At 15, Mark Hoebee fell in love with musicals. A friend asked if he’d join her on a school trip from Princeton, N.J., to New York City to see a production of A Chorus Line at the iconic Shubert Theatre on Broadway.
Hoebee wasn’t overly enthused about the trip — a gifted gymnast, he had recently torn the meniscus in his right knee, ending his dream to compete in the 1980 Olympics — but he decided to tag along nonetheless.
During the performance, he sat transfixed in the balcony, near the last row, and from that lofty vantage point his life turned inexorably toward dancing and musical theater.
“That night, watching that show,” Hoebee ’82 says, “I remember thinking, ‘This is the life I want to lead. These are the people I want to be with.’ I didn’t want to be a star; I didn’t care about that. I just wanted to be a dancer in the ensemble of a Broadway show.”
Eventually, after years of study and training — including four years in Northwestern’s celebrated theater program — he got his wish: At age 28, he finally danced on the Great White Way, appearing in a production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. By the time he hung up his dancing shoes eight years later, he had done “about 10 Broadway shows and national tours.” Subsequently, he enjoyed a successful career as a choreographer and director of musicals before joining the Paper Mill Playhouse as its associate director in 2000.
Founded in 1938, Paper Mill Playhouse is a nationally renowned regional theater in Millburn, N.J., situated on four acres of property once home to a functioning paper mill “famous for making toilet paper for Queen Victoria,” Hoebee notes. When Hoebee’s tenure at the Playhouse began 23 years ago, Paper Mill’s longstanding mission to preserve and redefine classic musical theater aligned perfectly with his own passion for musicals, both classic and new. Still does.
As Paper Mill’s producing artistic director, Hoebee manages a staff of about 50 full-time employees and leads an artistic department that includes two fellow Northwestern alums — associate artistic director Jen Bender ’01 and associate producer Christopher Slavik ’00. Hoebee and his team put on five productions per season, almost all of them full-blown musicals.
“Our stage is comparable in size to a stage in a Broadway house,” Hoebee says. “The scale and scope of what we produce is the same size as a Broadway show. In fact, many of the designers, actors and creatives who work in New York also work at Paper Mill, because we’re just 17 or 18 miles outside of Manhattan.”
A nonprofit enterprise now in its 85th season, the Playhouse is renowned for its stellar productions and the countless theater and film stars who have appeared in them — including Northwestern luminaries Donna English ’84, Jeff Blumenkrantz ’86 and Kate Baldwin ’97. Under Hoebee’s direction, Paper Mill has staged five musicals that have gone on to successful runs on Broadway, and it has launched several other productions on national tours. The Playhouse recently premiered the new version of Disney's Hercules, the theater’s fourth new musical collaboration with Disney Theatrical Productions and composer Alan Menken.
Each year the Paper Mill Playhouse draws nearly a quarter-million visitors, and it’s known for its educational programs that reach more than 35,000 students annually.
Still, the institution hasn’t been spared serious problems. In 1980 the original theater burnt to the ground, prompting the construction of a larger theater that opened in 1982. In 2007 a confluence of factors led to Paper Mill falling $4.5 million into debt and nearly going out of business. In response, Hoebee fashioned a communications strategy that essentially appealed to the people and businesses of Millburn for assistance. The township answered the call, ultimately purchasing the property on which the theater stands for $9 million, which allowed Paper Mill to pay its bills and move forward on solid financial ground.
In 2016 Paper Mill was granted the prestigious Regional Theatre Tony Award. “That award shined a spotlight on all of the work that our entire organization had done since 2007,” Hoebee says. “And it wasn’t just for what happened on the main stage; it was also for all the service we’ve done for the community. For me, it was sort of a gold star that said we made it — that not only did we survive the crisis but we ascended to a place where our peers recognized the work we did. It chokes me up to think about it.”
Looking back, Hoebee says that Northwestern prepared him for the richly rewarding career he continues to enjoy. “Everything I learned at Northwestern helped shaped me into the person I am today,” he says. “I learned how to build relationships, both professional and personal. I learned the strict discipline and dedication it takes to have a career in the arts. It ain’t easy. There is so much rejection, self-doubt, disappointment, hard work, long hours, missed holidays, lonely nights in hotel rooms on the road. It really takes a complete immersion in the life in order to survive, let alone succeed. I really feel like my time at Northwestern set me up for that.”
Those thoughts are largely echoed by Hoebee’s Wildcat associates in the artistic department. “Being at Northwestern taught me how to juggle a lot of different projects at once and wear a lot of different hats while doing it,” says Bender, who directed and developed new musicals for 20 years before arriving at the Playhouse. “At Paper Mill, we are always working on multiple shows simultaneously and all of that practice spinning plates comes in handy every day.”
Slavik, who found “an unexpected but truly fulfilling artistic niche” at Northwestern when he joined the University’s Mime Company, says that he, Bender and Hoebee “enjoy reminiscing about the campus, classes we took, a show Mark was in or people we knew there. And if one of us happens to wear purple, inevitably you’ll hear ‘Go ’Cats!’ and see claws go up.”
David Pulizzi ’95 MS is a freelance writer in Williamsport, Pa.