The cast of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers(© Michael Portantiere)
The cast of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
(© Michael Portantiere)
Paper Mill Playhouse alumni who have gone on to star on Broadway joined with local politicians, theater staff, and others on Monday night at a rally to support the financially desperate company. As of this writing, Paper Mill only has enough money to cover its payroll and keep its doors open through the end of the week. As previously reported, the theater began the season with a $2.8 million deficit which has not been compensated for by ticket sales or donations -- and, so far, no bank has agreed on a loan to the Playhouse.

The rally raised $25,000 and the theater has received close to $300,000 in other donations over the past few days, according to spokesperson Shayne Austin Miller. But that figure is a small dent in the $3 million needed to fund Paper Mill's 2006-2007 season.

While the theater is still inviting the press to the official opening on Sunday of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which begins performances tomorrow, there is no guarantee that the production will continue its run past that date. And the final show of the season, Pirates, remains in serious jeopardy. "We are going to have to take it week by week and see what happens," says Miller. "This event will hopefully raise enough awareness that someone will come forward, be our white knight, write us a check, and save the theater."

Legally Blonde co-star Leslie Kritzer, who played Fanny Brice in the Paper Mill production of Funny Girl, was just one of the notable performers who expressed their affection for the Playhouse on Monday. "I grew up in Livingston, New Jersey, about five minutes from here," she told TheaterMania just before the rally began. "As a child, my first theatrical experiences were at Paper Mill; we would come here on school trips to see shows like A Chorus Line, West Side Story, South Pacific, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Funding for the arts is becoming smaller and smaller, so it's very important to have a place where parents can bring their children to see top-notch productions. There aren't many theaters like this, and it would be a shame if they closed their doors. I owe my career to Paper Mill -- and I know I'm not the only one."

John Lloyd Young(© Michael Portantiere)
John Lloyd Young
(© Michael Portantiere)
"Paper Mill is where I had my first positive critical reception in The Chosen," says John Lloyd Young, winner of the 2006 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys. "It was a great training ground for me. I didn't know then that Jersey Boys was around the corner, but once I did get to Broadway, I had the chops to hold the show up -- and that was because of this place.

"When I used to go see Broadway shows, I would read the bios, and Paper Mill was in so many of them," Young told TheaterMania. "It seemed to me that it was not only an important stepping stone on the way to Broadway, but almost necessary. Paper MIll feeds Broadway, and Broadway feeds Paper Mill. People come back here to play great roles. José Ferrer played here! The theater's close proximity to New York is a great benefit but also puts it at risk, because some people who live in the area think, 'We can just go to Broadway.' But there are unique things going on here, and I hope that audiences realize what they can see in their own backyard."

Michele Ragusa, who recently appeared Off-Broadway in Adrift to Macao, also has a special place in her heart for the theater. "When I first moved to New York, Paper Mill was the job to have," she says. "I finally got my chance in She Loves Me, and when I showed up on that first day of rehearsal, I felt like it was a Broadway show. Paper Mill does everything first-class. They set the example."

Barrett Foa, who is to play the male lead in Pirates, also has praise for the Playhouse: "To me, Paper Mill means opportunity. They gave me a chance to play a character role when I was cast as Mordred in Camelot. Before that, I was a chorus boy in Mamma Mia!; being in Camelot gave the confidence to go on and do things like Avenue Q and Spelling Bee on Broadway."

In addition to the many actors on hand for the rally, former New Jersey governors Thomas Kean, Sr. and Brendan Byrne were there to speak in support of the theater -- but the state's current governor, Jon Corzine, was not present. Joked Byrne: "We don't need him, we just need his pen" [to sign legislation to bail out the theater]. Said Kean, "My first theater experience ever was at Paper Mill, when I was eight years old. I've loved theater ever since, and I don't think it would be that way if not for this place. I remember the night that Paper Mill did Show Boat and it was telecast all over the country. That was important for the state. We can't even think of letting this theater close."

Nell Benjamin, Gordon Greenberg, and Barrett Foa(© Michael Portantiere)
Nell Benjamin, Gordon Greenberg, and Barrett Foa
(© Michael Portantiere)
James Brennan and Gordon Greenberg, both of whom have directed shows at Paper Mill, also spoke from the heart. Said Brennan, "I was born and raised in New Jersey. My family brought me here to see the first live theater I ever saw. They said, 'We'd like to take you to Broadway, but it's so expensive.' So we came here, and we were all so taken with it that they began saving to take me to see shows in New York -- but we also continued to come to Paper Mill. Three weeks ago, my granddaughter was born. I want to be able to bring her here."

Greenberg added, "I grew up in another state, which shall remain nameless. There was no equivalent theater there. As an artist, I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work at Paper Mill."

One of the rally's most moving speeches came from Nell Benjamin, co-author of Pirates and Legally Blonde. "It's wonderful to see this gathering of people who love Paper Mill," she said. "Theater creates a sense of community; when you laugh and cheer along with everyone else, you're reminded of how much you have in common with other people. Now it's time for the community to give back to the theater."