming to Paper Mill after a 2015 Chicago tryout at a commercial house now known as the PrivateBank Theater. Usually shows go from non-profit to commercial, but HALF TIME is taking a different path. The producers decided to have a second tryout after the housing shortage prevented it from moving in directly from Chicago. Damaschke explained they learned a lot from Chicago but thought they would use the extra time to further work on the show. Some work is better done in the theater, as opposed to a lab or workshop.
"Paper Mill has been emerging as a wonderful place to do work," Damaschke stated. "They have producing expertise and a very similar market to the Broadway market. It's a perfect place for us."