In His New Book This Tony-Winning Broadway Producer Shares What Matters Most

Jeryl Brunner

“In any given moment we have two options,” wrote the pioneering psychologist, Abraham Maslow. “To step forward into growth or step back into safety.” After working in investment banking and finance for 19 years, Carl Moellenberg opted to step forward to begin a new path. The daring new path would give him new life, purpose and completely transform him.

Moellenberg’s new journey was to become a theater producer. And not only did he end up producing some of Broadway's most successful shows including Spring Awakening, War Horse, Hair, Death of a Salesman, Pippin, All the Way, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Dear Evan Hansen, Angels in America, The Band’s Visit, Oklahoma, Hadestown and Company, he also won 13 Tony awards along the way.

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Carl MoellenbergCourtesy Carl Moellenberg

Working on Wall Street for nearly two decades, Moellenberg offered financial analysis and consulting at some of world’s leading banks. But after he was diagnosed with a debilitating life-threatening illness, he discovered his pathway to spirituality and healing. That journey led him to follow what gave him true joy and purpose.

“Theater is magical,” says Moellenberg. “I love the fact that theater is live right in front of you. Each night the show will be unique, and the audience's reaction will vary. Audiences see this amazing talent so close to them and they are in awe. The music may also be so glorious that you are transported to a different place for two to three hours.”

After studying at the prestigious Commercial Theatre Institute and meeting mentors and partners, Moellenberg launched his career becoming part of the production team of Spring Awakening. Moellenberg never looked back. “I have found that helping to create beauty in the world keeps me going,” he says.

Moellenberg shares his journey of transformation in his new memoir, Carl Moellenberg's Story: Broadway and Spirituality as a Path to Survival. Released this month, the producing dynamo shares his life story—from his childhood in the Midwest to investment banking on Wall Street to debilitating illness to finding healing and discovering what really matters.

“This is my life story—one of resilience, transformation, perseverance, surviving, adapting, healing, spirituality, love, faith, finding my passion and realizing dreams. It is a story about facing daunting obstacles head on and not losing hope,” writes Moellenberg in the book’s introduction. “My sole purpose in sharing my experience is that I might be able to inspire others going through their own health challenges or other crises to find their own passion and to thrive.”

How would you describe Carl Moellenberg's Story: Broadway and Spirituality as a Path to Survival?

I have been fortunate to be either a producer or investor in about 110 shows, spanning Broadway, national tours, London and Australia. I’ve been a part of shows with so many amazingly talented actors, directors and creative designers. There are many books about how to get involved in Broadway or describing in-depth experiences with particular shows or how to make money on Broadway. I did not do that in this book, although I do have a lot of thoughts on these topics.

This memoir is about making my life literally an open book, which is a little scary to a person who shares mostly with a close inner circle of friends, in order to show how spirituality and Broadway literally saved my life. It is incredibly personal and written in a conversational tone with the goal of reaching others in a way that resonates with their lives.

In the book you describe how you paid attention to signs that ultimately really helped you shift your life and goals. How can one be more aware of key signs that may aid in their transformation?

I describe in the memoir two signs that were epiphanies to me. After the very bleakest point of surviving a serious opportunistic infection with a severely damaged immune system, I took many different spiritual classes. Many involved working with energy, which is at the core of everything. I became a Reiki master, studied meditation, became an ordained minister through a healing school, worked with a shaman and other modalities. This helped to ground me, give me a sense of calm and to do volunteer work for the Trevor Project, the Ali Forney Center, Hetrick Martin, Identity House, walk-in centers. I was healing myself and also taking my attention away from myself to focus on others.

Becoming very aware of the energy around me led me to have two moments that were epiphanies. The first was when I traveled to France and was sitting on the banks of the Loire. It was mid-morning, and the sun was warm, but the breeze was fresh and cool. I was meditating looking at the river and glistening, sparkling streaks of sun were hitting the water and then coming towards me in almost a mystical or supernatural way. Rowers were on the water and birds chirping. It seemed like a Seurat painting coming to life. I had no idea at this time what I was going to do with my life going forward.

What happened next?

Suddenly I heard a deep voice in my head and realized it was a higher being speaking to me for what lasted almost twenty minutes. I was told that I should not give up and that I was destined, against all odds, to have a long life ahead of me. I was here for a reason, and I was to use that long life to create beauty in the world through the arts. Pictures of theater came into my head and when I returned to New York I started the process of learning to be a theater producer. That day changed my life.

The second sign was right after my ordination, when walking home down Fifth Avenue, I was escorted by a gold bird, the likes of which I had never seen in the city. The bird proceeded to walk and fly with me for 25 blocks, turning back to let me keep pace. People on the street were pointing at it and watching the bird’s journey with me. I started talking to the bird, hoping that no one would take me to Bellevue. The bird then sat and stared at me and flew right at me, grazing my hair as it left. My teacher said it was a clear sign that I was to use whatever gifts I had to serve the greater good. People in the city are too often rushing along their ways; slowing their pace and being attuned to what is around them can let them see small or larger signs. When I meditate on the roof, I feel that breezes are God speaking to me. Energy and signs and inspiration are all around us, particularly in nature.

What are some important qualities that a lead producer should have to be successful?

The lead producers are the final decision makers on a show. They are involved with hiring the director and the rest of the creative team. They approve the cast. They work with the general manager on fine tuning a tight but realistic capitalization, weekly budget and recoupment chart. They team with the author and director on changes to the script, which sometimes continues through previews up to four days before opening, when the show is frozen. They hire a press team, an advertising/marketing team and a social media team and make decisions with them about how best to reach our demographic.

Plus, most importantly perhaps, they react quickly and decisively to anything that might go array, which inevitably happens on every production. Covid of course added enormously to the challenges. I believe a good lead producer must have both strong creative skills and business skills. Using both sides of the brain is a large part of success. It is imperative that the lead producer team works well together, can have constructive dialogues and arrive at solutions even after differences of opinion. The lead producer needs to embrace the co-producers who have come on board, keep them involved and informed. There are many other qualities, but I’ll leave the last one as being decisive; you are often presented with several possibilities and after giving them thought, you need to say this one is it and run with it.

Can you talk about Spring Awakening, the first show that you worked on. How did that experience change you?

I was so excited that Spring Awakening was the first show where I was part of the producing team. I saw it first at the Atlantic Theater and was literally mesmerized. Duncan Sheik’s music was brilliant and so perfect for the many difficult topics that arise—suicide, abortion, parental and teacher repression, first yearnings of sexual desire. I love the fact that the cast members were in the very beginning of their careers, but you knew from their incredible talent that they were destined for stardom. We were seeing Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, John Gallagher Jr., Gideon Glick, Lilli Cooper and everyone else create magic with Michael Mayer’s direction and Kevin Adam’s exquisite lighting. I could see Spring Awakening over and over again and still want more. We had our groupies too as I sat in the first row closing night with many who were over 100 times. Basically, it changed me because I was totally hooked on Broadway after one producing experience. I threw myself into Broadway from that point on.

What do you look for in a piece to produce?

The most critical element is the story. I look for a story that is meaningful, makes you think about something in a new way, that you can relate to because it reminds you of your family situation, that has you sitting on the front of your seat with anticipation —in essence a story that transforms you. Afterwards, you are glowing, and you want to talk with others about it. My favorite play that does all of this is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But a musical must have a great story too and with musicals I love more intimate ones, small casts, sometimes only one set, beautiful music—as opposed to the big song and dance productions. Recent favorites are The Band’s Visit, Hadestown, Dear Evan Hansen. Going beyond the story. I look at the producing team, the creative team, the cast, the financials, the potential demographic, where it lands within a theater season and other factors.

Can you share a story about a specific show that you decided to produce? What inspired you to take it on?

My favorite experience as a co-producer was Hair. I saw it in Central Park first and fell in love with it. Of course, I already knew the unforgettable music and could sing along. What made it my favorite show was that I realized that the actors who had been chosen personified, in their real lives, the themes of the musical—peace, freedom, acceptance, self-expression. We formed what we called the Tribe and a bond developed among the cast, the crew, the musicians, the producers, the creatives that was so strong. We hung out together as one and I have never felt so happy. It was the ultimate joy of working with a team that you love, trust and admire.

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Courtesy Carl MoellenbergCarl Moellenberg's Story: Broadway and Spirituality as a Path to Survival

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New York based journalist who has written for Forbes, Parade, InStyle, National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and The Wall Street Journal. Author of the book "My City, My New York, Famous New Yorkers Share Their Favorite Places" and podcaster, ("When Lightning Strikes"). I cover the arts, theater, entertainment, food, travel and people who are motivated by their joy and passion.

New York City, NY
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