This wasn’t any old coffee mug. It changes color depending upon the temperature of drink — and it bears the logo of Broadway’s hottest new show, “Hadestown.”
Twin Cities arts lovers Jennifer Melin Miller, Frances Wilkinson and Christopher Schout cooed over the mug recently at Miller’s magazine-ready loft overlooking the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. All three are co-producers for “Hadestown,” the buzzy new musical that picked up 14 Tony nominations this year — just two shy of record-holder “Hamilton.” Fresh off the delivery truck, the mug was destined for the gift boxes Miller and company were sending to fellow “Hadestown” investors (other goodies include a branded baseball cap, a magnet and a flask).
“The reality is being a producer is glamorous only on opening night,” Miller said. “But I love the other, more boring parts.”
It takes $8 million to $12 million to bring the typical musical to Broadway. And there’s an organizational chart of those who underwrite the big shows, from passive investors (whose contributions run in the thousands) to executive producers who hire and fire talent (they’re responsible for raising millions).
Miller, Wilkinson and Schout are partners in Stone Arts Theatricals, formed by Miller in 2016. They acted as more passive investors in recent Broadway shows such as “Waitress,” “Come From Away” and “Hello, Dolly!” But “Hadestown” marks their first time as co-producers — just one notch below executive producer — giving Stone Arch Theatricals above-the-title billing.
“There are a lot of different reasons to invest in a show, from the magic you feel with the creative team to the producers or an interesting business model,” Miller said. “But at the end of the day, the goal is to make money, which is the driver for commercial theater.”
Falling for the stage
The late Minnesota businessman and James Binger, who once owned five Broadway playhouses, liked to quip that to end up with a million dollars on Broadway, you need to start with $10 million. The Stone Arch Theatrical trio fuels their pursuits with diverse tastes, expertise — and resources. Of course, they hesitated to discuss the specifics of their means. (A fourth partner, Wayne Zink, was involved from the beginning. But he was unavailable for interviews due to back surgery.)
Miller grew up in Eagan, the daughter of an accountant mother and a father who built a successful business as a financial services guru. She acted in a Burnsville High School troupe but had no real talent for the stage. “I was a smiler,” she said with a laugh.
“But nobody knows her way around a spreadsheet like Jennifer,” Schout interjected.
As a youngster, Miller could envision a future only in business. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in business administration, she headed to New York at age 22 for her first job in marketing and media. Evenings and weekends were strictly reserved for the theater.
“I used to live at the TKTS booth,” she said of the Times Square vendor specializing in discount tickets. Her first Broadway show was “Miss Saigon.” “The music, the performances and that helicopter landing onstage?” she remembered. “They had me.”
Miller spent a dozen years in New York — she worked for the New York Times, Time Inc. and Hearst Magazines. Ambitious and driven, she returned to Minnesota in 2006 to earn graduate degrees in business and public affairs. She later picked up a senior post at Minnetonka Moccasins, the privately held footwear company headed by her husband, David Miller, whose family founded the company in 1946.
Wilkinson grew up in Birmingham, Ala., where her father worked in insurance and real estate. She recalled that her parents took kid-free trips to New York, bringing back cast albums from “My Fair Lady” and other shows they saw.
Wilkinson later lived, worked and studied in London, Tokyo and New York. She recalled seeing Christopher Plummer in a 1971 London production of “Danton’s Death” by the renowned director Jonathan Miller. The play is set during the French Revolution, with the Plummer character creating a system to execute people without proof or trial. Eventually, he falls victim to his own method.
“It made my hair stand on my neck,” said Wilkinson, a former Guthrie board member who’s now on the board of New York’s Public Theater. “And if a show does that, that’s a good indication that you might want to run with it.”
Wilkinson and her husband, Frank (a retired reinsurance executive), are known around the Twin Cities as avid arts supporters. She brings business savvy and sharp dramaturgical instincts to the Stone Arch partnership, Miller said. “Frances has a keen eye for the arc of the story.”
A native of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Schout was adopted at age 8 by a middle-class family. His dad owned a market research development firm. “I remember so vividly my parents took me to Fisher Theatre in Detroit to see ‘Annie,’ ” Schout said. “I had just been adopted, so the whole idea of orphans hit home. And at that age, I was fascinated by history, about the Great Depression and the New Deal, and how people were going to live.”
The former graphic designer remembered that “the production had conveyor belts to move the people through the city of New York, and I remember thinking, I’ve got to get to New York someday.”
Now all three Stone Arch partners have lived in the Big Apple, where all have maintained pieds-à-terre. “I would hop on a plane to anywhere to see theater,” Miller said.
Commercial theater is a notoriously high-risk business, with more shows losing money than succeeding. “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” is perhaps the most famous Broadway bomb. Anticipation ran high for the 2011 opening, since the show featured a book by Tony-winning director Julie Taymor and music by Bono and the Edge from U2. But the production lost $60 million, burning producers from coast to coast.
Stone Arch partners have not — they knocked wood — lost anything on that order. But their roster of shows includes “Escape to Margaritaville,” the Jimmy Buffett musical that rode into New York in 2017 with high expectations before receiving savage reviews.
“The most painful part is when it’s not just your loss, but the other people who you’ve brought on board,” Wilkinson said. “Ouch!”
Miller’s own production company, North Star Theatricals, has backed a dozen Broadway shows. Her first investment was 2014’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”
“I had seen it in London and I told David, ‘This is going to be big,’ ” she recalled. “He wasn’t so sure. But on opening night in New York, he turned to me and said, ‘I think it’s a hit.’ ”
Stone Arch Theatricals kicked off with an investment in 2016’s “Waitress” — marking a first Broadway venture for married couple Schout and Zink. The show recouped its investment in just four months and is still doing bang-up business on Broadway and on tour.
“Having that as my first Broadway show felt really good,” Schout said. “But it’s a classic human mistake that’s been played out in plays, dramas and books. I expected everything to go like that. But you have to learn to manage your expectations.”
Next came investments in “Come From Away” (2017) followed by “The Cher Show” (2018) and “Ain’t Too Proud” (2019), the Temptations musical that received a dozen Tony nominations this year. All told, the Stone Arch Theatricals productions have racked up 29 Tony nominations in 2019. The awards will be handed out at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall on June 9.
“Basically, we trust our instincts,” Miller said of the group’s growing roster of shows. “You can spray a ton of money out there, but at the end of the day, you have to love the project.”