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Actor, Singer, and Heartthrob Andy Mientus on his Debut Novel 'The Backstagers and the Ghost Light'

Actor, Singer, and Heartthrob Andy Mientus on his Debut Novel 'The Backstagers and the Ghost Light'

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The novel features a broad range of identities, races, and sexualities while breaking down notions of toxic masculinity.  

Andy Mientus is the modern renaissance man. The queer heartthrob is a writer, musician, and actor best known for starring in a number of Broadway musicals including Spring Awakening, Les Miserables, and Wicked. He's also in the NBC musical drama Smash and the hit CW series The Flash.

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Andy can now add novelist to the long list of his artistic expertise. The 31-year-old just released his first middle-grade novel, "The Backstagers and the Ghost Light." The book, which has already been hailed for its inclusive cast of characters, follows a band of theater misfits as they go on paranormal action-packed adventures. In the series' first installment, protagonist Jory doesn't know what to expect when he transfers to St. Genesius Prep, an all-boys school known for its incredible theater department.

He ends up on the stage crew, or "backstagers" as they like to call themselves. When some of the cast members decide to play with a spirit board, the ghost light goes out. The kids don't think too much of it, but when they decide to put on the musical "Phantasm," strange things start happening: a fallen light, a missing prop, a star with something to hide... Could there be something else in the theater with them?

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Following the release of "The Backstagers" OUT spoke with Andy to discuss his new novel and to learn about his creative process.

What inspired you to move into writing a novel?

I've been very, very lucky to make my living only from acting for the last few years, but even at its best, acting is only sometimes. There is way more waiting for the jobs than there are actual jobs, no matter where you are in your career, and so naturally I've been looking for meaningful ways to fill that time. I always wrote for myself from a young age, and when I was studying, my electives were always in literature and creative writing, so when I had the opportunity to meet with the publishers at Abrams via a mutual friend, I said yes without hesitation.

Why middle grade fiction?

I was interested in writing for younger audiences because I felt it was a great opportunity to inject positive representation for under-represented identities where they are needed most. Growing up, I didn't really recognize myself in the content that was being sold to me. Now, we are having a long overdue look at representation in media, and I am so thrilled and grateful that the conversation is including queer identities.

What inspired the novel?

The novel (and its sequel coming in March 2019!) is inspired directly from a run of comics called The Backstagers by James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh, who returns to the novel series as illustrator. For fans of the original comics, the novels are a continuation of that story, but for readers beginning the story here with the novels, I worked to make them stand alone as best I could. Working from such acclaimed source material was really interesting. The core cast of characters was so beautifully realized in the comics that it was easy to find their voices myself and imagine what they might be doing next. My job, then, was to think about what characters I wanted to see join the cast and to put them all in situations that provided great action and adventure, as well as a good lesson our younger readers can walk away with. The inspiration for this first entry was thinking about how the real-world theater lore I have encountered through my stage acting work might mash up with the lore created in the original comics. Hence, the ghost light, one of my favorite bits of real theater lore. It's a light that theaters leave on all night to keep ghosts from moving in. For real!

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Tell us a little bit about what happens to the cast in your own words.

The Backstagers are a group of friends who work as the stage crew for the shows put on by the St. Genesius Preparatory School for Boys. Most people who love theater know that there is some palpable magic going on backstage, but in our world, that magic is literal. Unbeknownst to the rest of the school, when the Backstagers pass through the Unsafe Door that separates the mundane world of the school from the backstage, they pass into a fantastical world where anything is possible; where the power that makes theater magical lives. In this first installment, at the cast party for their production of Lease, a rock opera which may seem awfully familiar to theater dorks out there, someone brings a spirit board into the theater. As they are receiving a spooky message from beyond, the ghost light at the lip of the stage shatters. This proves to be an ominous omen as creepy events plague the rehearsals for their next production, the gothic romance, Phantasm. Has a ghost moved into the St. Genesius Auditorium? The Backstagers work together to solve the mystery, taking them deeper into the world of the backstage than they have ever gone before.

Can you talk about the role inclusivity plays in the novel?

An element from the comics which I felt needed to be preserved for the novels is the effortless way inclusivity is presented. Our cast features a broad diversity of racial and gender identities and sexualities but in our world, these things do not "other" the kids in any traumatic way. No one is bullied for being who they are, no one has a painful coming out to their parents, that sort of thing. Instead, the stories focus on the kids ambitions, relationships, and adventures. I think we have already told the necessary stories about trauma, and they are all available for this age group to find and learn from. I wanted to do something more joyful where characters of various identities were included but their identities were not the focus of their stories.

Any other cool projects you're working on?

This week, I am performing in a real passion project, The Jonathan Larson Project at Feinstein's 54 Below in New York. Jonathan Larson, for those who don't know, is the author of Rent who tragically passed away before the first preview of the show, and thus didn't get to see his posthumous Tony Award, Pulitzer Prize, and legendary legacy as an utter revolutionary in musical theater. Our director, Jennifer Ashely Tepper, has been working with his estate for the last five or so years, going through his papers at the Library of Congress and has unearthed nearly thirty undiscovered or rarely performed songs from other works, which we are presenting for the first time, fully orchestrated, in this show. It's really, really special.

Anything else you'd like to add?

In addition to these characters being positive representation for queer kids or kids of color, I think they are really amazing role models for all boys. Despite attending an all-boys school, The Backstagers are emotional, vulnerable with each other, and admit when they are wrong, and in turn, forgive those who hurt them. When I was growing up, I was taught from the media I was consuming that girls cry, that boys are tough, and that being strong meant being aggressive. Luckily, at long last, we as a society are beginning to dismantle that ugliness and redefine boyhood. I am very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to that with these stories.

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