Walking down the center aisle at the Paper Mill Playhouse, it is easy to feel the contagious buzz of excitement while scanning the sea of audience members for your empty red velvet chairs. After finding them, there is nothing more embarrassing than forcing every person in the row to stand—repeatedly saying thank you and avoiding eye contact—while shuffling by. Finally, you can sink into your plush, but snug, chair and relax. While flipping through the playbill before the show, it is hard to not think about the stars that have stood on this very stage in Millburn, New Jersey before appearing on Broadway. As the heavy red velvet curtains peel apart on stage, music from the orchestra fills the air and the lights slowly dim. It is time for the show to begin.
This is what Saturday nights at Paper Mill Playhouse used to look like. But, the venue has remained empty for the past year due to the pandemic. While Paper Mill was able to produce virtual performances and outdoor events for the better part of 2021, social distancing has prevented audiences from gathering in person. However, this fall, that is all about to change. As Broadway opens up again this September, New Jersey’s own Paper Mill Playhouse is finally bringing live music and theater back to their stage.
Paper Mill Playhouse’s Beginning
For more than 80 years, Paper Mill Playhouse has been entertaining New Jersey locals and visitors with Broadway and world-renowned productions. According to their website, the regional theater has been committed to “enriching, entertaining and inspiring audiences” ever since its founding.
It all started in 1795 when a man named Samuel Campbell opened The Thistle Paper Mill at the Paper Mill Playhouse’s current location. After burning down in a fire and being rebuilt in the 1860s, the paper mill was purchased by Antoinette Scudder in 1934, who turned it into a permanent theater house for performing arts.
In 1938, Paper Mill Playhouse officially opened its doors with a play called “The Kingdom of God”. This production was just the beginning of the theater’s success. Over the next few years, Paper Mill would host 16 more plays, the first New Jersey Theater Festival, and create a theater school. Throughout the ‘60s, opérettes, musicals, and new plays were introduced to the theater as stars came to perform for their audience.
By the 70s, the Paper Mill produced over 145 shows. The Governor of New Jersey, William Cahill, deemed Paper Mill Playhouse the “State Theater of New Jersey”. Unfortunately, only a few years later, a fire caused the theater to burn down once again. With the help of the local community, the theater came back better than ever in 1982. Paper Mill Playhouse founded its Education Department and produced hundreds of star shows.
The Theater Today
From the ‘90s to present day, Paper Mill Playhouse has only continued to grow in esteem. The theater has been home to a number of popular stars including Anne Hathaway, Shanice Williams, Robert McClure and many more. It also has produced classics and new musicals that would go on to be critically acclaimed on Broadway such as “Newsies,” “A Bronx Tale,””The Bandstand: and more. In 2016, Paper Mill Playhouse’s successful show season even won the 2016 Regional Theatre Tony Award!
“We’re the largest producing theatre in the state, and have exported a huge amount of art across the country, you know, shows to New York and nationally and into the world,” says Mark Hoebee, Artistic Producing Director at Paper Mill. “We’ve launched world premieres, we have some more coming up and it’s just an exciting place to be.”
COVID-19’s Impact on the Theater
On March 13, 2020 everything changed. At the time, Hoebee said everyone was in rehearsal in NYC for the show Sister Act.” As cases soared in New Jersey, the Paper Mill Playhouse had no other choice but to cancel their world premiere of “The Wanderer “and all productions for the foreseeable future.
While things felt grim, Paper Mill had survived challenges in the past with the support of the Millburn and New Jersey community—and COVID-19 was no exception. Paper Mill quickly switched everything, from classes to performances, to an online format. This way, they could still connect with their patrons and donors.
Through virtual education, they now reach students in 13 states outside of NJ and even in Canada, according to Hoebee. In the fall of 2020, Paper Mill was able to put on a virtual season of shows in collaboration with other theaters and their own productions by streaming them to their page. Hoebee also hosted an interview series called Babbling by the Brook and events for donors.
Once outdoor dining was allowed in the summer of 2020, Paper Mill opened up their restaurant for customers to enjoy the patio space, even though the theater remained closed. They started up cabaret nights that quickly became popular and are still hosted today. Hoebee says that even some of their cabaret sold out!
“I have to say, people were very generous. Our donors came through, our ticket holders. There was a lot of great fundraising that happened,” Hoebee says. With the help of donations from the local community and government aid, Paper Mill survived once again. This made their 2021-2022 season possible.
The Reopening of Paper Mill Playhouse
At long last, October will mark the official start of the in-person 2021-2022 Season at Paper Mill Playhouse that New Jersey theater lovers have long anticipated. The line-up of five new shows spans from this coming fall through summer 2022, and Paper Mill is excited to welcome audiences back to enjoy music and dance back to their stage.
Hoebee assures they are being cautiously optimistic but definitely plan on reopening. He says, “We’re going to be as safe as humanly possible and respect all health and CDC guidelines and recommendations by the governor in the States.”
As of July 30, 2021, the theater is enforcing reopening guidelines in order to keep all its patrons safe from the spread of the virus. According to Paper Mill, they plan to clean and disinfect before performances and offer contactless transactions. In addition, they’ll have a flexible ticket policy for individuals to cancel if they are not feeling well and require all staff to be vaccinated. Everyone who enters the theater is still encouraged to wear a mask.
“We have to safely guard people’s health, but we have to get back to living,” Hoebee says. “There’s, to me, no more alive moment than being in the theater watching someone perform, dance, and, you know, do all those things we love to experience that only happened in live performance.”
Paper Mill Playhouse’s 2021-2022 Season
After a long year and wait, these are the shows that will be bringing life back to Paper Mill Playhouse for the 2021-2022 Season!
Songs for a New World
October 13 to November 7, 2021
“Songs for a New World” was Jason Robert Brown’s—Tony Award winner and composer—very first musical theater masterpiece. Brown brings his audience throughout time, from the deck of a Spanish ship in 1492 to Fifth Avenue. Songs for a New World tell the powerful stories of various characters’ lives, loves, and important decisions. Directed by Mark S. Hoebee.
Hoebee indicates that he is very excited about directing this production. It is a perfect show to start the season off with. “It’s a wonderful collection of songs about people on the brink of life-changing moments, which I think we’re all living in right now.”
A Jolly Holiday with Disney on Broadway
December 1, 2021 to January 2, 2022
This family-friendly musical is perfect for a night out with the kids. “A Jolly Holiday with Disney on Broadway” brings together Disney stars for a holiday celebration Audience members can expect songs from their favorite Disney musicals such as “The Lion King,” “Mary Poppins,” “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “High School Musical,” “Frozen,” and more. Directed by Casey Hushion.
January 26 to February 20, 2022
After being postponed in the fall of 2020 due to COVID-19, “Clue” is finally appearing on the Paper Mill stage. This thrilling show is based on the 1985 Paramount and is all about mystery, murder, and humor. Wanna know who’s the killer? You’ll just have to come see to find out! Directed by Casey Hushion.
March 24 to April 24, 2022
“The Wanderer” is also returning to Paper Mill after postponing its world premiere during the Spring 2020 season. Based on the life and music of Dion DiMucci, this musical highlights the struggles he went through on his rise to fame in rock’n’roll. From a kid in the Bronx to a celebrity, this show truly depicts DiMucci’s human spirit. According to Paper Mill, “The Wanderer” will star Michael Wartella (“Chasing Rainbows”) as Dion, Christy Altomare (“Anastasia”), and Joey McIntyre (“Wicked,” “Waitress,” “New Kids on the Block”). Choreographed by Sarah O’Gleby and directed by Emmy nominated producer and director Kenneth Ferrone.
June 1 to 26, 2022
Last, but not least, “Sister Act” will also be coming out of postponement from Spring 2020. This light-hearted musical comedy is bound to make you laugh. The popular show features music by Alan Menken—Tony and Oscar winner—who was nominated for five Tonys, including Best Musical. According to Paper Mill, it will be choreographed by Janet Rothermel and directed by Steven Beckler.
Hoebee says that Paper Mill can’t wait to have audiences return. The staff, the board of trustees, the crew, volunteers, patrons, donors, ticket-buyers, subscribers, students and the whole community helped this theater at a time when it needed support. “All of those people are responsible for helping keep the theater afloat,” Hoebee says. “We want to celebrate by bringing them back and making them feel happy and safe.”
Main image courtesy of Paper Mill Playhouse