MILLBURN, NJ - The curtain has opened for the Paper Mill Playhouse's 2015-2016 season.
According to Shayne Austin Miller, director of Press and Public Relations, the season will feature five musicals and two world premieres. Kicking off the season will be the world premiere of the musical The Bandstand, a big-band swing musical with an original score and the story of a mismatched band of WWII veterans who join together to compete in a national radio contest. Music is by Richard Oberacker, books and lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker, and directed by Tony Award-winner Andy Blankenbuehler. The show will run from Oct. 8 through Nov. 8.
It will be followed by A Christmas Story, The Musical, the Broadway take on the classic 1983 movie about Ralphie’s quest to ensure that he receives the perfect Christmas gift. The book is by Joseph Robinette with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The show will run from Nov. 25 through Jan. 3, 2016.
The world premiere of A Bronx Tale will run from Feb. 4 through March 6. It is described as a “new musical about the old neighborhood.” Written by Chazz Palminteri and based on a one-man show, Bronx Tale is “set against the backdrop of racial strife and organized crime in the 1960s.” The music is by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, choreography by Sergio Truillo, and directed by Robert DeNiro and Jerry Zaks. From April 6 through May 1 will be Pump Boys and Dinettes, the Tony award-nominated Broadway musical about a Southern gas station and next door diner which is “a celebration of life, love, Dolly Parton, and catfish.” The book, lyrics and music are by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra, Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann. The season will conclude with West Side Story, “the stunning, groundbreaking and legendary musical that set the bar for all musical theater!” The show is based on a conception of Jerome Robbins, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The show will be directed by Mark S. Hoebbe, the Paper Mill Playhouse Producing Artistic Director. West Side Story will run from June 1 through June 26.
Shayne Austin Miller has been the Director of Press and Public Relationships at the Paper Mill Playhouse for twelve years. During his student years at Kean University, he took a one-year sabbatical to participate in a human rights campaign and then worked as press secretary for Jay Inslee, then running for Congress and now governor of the state of Washington. Miller returned to Kean with a growing interest in theater and became involved with doing press for N.J. PAC.
The Playhouse employs a full-time staff of 60, but over the season, as many as 1000 people work there on the various shows. Residents of 42 states enjoy the shows at the Playhouse. The building is the same structure that from 1874 to the 1920s was used as a paper mill. Miller relates the key historical fact that the mill manufactured the toilet paper used by Queen Victoria.
In addition to Miller’s role as the public face of the Paper Mill, he runs the Paper Mill Broadway Show Choir, an audition-based exhibition choir. The choir consists of 60 students, aged 16 to 22, many of whom are from Millburn and its surrounding towns. Auditions are in October and the season runs from April to June. The choir is sponsored by Overlook Hospital. The group has participated in, among other venues, the New Jersey Pride Parade in Asbury Park, Walk-for-a- Cure, and at Lincoln Center.
The Show Choir is one of several programs in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s award-winning Arts Education and Outreach Program. Its Professional Training Programs offer classes in singing, acting, auditioning, and dance, as well as a series of guest artist workshops led by professional actors, directors, and casting agents. Both audition-based, there is a five-week summer Musical Conservatory and a three-week August Musical Theater Intensive. Among other featured performers in the Conservatory has been Academy award winner and Millburn High School graduate Anne Hathaway.
Miller is very proud of the Paper Mill’s Lend Your Voice project, part of its Theater for Everyone initiative. The Lend Your Voice project is a program in which students record lines for a play to be performed by non-verbal and/or developmentally challenged students at the Horizon School in Livingston. The Paper Mill also produces sensory-friendly shows in which the environment is adapted so students on the autism spectrum may enjoy performances.
Miller recited a bit of the Paper Mill’s recent history. In 2007 and 2008, around the time of the financial crisis, the theater faced a “perfect storm.” Subscriptions were down and bridge loans were due and the Paper Mill had a $3 million shortfall. The current sponsor, Investor’s Bank, provided a bridge loan to get the theater through the season. The Playhouse then entered a partnership with Millburn Township whereby Millburn bought the property for $9.5 million and leased it back to the theater at a rate based on the theater’s income. Miller explains that this created a situation in which the township and the Playhouse are invested in each other. It was the first time in the country that a community of Millburn’s size invested in an arts organization. Miller states that the Paper Mill enjoys the largest growth of any regional theater in the country. It has an annual budget of $15 million, with each production costing approximately $2 million. In the past three years, the Paper Mill has enjoyed a surplus, the result of programming, marketing, and its connection to the community. It is now perceived as the “theater at the bottom of the hill.”
Several shows that premiered at the Paper Mill have gone on to Broadway and/or national tours. These include Newsies and Honeymoon in Las Vegas. There are benefits and drawbacks to being so geographically close to Broadway. Its proximity means that actors, behind-the-scene personnel as well as props and costume and scenery shops are easily accessible. However, the biggest challenge to the selection of top shows is that New York theater often has first dibs on them. For example, the Paper Mill has been trying to acquire West Side Story since 1998 and will finally put it on this season. One big benefit to being an incubator for successful new shows it that the Paper Mill thereafter gets a “piece of the pie” and when the show does go to Broadway or on tour, this provides a revenue stream to the Paper Mill.
Miller is naturally a huge fan of musical theater and proclaims it is “the most collaborative art form. It features music, dance, orchestra, acting, painting, visual arts and brings them all together”