By Lily Wolfson ’21 and Ryan Pelosky ’21
On September 10, co-founders and co-Editors-in-Chief of The Iris, Lily Wolfson and Ryan Pelosky, sat down with Stacey Mindich, lead producer of Dear Evan Hansen, two-time Tony Award winner, and Grammy Award winner. Mindich began her career as a journalist, working at the New York Times, and at the same time contributing to Vogue, Newsday, Self, Harper’s Bazaar, and Departures. She was also Senior Editor at Town & Country, where she spent most of her journalistic career.
After feeling a need for a “new direction,” Mindich dove into the theater industry, immersing herself in the culture and behind-the-scenes action that brought her to begin producing. She has produced more than ten shows but is most recognized for her lead-production role in Dear Evan Hansen, which won six Tony Awards and is widely recognized as one of the transformative productions of the 21st century.
Mindich is a founding board member of the Lilly Awards, which recognizes extraordinary female work in theater. She is also co-chair of the New York City Center board, serves on the Broadway League’s Board of Governors, and is on the board of The Jimmy Awards, which focuses on musical theater in high schools across the country.
The Iris: When did you become interested in producing and theater?
Stacey Mindich: I was a journalist; I was the editor of my school newspaper, and I was the features editor at my college newspaper. When I graduated from college, I was a working journalist in New York City. I worked for Newsday and the New York Times, and then I moved to magazines. Then, I had three kids, and over the years of mothering them, I was doing more and more from-home freelancing, and by the time my youngest son went to school full time, the industry completely changed. Blogs were happening, and magazines were going more for graphics than for the writing that I was interested in doing, and I was becoming very disillusioned and looking for something else. Then, there was a show that I wanted to see that was facing some issues, and I’d been trying to buy tickets. So, I went to the theater, and the guy at the box office said to me, “Well, it’s probably not going to happen. They don’t have enough money to make this happen.” But I really believed in the show. So, I wrote a very small check, but it was exactly what they needed. And the producers of the show were so clever, and they saw a great sucker where I was standing, and they said, “For this show, go and learn about the industry.” And it was like speaking to a heart that needed some new direction. Not to worry you or anything but, somewhere around your 40s or 50s you may want to change direction, and everything you think you want to do changes, and that happened to me. Anyway, I joined the show as an associate producer, and the first day I got there, and this doesn’t usually happen as associate producers don’t usually go to casting calls or anything like that, but these producers were really kind, and they invited me into auditions. I sat in the back of the room, and I went home that night, and I said to my husband, “It’s like being part of Chorus Line every single day, and I have to find a way to do this.” I thought it was going to be a part-time thing while I finished getting my kids through all their stuff, but I’m not a part-time kind of girl, and I learned the ropes—not by taking a class or anything, but by joining shows, by raising money, and sitting at the table where decisions were made. I was 40 when this happened, so I couldn’t be an intern to make someone coffee in their office; I could, but my husband says my coffee is terrible. It’s hard to do that when you’re 40. It can be done, but it wasn’t me. So, I just decided I would go to these meetings, and I would ask every single person at that table to have coffee or breakfast or drinks with me, and I got taught by the industry. By the time I started producing Dear Evan Hansen, there were very few people left on my bucket list to meet with. I met with producers and actors and writers. I pushed my way in; I used the “I’m the new girl. Please teach me what you know” thing. It was an extraordinary way to get an education and learn something new, and I still do that. I still try to find people to meet, so that I can learn more. You can’t really learn how to produce unless you produce. So, that’s what I did. I co-produced a lot of shows; that means that I was part of a team working on a show. I didn’t make any final decisions, I didn’t initiate the shows, I didn’t come up with the ideas or hire the actors, but I was part of a team. You do some marketing, and you contribute in ways that your talents naturally go towards. I just knew that I wasn’t going to be satisfied co-producing, and I started fairly early on to seek ideas. I also learned that it’s much better to find the talent and let them work on their ideas because you’re a lot more passionate about your own ideas than you are about somebody else’s. And that’s what’s going on in the industry right now. We need more BIPOC people to come in and tell their stories. They have to tell their stories; they have to tell them with passion, and we need to make room for them to do that. That’s one of my goals for when theater comes back. One of the things a producer does is enable people to tell their stories. What I discovered, which is most important, is that I found a natural for journalism and producing. I was an editor of a major national magazine, and my job was to find a story and to pair that story with the right writer, illustrator, photographer, and graphic artist to make that story come together. But before that story met the public, that story met me, and I made sure that the story and the photos and everything were of a cohesive mind and were going to please the audience. That’s theater: it’s finding the right stories and understanding who’s going to come. The difference with the magazine or newspaper is you have readership. I worked at Town & Country; I was a senior editor there for 16 years, and the audience is upscale, wealthy, probably women 35 and up, so you need to think about that. However, for a show to be successful, you need everyone to want to come. So, I learned the hard way: a show that I produced that didn’t do well—although it won some Tonys—was Bridges of Madison County. It was a passion project for me. But, the show was about a woman who had an affair, so automatically, you’re ruling out 50% of the population in your audience because what man wants to go watch a show sitting next to his wife about a woman who has an affair? Yes, there are worlds in which these things work, but it’s much better to think about your audience. That’s what led me to Dear Evan Hansen.
TI: How did Dear Evan Hansen begin? What was the initial idea?
SM: It was an original idea. I decided to pursue Benj Pasek and Justin Paul on my own. I was always looking at young talent. I think it was just more exciting to me than trying to make shows with established Broadway people. The idea of creating something that hadn’t been in the Broadway canon before is still the thing that makes me the happiest. I got to know them and just wanted to work with them. I loved their music, and that was their early work. So, I took them to lunch, and I was going to give them some ideas, but I was older than they were, and when I looked over my list of ideas that I was carrying in my pocketbook, I realized that none of them would excite people in their late 20s. So, instead, I just said to them, “What do you really want to do?” And they told me a story about something that happened to Benj in high school—not quite the story of Dear Evan Hansen at all. A kid in the senior class died from a drug overdose, and Benj felt that everyone that year wrote their college essays about this kid whether they knew him or not. It was like that social media thing where people were just connecting. And it haunted Benj, and he wanted to make a musical about it with Justin, whom he met in college. There I am sitting there, understanding the need for a universal idea, not understanding social media myself at that time—I never was on social media until after the show really got going. And this sounded like a terrible idea: there’s a dead kid, and there’s social media, and who is this show really for? It sounded terrible. The only thing I said was, “Look, if it’s about a boy, if he could have a mother, then I’m interested, because I’m the theater-goer, and I’m the one who buys the tickets. I’m the one who can afford to, I’m the one who brings my family. I’m not just going to buy one ticket; I’m going to buy five or ten for my family. If you can put a mom in there and make this about relationships and multi-generational, I’m in.” And that’s how it all started.
TI: You have sons, and Dear Evan Hansen is very boyhood-centric. Did your experiences with your sons play a part in your contribution to the show?
SM: Somewhat. My boys grew up during the years of readings and workshops. My youngest, Charlie, used to give me notes to give to the writers on Evan and what felt authentic or not. But I think, more importantly, my concept of producing was always based in my concept of motherhood. There are a lot of men who produce big shows, and there aren’t a lot of women, and I just came to this from a more nurturing point of view. Even though I have three companies of Dear Evan Hansen now—although they’re all sadly on hiatus—I’ve never hired an actor that hasn’t come to my office to meet me first. I give the orientations myself. I consider it a business, and it is important that it’s run like a business, but it’s also a family. Theater people are emotional, dramatic, you’re pouring your soul out on stage, crying every night, kissing someone you may not want to kiss every night on stage. You have to provide an emotional support network for these people. I feed all three companies Saturdays during intermission or the national tour every time they get to a city. Some of the things that you do in your family life to me were important to create an atmosphere where people could do their best work. So, to that extent, having children helped me, but I used to stand in the back of the theater when the show was running a couple times a week to watch the beginning or the end of the show, and I would miss the beginning of dinner with my boys, and I would always think, “What am I doing here? I should be with my boys. That’s exactly what the show is telling me—that parents and kids should talk to each other.” But there I was, standing in the back of the theater, so I think it also highlighted for me as a parent how important it is to just be there so that maybe one of them will talk to me, and maybe I’ll learn something, and I can be helpful. I think the adult actors in the show who play the parents also have spoken a lot over the years about being part of this story has really helped us as parents.
TI: How has the pandemic affected broadway?
SM: People use this word about the pandemic in general, and I know it’s overused, but this is unprecedented. Broadway has never had such a long hiatus. It is daunting to think about how many people are out of work and how they can’t even go and be waiters, which is what actors usually do. It’s been six months, and I think it’s going to be a lot longer before we can safely be back in a theater, and it’s scary. We, as a community and as a company, have plans in place to relaunch. It’s going to take money, and it’s going to take a lot of changes in theaters. Even if the pandemic ends at some point, I think the way people attend things is going to change. It’s going to take a long time for someone to feel comfortable sitting right next to someone else who’s sneezing. I also think the Black Lives Matter movement has impacted the Broadway community dramatically. I think a lot of us, myself included, are listening and learning in a way that we never did before, and we all are making commitments to create more equitable shows in every possible way with color blind or color-conscious casting and more BIPOC people in management. We’re trying very hard to create a new pipeline to bring more opportunities to the industry. These things really go hand in hand. I personally have spent a lot of days in the past six months writing reference letters for a lot of my actors to go do other things. Yesterday, someone decided to apply to law school, I’ve got a nutritionist in the works, I’ve got a lot of people going into to teaching, going to business school; it saddens me greatly to write these letters. I hope that these people come back. I have not worked in a very long time, and it’s really deeply sad to think about the fact that Broadway is a ghost town. I cannot wait to see it alive again. I’m literally living for the moment.
TI: Dear Evan Hansen has definitely enjoyed great success. What would you say Dear Evan Hansen has done for Broadway and the industry?
SM: I think we had cousins who started before us in depicting an honest portrayal of modern life. In some ways, Rent and in some ways, Next to Normal, and in some ways, Fun Home, all told stories with music about contemporary issues and about topics that were originally thought to be taboo. And so, if the others hadn’t created a situation where these shows could exist, I don’t know that we would’ve been able to. That said, we were really the first show that dealt with mental illness and the generational divide in such an honest way where a mother and a son butt heads in a very real way, Rachel Bay Jones, who played the first Heidi Hansen, used to talk about going to the stage door to sign autographs after the show, and the young people would be throwing their playbills at her, and the parents would be standing behind the kids saying “thank you, thank you, thank you” for just helping the kids see what a mom might go through in trying to connect with her kid even if it’s in the most uncool way possible. I think that people say that our show helped the generations talk to each other anecdotally and in terms of our research of our ticket buyers. We saw a lot of young people go to the show and bring their parents back, and we saw a lot of parents my age group come on a date night and bring their kids back, and that is always good for Broadway: to have a show that families can see.
TI: How do you feel about Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel? Did you have any oversight on that project?
SM: No. The authors of our show are very talented young men, Benj, Justin, and Steven Levenson, and they saw the impact of the message of Dear Evan Hansen the musical and thought that they might be able to expand the message, so they expanded by writing the novel and with the film as well. For me, the excitement of all of this is live music and live theater. And so, those are separate ventures, but we very happily sell the book at our theater.
TI: What is it like to be a woman in your industry?
SM: I think it’s probably a lot like what it’s like to be a woman in a lot of industries. I’ve had to work incredibly hard to gain respect. No one believed in me, no one believed in Dear Evan Hansen, and no one believed in me producing Dear Evan Hansen. It wasn’t a picnic raising $9 million to make it happen, but it did. Winning a Tony helps, especially since the sole lead producer of the show. I didn’t have a partner, and I had been urged in the early days to find a male partner to help me make it happen, and I really hated that idea, so I did it alone, which was a blessing and a curse. I was also the first female producer to win a Tony without a partner. I hope that’s helped a lot of other female producers. I think it’s really hard to gain respect on Broadway—not just as a woman. I think new people find it hard to break into Broadway also, and I think the community needs to have a lot more mentoring, and I think that’s something we’re all hoping to do when we come back. The silver lining of sitting out the pandemic is that you do a lot of thinking.
TI: If you were seventeen years old today, what would you tell yourself?
SM: I think I would say no matter how much you plan, there are certain things you can’t control. Be open to it all and try to worry a little less; it’s going to be okay. And believe in yourself. It’s all very corny, isn’t it? But that’s what we old people say, right?