Hometown: Murrieta Valley, California
Currently: Rocking and shocking Broadway as the Tony Award-nominated director of the surprise hit musical Rock of Ages.
The O.C.: A true California girl and Orange County native, Hanggi says a predilection for directing started early, with the help of her big family. “I started calling up all the cousins—and there were a lot—at age eight saying, ‘We’re putting on a Christmas pageant and you’ve been cast. Please bring a sheet and garlands.” Hanggi’s earliest productions were staged on her aunt’s “amazing, dramatic” staircase, a piece of architecture the director credits with her “desire for spectacle,” one that, as her later work proves, never died out. “I just loved putting on shows. My poor little brother! I’d put makeup on him and make him act. I think I actually put the poor kid in a French maid’s costume once.” With the support of her parents, both teachers “Directing is similar to teaching in a lot of ways, so I thank them”, Hanggi continued to direct and act in shows throughout middle and high school.
Deciding on a college major was a no-brainer for Hanggi. “I wanted to be involved in entertainment in one way or another,” she says. “It’s always astounded me that anyone would do anything else besides be in movies or theater!” The ambitious teen enrolled in UCLA’s undergraduate theater program, taking advantage of the school’s talent pool. “I was always going, ‘Give me a space and I’ll put on a show.’ I’d grab lighting students, costumers, actors, any student and put a production together.” Her momentum only increased when she graduated early at age 20, putting up shows in local theaters with money she made waitressing while getting her masters degree in dramatic structure at USC. “I just never stopped directing, and eventually people started paying me!”
Baring It All: One of Hanggi’s first big gigs was the musical Bare, about two male students struggling with their homosexuality while at a Catholic boarding school. The show was a hit at L.A.’s Hudson Theater, eventually transferring for an off-Broadway run. “I was 23, and it was the first time I’d been reviewed for a show," she says. "I remember [Broadway directors] Michael Mayer and Joe Mantello coming to see it and saying I did a good job, and I was like, ‘What is going on?!’” Bare's success opened doors for the wunderkind, including a bidding war between Disney and Dreamworks over the rights to her musical film Operation Prom Dress, and the chance to direct the first incarnation of the Pussycat Dolls’ show at L.A.’s Roxy, starring Carmen Electra. “Looking back, that journey was incredible,” Hanggi says. “It’d be like, ‘Hi, I’m Kristin, this is my show and—oh look, Justin Timberlake is here. And Kid Rock is asking to buy me a drink.’ It was definitely fun.”
Nothin’ But a Good Time: Four years ago, Hanggi got a call from producer Matt Weaver asking her to develop and direct a comedic '80s rock-themed musical. Hanggi and writer Chris D’Arienzo set about structuring the show around hair-band hits. “Because we weren’t doing just one artist’s catalogue, we had a range of music to choose from and could pick songs that best told the story,” she explains. “But the big thing was walking the line between it being tongue-in-cheek and still having heart. If it gets too campy, audiences won’t care.” The show, set on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, was workshopped and eventually produced twice at real Sunset Strip spots before moving to Las Vegas for a short run. Encouraged, the team headed to New York in 2006 to prep an off-Broadway production—then lost their funding. “It became, ‘How will we get out of this one, Batman?’” Hanggi jokes. “It took hanging on through the disappointments.” Happy ending: Rock of Ages debuted to fan fervor and positive reviews at New World Stages in October 2008.
Don’t Stop Believin’: “I absolutely did not ever see the show transferring to Broadway,” Hanggi says of her creation, now nominated for a Best Musical Tony and four other awards. “One night off-Broadway the producers were giddy, like little boys. I figured we got, like, a German tour or something.” Turned out the whole rockin’ shebang was Broadway-bound. Hanggi explains the move was bittersweet. “Cast changes are always very difficult for me. [The production lost Will Swenson to Hair, adding Amy Spanger and James Carpinello to leading man Constantine Maroulis for its Broadway run]. But I come from the mind frame that everything that happens is a gift, no matter what.” The resulting Best Director Tony nomination certainly was. “How do you even process that? [Fellow nominees] Michael Greif and Stephen Daldry are legends! And Diane Paulus? How badass is it that two nominees are women, and we did rock musicals? I feel so grateful.” The self-proclaimed “Pollyanna to a fault” has no expectations for Tony night itself, however. “I’m just looking forward to soaking this whole thing up. I literally feel like I’m going to tear in two and burst into sparkly confetti.”