10:30 am EDT, September 28, 2018

Broadway’s Andy Mientus spins theater lore into middle-grade magic in ‘The Backstagers and The Ghost Light’

Actor-turned-author Andy Mientus tells us all about his new gig — adapting the bright, inclusive theater-themed Backstagers comic into a series of novels.

The Backstagers and The Ghost Light, out now on Abrams, tempts readers with two great tastes that taste great together.

The Backstagers, first published by Boom! Studios in 2016, is the brainchild of writer James Tynion IV and artist Rian Sygh, an eight-issue comic about the members of the stage crew at a private all-boys high school. When new kid Jory transfers to St. Genesius, he’s adopted by the drama club’s tech team, and while running with them, discovers a whole world behind-the-scenes – quite literally.

In The Backstagers, going backstage means leaving reality behind, and the adventures of Jory, Hunter, Beckett, Aziz and Sasha bring new meaning to the concept of “the magic of the theater.” Also, delightfully, there’s nary a straight in sight – Tynion, who is bisexual, and Sygh, who is transgender, have developed a cast full of young queer teens with a variety of different identities, all totally normalized.

Aimed at middle grade and up, The Backstagers now makes a format leap into prose, as Broadway star Andy Mientus picks up the Backstagers’ story where the comics left off in his authorial debut, The Backstagers and The Ghost Light.

You may have first been introduced to Mientus thanks to his role on Smash — he played the doomed Kyle Bishop on the show’s second season; through international crime drama Gone; or from his appearances on The Flash as Hartley Rathaway, the Pied Piper, who’s credited as one of the DC universe’s first openly gay characters.

He made his Broadway debut as Marius in 2014’s Les Misérables revival, and, in addition to numerous other stage roles, he has played the role of Hänschen in three separate runs of Spring Awakening – firstly in the show’s first national tour, and then in both Los Angeles and New York for the DeafWest revival, a production developed by Mientus himself and his then-fiancé, now-husband Michael Arden. (Gay Twitter, you may have caught this adorable interview about their professional and personal relationship doing the rounds.)

Mientus (who, for the record, identifies as bisexual) also penned Burn All Night, a contemporary musical staged at the American Repertory Theater in 2017, and his combination of enthusiasm and experience as a creator lead Abrams Books to offer him the authorship of The Backstagers series as they worked with Boom! Comics to adapt the successful comics into novels.

With vivid cover art and intermittent illustrations by Sygh, which help to visually connect Mientus’s words to Tynion’s worldbuilding, The Backstagers and the Ghost Light is out this week. Mientus joined Hypable to share his journey from stage to page, and offered some in-depth commentary on pop culture’s rising interest in theater.

Congratulations, first of all — working on this book seems like such an unusual opportunity! So, the first thing I wanted to talk about was how that came about, the process of developing the novel from the comic, and how and when you got looped in on that.

It’s kind of a weird incredible story, which is kind of how most things have happened for me in my career so far. Maggie Lehrman, my editor at Abrams books, was introduced to me by a mutual friend because I had expressed some interest in getting into fiction writing for younger readers, either middle grade or young adults. I’d written some drama before that – I’d written a musical that got produced at the American Repertory Theater and I was shopping around a pilot, I had never written prose but I just thought it might suit me and it was something I was interested in. So I sat down with her and Andrew Smith and showed them the scripts I had written and they gave me some books that Abrams had published and we had a great chat and they sort of said, “Okay, great, we think you’re really interesting and if you ever have a manuscript to show us, send it our way and we’ll see if it’s something to work on.”

And then, of course, I got busy with my acting life and didn’t do that. About a year later, Maggie reached out again because Abrams has this partnership with Boom! Comics to make middle grade series based on their properties, they’d had some success with their Lumberjanes adaptation and they were looking to do Backstagers next and something about my voice, who I am, and my experience with theater told them I might be right for this. I took a look at the graphic novels and fell in love with them immediately, thought I had a way in and knew where the story wanted to go next and then it happened. So, suddenly I was tasked with writing two books right off the bat, having never written one, and now the first one is about to come out, so it’s pretty wild.

It is, it’s such a perfect storm situation, and very fitting because one of the things I’ve noticed about you specifically is that your experience with theater, your career, has honed in on theater from so many angles. You’ve got this, then obviously with Smash and then with actually working on Broadway stages and touring, and writing. You have this rare perspective of engaging with the theater industry from so many different standpoints and presenting it to other industries, presenting it to other audiences, and I was just wondering, how has that been for you, coming at it from so many different angles: as an actor and writer for theater proper, and then as an an actor and writer fictionalizing theater in different ways, fictionalizing the industry and culture as opposed to performing in it? It’s just a very unique combination, and I can’t really think of very many people with comparable scope.

It is, and I haven’t really thought about it before, so I’m glad you brought it up; because you’re right: I have come at it from lots of different angles. I’ve always said, when I was acting primarily, that I wasn’t one of those actors that thought of acting specifically as this like, really noble profession. I think it’s a great deal of fun and incredibly rewarding for the actor, but I’ve never been one of those actors who thinks my work as an actor is somehow, like, super important with a capital I, y’know, in the way that others do. I wish that I did sometimes, I don’t say that to throw any shade at those actors who do, I’ve always found that really admirable that they take their art so seriously.

But I’ve always thought of acting as what I have to offer to a medium that I really love. I experimented in all aspects of theater growing up, I worked in several departments, in crews, I directed things when I was in school, I wrote little plays when I was in school, and acting is really what I was best at at the time, so it’s what stuck for me. So, that’s what I’ve been up to. But I’ve always, always been interested in just being around in the theater and being involved and creating work in any way that I can. A few years ago, when my husband and I were both between things, we started putting together this little production of Spring Awakening in Los Angeles with Deaf West, and we were co-directing and so we did this ten day lab to sort of see if the material would stick with this concept that we had and that was a big success.

Andy Mientus and Michael Arden at the 2018 Tony Awards.

It got the green light but by the time it was going to production I was doing Les Mis on Broadway, so I had to take a back seat, Michael took over 100% and next thing you know, that show was on Broadway. But that little taste of that world was really exciting to me and so since then we’re always dreaming up projects, Michael and I, and I’m helping him cast as they’re looking forward to other projects and the future of Once on This Island, I’m always sort of brainstorming – I just love anything I can do in theater, in this world. I just want to be a part of it and I don’t really know why that is, it’s just this undeniable thing that’s been with me from as early as I can remember and so, it’s really exciting to think that even as I reach a point where my body, my voice, my patience can’t do the acting thing anymore, that I can still contribute in other ways.

Another thing that’s interesting to me about your work on Backstagers, and in kind of a left-handed way on Smash, is that you’re given the opportunity to fictionalize and portray a subculture – theater culture – whether it’s at a school level or at a Broadway level, to an audience that isn’t necessarily already in on it. I imagine that you may have to start looking at providing certain context – where that comes down to even things like the exposition of terminology. What did you notice about that kind of thing when writing Backstagers? What perspective do you take when you know that the audience isn’t going to be everyone that’s been in on it the whole time?

I think that all audiences in all mediums really like a window into a world that isn’t necessarily theirs, that’s why we watch shows about solving crime or trying to win the Iron Throne or what have you. There’s a certain amount of lore involved, especially in a medical show or something like that where there’s technical jargon, and we kind of just accept it to be true even if we don’t totally get it. But to keep people invested, I think it’s really about making that setting just the setting, it’s the filter on top of stories about characters.

Really, I think the story of this first book is about grief, and it’s about a young relationship, and friendship and adventure, and theater is just the thing that has brought these people to the same room but the stories, the threads of plot and the arcs of the characters, are really not so much about that, they’re about human things that really any kids can connect with even if they play baseball, or whatever.

When you read the comics the first time, the two existing stories, which of the characters immediately stood out to you the most, who did you feel most connected to when you were writing, or what about the material did you feel the most inspired by, on more than a theater-nerd level?

One of the first things that really struck me about the characters was how I felt that it was a cast that almost anybody could see themselves in, in some way. It’s incredibly inclusive, however, the stories were not at all about the things that might make any of these kids different than any other kid. The kids’ identities, ethnicities, what have you, are just accepted and the stories are about getting lost in this magical world and working together, which I think is the next step in inclusion and inclusive stories.

We had to have, and it was really important to have, the stories about the struggles because that was a window in for people who haven’t had the experiences of marginalized people so it was a way to get the larger population to empathize. However, I think a lot of that work has been done and now I think people, especially marginalized people, are looking for stories in which they see themselves just thriving.

Just existing. You’re saying things I think about every day. Like, we’ve done that bit, we’re all okay with being queer now, and now we can just go and be queer in life, that’s fine! I definitely agree.

I’ve been describing the books, the original comics, as effortlessly inclusive, they just are inclusive, which feels like actual inclusion to me. I live in New York City. At any given moment I can look around and see any kind of person and nobody is, like, running up to me and explaining to me who they are and how they’ve struggled, they’re in line behind me when something silly happens at the register and we both laugh about it. Most peoples’ entire day doesn’t revolve around their gender identity, even though that would obviously play in to every experience that happens to them, it colors everything that happens, but it’s not what happens 100% of the time.

Aziz and Beckett expressing themselves openly.

So I loved that, and then I loved how the boys were really emotional, and emotional with each other. I think that, to any young boy specifically, I think it’s really good representation, even if they might not seem themselves in other ways in this cast, to see these male characters that are unafraid to cry in front of each other, to say what they mean, to not just try to do that thing that a lot of boys are taught to do of stiff upper lip and combat your emotion with strength or harshness, but that they’re open-hearted and empathetic, and that they listen to each other and admit when they’re wrong and learn from their mistakes. That, I think, is sort of the more subtle thing going on that really struck me on first reading and something that I really sought to continue as I continued the story.

How much did you work with James? Obviously, you worked with Rian, but how much did you work with James, if at all, in terms of developing the story or anything like that?

Yeah, quite a bit at first. Because I was new to this and they didn’t know me and this was a new project for them, before I put any pen to paper in terms of actual prose, actual iteration of this story, I did a very detailed outline and sent it to them for thoughts, just to point out any tonal or character inconsistencies, any canon lore that I got wrong, like, “Oh, this can’t happen because we established this in issue #2 that you missed,” and I got a great deal of feedback from them for my first pass which was hugely, hugely useful.

James was available to me going forward for any questions because he was the lore guy, he had the firmest grasp of what the rules of the backstage were and what everyone technically did on the crew, how old each of the characters were and all of these little details that you need to know when you’re taking over a story. I have a great big file on my computer of every character and everything we 100% know about them, every scene and every rule of the backstage that we learn. Just all the facts. So I really worked with him about that kind of stuff, that detail work. And then I sent an outline again for the second book, which we’re in the editing process for now, that comes out in March of 2019, and they had no feedback which was really great, like “Oh, okay, I know these kids now!”

That’s really awesome. The fantastical backstage is a really fun quality that ties in to the magic of theater. In the first or second chapter, you’re saying in the narration that it’s insane that we watch this, that we sit in the theater and watch these shows and we can see all of the fakery, we can see how it’s being done, but we still submit to it and believe in it. To me, that is a form of magical realism, that theater is so in-your-face as a constructed performance but is so immersive. The world ofThe Backstagers obviously gets to take this a step further where you’re incorporating actual magical realism into this world of theater. What was the most fun for you, what little tricks and ideas and bits of theater lore and urban legend did you have the most joy turning into genuine magic?

I was really in love with the lore that Rian and James created for the originals. I had just never read anything like it, and I loved the way they dropped us in and didn’t tell us too much and when Jory, the new kid, is sort of asking, “How is this all happening?” they’re like, “We don’t know, let’s go!” like, no questions asked, let’s have fun in this magical world.

Now, me, being from the theater my whole life, I know a great deal about real-world theater lore, and so, immediately my first idea for what this series of books might be was to take what they had built and see where it could smash up against real theater that I know about, and what happens, and is there a way to use that stuff to explain the original lore, the lore of the backstage in a way.

Jory discovers the backstage.

Since the comics never try to really tell you exactly what the backstage is and where it came from and all that, I was wondering if there was a way I might begin to do that with the real lore of real world theater. So that’s why book one deals with the ghost light, which is my favorite little piece of theater lore – I have a tattoo of a ghost light – and book two goes into a more mythic place, without giving too much away. So, that was sort of the impetus of everything and I brainstormed from there.

It’s really cool – obviously for anyone who knows a lot about theater there’s a lot of recognizable references, even at the very base level with the parodies of the show names, all that kind of thing is really, really fun. I think, like you say, that it’s something that will be of interest to people not necessarily already invested – but I feel like theater in general is entering wider pop culture right now. It always has periods of ups and downs, but I feel like at the moment it is very, very intense, where we see a lot of young people getting into theater via a certain show or via a fandom, it’s a different landscape in terms of how people get their point of entry to the community these days. Do you have any ideas on why that is, and why that’s shifting?

I think there’s a few reasons for it. I think the internet is the most obvious, the internet allowed people who have not been in the mainstream, for better or worse, to find the rest of their tribe, right? Any niche interest or belief that you have, you can find a whole lot of people who share that via the internet, and talk about it and obsess about it and meet up, go do things together, and I think that has affected the theater landscape in a huge way.

You look at something like Be More Chillare you familiar with this thing that’s going on off-Broadway? It’s this show that really got a production off-Broadway solely because of interest from its out-of-town production on the internet with young theater people, and now it’s going to Broadway, it’s sold out off-Broadway. I just saw it the other day and the room was full of very young, very excited theater kids and I just thought, “This is absolutely incredible. How is this happening?” It’s happening because of the internet.

Mientus, Austin McKenzie and the Spring Awakening cast perform “Totally Fucked.”

I think theater, because it’s not always seen as very cool, was a very niche interest for a long time but now all those enthusiasts can find each other, that grows in to a phalanx of people that are buying tickets. And then, also, I think – I talk about this a lot – but I think that why people like shows like Hamilton, like Spring Awakening, anything that’s using music that doesn’t sound necessarily like quote unquote showtunes, or even why jukebox musicals are so popular, is I think that those shows are actually closer to what musicals were when they were created. Back in the day, in the Golden Age, you would go see The Pajama Game, and then you’d come home and turn on the radio and you’d hear “Hey There” on the radio and there’s no difference between the genre of music playing in the theater and the genre of music that was pop music. The popular genre of music.

So, time went on and the pop music evolved but the theater music kind of didn’t, and that’s when the genre of “showtunes” was created, it didn’t really exists before that, and that became niche. And so now, when shows are using music that is appealing to the masses,that is indistinguishable from music you might hear on the radio, something about that feels really good and I think that’s because it’s what musicals were intended to be, you’re seduced in to listening to this story and getting invested because it’s music that’s just immediately accessible to your ear, it really lures you into this relaxed place where you can receive a story and that’s really effective and more shows are doing that and I think audiences are responding accordingly., they’re coming. Broadway is the most successful it’s ever been right now, which is amazing. It’s a great time.

That’s a really fantastic perspective. I wanted to touch very briefly on what you said about the characters’ identities, because it’s true, but the sheer fact that identity is not a massive factor of the characters’ stories on paper means that that quality becomes a hugely important factor in terms of the book’s place in the world, and you’re still breaking little a bit of ground, especially in middle grade fiction, in terms of Beckett, because we’re really not seeing a ton of books with teenage trans kids. I’m wondering about – not the impetus for you, because Beckett already existed – but the mindset taken when turning it to prose. Were there any guidelines about how to handle it coming from the publishers, or just that you observed when looking around at the young adult and middle grade industry? How do you feel about what this book may represent in terms of what’s available to middle grade readers?

I can’t really take credit for Beckett because I didn’t create Beckett – Beckett was a lead of the comics and so I was just tasked with treating that character the way I treated any of the others. How to make the identity clear, how to make his gender identity clear for the reader so that the kid out there who doesn’t see themselves in middle grade fiction will be sure of what they’re reading. How to tell the audience, without any question, that Beckett is, in fact, trans but in a way that isn’t drawing too much attention to itself so as to be tokenism. That it is matter of fact. Luckily it was a very queer team working on this book so I had a lot of sounding boards and there were eyes on it to make sure that, if I got anything wrong, I would know about it before it went to press.

Really, in the way that any of them has their identity just stated and not really a factor in the story, Beckett had to be the same way. And it was a question for a minute – one plot point that I wasn’t quite sure how to attack was his romance with Bailey because I had a question, not so much about “Should we do this?” or “How should we do this?” but I was aware of our intended audience and I was aware that not all middle grade readers will have had experience with trans characters or trans people in their life at that age, and they might not really understand, and they might have natural questions about what dating is like.

Beckett and Bailey in the comic’s Valentine’s Day special.

Especially for somebody who knew Beckett pre-transition and is having a romance with him post-transition, I was like, “Should this be an opportunity to teach them something, to say something, to have this be a struggle that they can then get through…” but then, in talking it through with Rian and James, and really examining it – that wouldn’t be a factor for Bailey so it shouldn’t be a factor for us. It felt irrelevant and it actually felt insensitive to bring it up, it felt as if you were bringing up a person’s skin color as a reason not to be with them, and it was acknowledging an identity that this character didn’t have anymore so it felt completely irrelevant.

In terms of the publisher or anybody saying do or don’t do this or do or don’t engage with this character, that was never a thing at all. Everyone loves Beckett over where we’re working, and I think this is an important thing. It always sort of blows my mind when family-friendly organizations, let’s say, are afraid to engage with queer characters, be they trans, be they gay, lesbian or bisexual, whatever – as if the inherent identity is somehow dirty or offensive or sexualized or, you know, not appropriate for children? What in the world do you mean?

These are kids, they’re young high school kids, they’re not doing anything that wouldn’t be middle grade reader friendly so why in the world would their identity be a problem? So the publisher was amazing about it. Again, I can’t really take credit if this becomes some kind of landmark in middle grade fiction, the inclusion of this character. I think that would be amazing and I hope there’s a lot of kids out there who see this character and are inspired by him, and identify with him, but I can‘t really take credit for him. I didn’t create him, I just continued his story.

Of course, I didn’t assume that the publisher had any qualms, obviously it’s a huge factor of the comics as well. You’ve very much put it into words better than I was able to, in terms of addressing or questioning or avoiding that inherent… idiocy, shall we call it, of organizations such as you mentioned, that assign an immediate sexualization or controversy or non-child-friendliness to anything other than straight, basically.

Yeah, if I avoided anything in the book, it wasn’t about avoiding anything with the trans character specifically. It was about, in this world, no one comes out as anything. No one has any difficult realization of their identity, they are who they are and they get on with fighting the ghost, you know?

It’s incredible, but unfortunately rare, so kudos. but’s going to be an interesting development, I think, as we encourage more of these stories of normalization, in terms of how different writers are approaching that. My final question for you is about those who may be inspired by what the Backstagers actually do, in terms of theater production. What advice would you give when it comes to making theater more accessible for young people? Obviously frequenting Broadway is another story, but making theater in general a part of your lifestyle? What would you say to kids looking at that backstage industry of theater production, theater tech, and who may want to get in to it? What are the experiences you had a young’un, or what do you think is a viable way to go about it these days?

I would say see as much theater as you possibly can at any level. I think there is an opinion among young people, because it’s an opinion that’s sold to them by people who are trying to sell tickets, that Broadway is the pinnacle, that it’s the best of the best and that’s the real theater and anything else on a more local or more small scale is ersatz in some way, which is completely untrue. I’ve seen some godawful shows on Broadway. Some of the best shows I’ve ever seen have been in black box theaters in my hometown that I paid no money to see.

If your school does some kind of field trip to see a Shakespeare or if they’re coming to your school, sign up for that assembly. You might hate it but you might not, you might be really inspired or it might make you curious. Even if you hate it, you might analyze why you hate it and that will inform your opinion about theater in general. Experience is only good, you might learn something even if it’s not a positive experience, it will be a learning experience.

And there really are ways, even if you have absolutely no extra money to try to see theater with, I guarantee – I had to be very creative growing up with ways that I interacted with the arts. I grew up in a very middle class Pittsburgh PA, so there are ways if you’re creative about it to get into shows and, if you really live in a place where theater’s not accessible, if there are no local theaters creating work or presenting work for you to see, the internet exists now in a way that it didn’t when I was a kid. There are so many free videos that productions make available, there are interviews, there are documentaries. It’s just an unbelievable bank of knowledge and cool stuff to look at. Just, like, see things see things see things, and it will develop who you are as an artist and develop your tastes.

Andy Mientus stars in The Who’s Tommy at The Denver Center, Spring 2018.

And then, in terms of getting involved, my favorite thing about this book is the idea teaching kids there are other ways to be involved in theater other than being center stage, in the spotlight, belting out a song. I think a lot of kids think that is the be-all end-all, and that’s the only way to really be involved in theater and, somehow, if you’re on the crew or if you’re helping out – which when you’re in high school is just “helping out” but really is production, the producing side of things, that that is not only essential but it’s also really fun and rewarding – kids think of that as being, “oh, the crew, you weren’t good enough to get in the play,” and it’s not that at all.

When you get into the real world, you realize that the crew are actually the most talented people in the room and they’re the ones that make it all happen and that’s sort of the allegory of this entire series, that these are the kids that actually make the magic and they save the day and, at the end of the day, no one knows. The actors go on and doing what they’re doing and no one is really aware that these are the real heroes. There are many, many paths available to you to be a part of the theater, much like I have been exploring many ways to be part of the theater in my life.

The Backstagers and the Ghost Light by Andy Mientus is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” list and follow Andy Mientus on Twitter!

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