The helicopter had just landed. Rows back, the boy popped another M&M into his mouth, watching with his parents as the famous scene unfolded.
“I was way too young to be seeing it, for sure,” he said, laughing.
About two decades later, Mike Karns has found his way back to “Miss Saigon,” the Broadway musical that tells the story of a country girl, an American GI and their ill-fated love during the Vietnam War. This time, he doesn’t need parental supervision.
Yet he could probably still fool the ushers. Babyfaced and bespectacled, Karns is the boy wonder behind the show’s social media presence, and his 4-year-old company, Marathon Live Entertainment, remains a precocious ingenue in the business of Broadway.
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In an ironic plot twist, it’s the same age Karns was when he first saw the original “Miss Saigon.”
“It was a cool, kind of a full-circle moment to go to the opening for it, to be working on it,” Karns said. “And I got to take my parents, too.”
The show is one of five Broadway shows and two off-Broadway productions the 28-year-old counts as clients. Some are new, including “Bandstand” and “In Transit.” But others you might be more familiar with, namely one about a young, scrappy and hungry thinker looking to make his mark on the world.
If you’ve heard of “Hamilton,” chances are you’ve come in contact with Karns’ work. He landed the eventual Tony winner while working out of his backpack.
Across its social media channels, “Hamilton” has enough followers to found a small nation. It’s a fervor that Karns builds with his phone, joie de vivre and an emphasis on relationships, he says. The M&Ms are optional.
“Hustle over everything,” he said. “I think that’s a huge reason why we’ve been able to grow as quickly as we have.”
The Penn State graduate recently returned to his alma mater to share his experience with students and was honored with an Alumni Achievement Award. Through an internship during his junior year, the former stage management and lighting design major developed connections with the general manager of “Miss Saigon.” Maintaining those, he said, helped him get the job.
In an homage to “Hamilton,” he tells recent graduates similar advice.
“Talk less,” he said. “Listen more.”
Q: How was opening night?
A: It was a huge house, 1,900 seats, super glitzy. “Miss Saigon” was the first Broadway show I ever saw. My parents took me to New York and it was a super hot day during the summer. Going to see “Miss Saigon” was the way I got into the theater in the first place.
Q: When you landed “Hamilton,” you were still working out of your backpack. Talk to me about that time of your life.
A: (Laughs) It was nuts, man. I have built a career for myself on taking risks and doing things where I don’t necessarily have all the equipment and skills for, so it was really a learning-by-the-seat-of-my-pants environment. The story I always love to tell is when we went down to the White House with the cast of “Hamilton,” we shot a bunch of videos there. We shot three “Ham4Ham” videos while we there. And I, for whatever reason, I thought it was fine for me to be filming those on my iPhone, so there I am in the White House in the East Room, with all of the social media and digital staff of the White House and they were looking at me. But yeah, that was a time of discovery, of what the opportunity was within the space I was in, and a time when I was really able to learn what I wanted to get out of it and how I could go about making those things happen.
Q: What would Mike Karns of 2017 tell Mike Karns of 2013?
A: (Laughs) I think the biggest thing I’d tell myself in 2013 is to take full advantage of all of the relationships that I was making at the time, and to use the opportunities that I have to learn and really understand how Broadway works and how I fit in that puzzle. The social media thing is awesome, and I think I’ll always have this company and it will always do this. I think I personally will do bigger things than just this company, but what’s cool about this company is it offers me the access and ability to learn from people like Jeffrey Seller, who is the producer of “Hamilton.” He works two doors over from me, and I go sit and have conversations with him a couple of times a week, and just pick his brain. When he was my age, 28, he produced “Rent,” so talk about an upward trajectory. So the ability to learn from these people has been really incredible.
Q: Several of the productions you’ve worked on — “Miss Saigon” to “Allegiance” to “Hamilton” — have highlighted the issue of representation. Is this an active choice on your part, a function of the business you work in or something else?
A: I believe things happen for a reason. I married a Filipino woman and all as a result of working on “Allegiance,” and I have found that a lot of the shows, even “The Great Comet” — it isn’t necessarily about equal representation, they don’t discuss that — but the leading ingenue is played by an African-American woman (Denée Benton), and so I have been fortunate that the shows I’ve worked on really do tackle that idea of equal representation and finding opportunities for minority actors to find the spotlight just like white actors would. So it was not a conscious choice, but it has been a very pleasant accident in my personal life and professional life.
Q: Earlier you mentioned you have bigger aspirations than the company. Do you look at yourself becoming a producer one day?
A: Yeah, I think that’s the macro goal. Jeffrey Seller has been so successful in building ancillary businesses that support his producing … and so he has built all these business that help him be a great producer, and I sort of see that trajectory as what I am on. Being a creative producer is sort of the macro goal for myself.
Q: Why is that?
A: I like bringing all the pieces together. I went to Penn State for stage management and lighting design, both of which I had no real interest in working in, but I’d recognized a few things. I recognized I wanted to be involved in theater in some capacity, but I wasn’t an actor. Then the other thing was I also wanted to do something that was artistically fulfilling, but also equally important, I am first and foremost a businessman. So I wanted to find something that blended those two things.
Q: What advice do you give recent graduates?
A: To go back to the “hustle.” There are a lot of people who have a lot of incredible talents whom I’ve met during school, my career and coming back to Penn State, and what I’ve found is the differentiator is how hard they’re willing to hustle. The people I look to hire, I’ll take hustle over innate skill any day of the week.
The other is that (having) built a business on the back of making, maintaining and maximizing relationships. I think that it is the strongest skill that I have, and I think it’s the most important thing for young people to utilize. Making the relationship is tough, but probably the easiest of the three steps. You make that relationship and find people who you want to learn from and reach out to them. Just say “hey can I get together with you.”
The next step is the hardest: maintaining that relationship. It’s not a matter of meeting somebody once and never staying in touch with them. The reason I am working on “Miss Saigon” is because in 2010 I interned at a general management office. I realized that I never wanted to be a general manager, but also realized that these were people who were going to be important to me in whatever path I chose. I maintained those relationships with them for six years with no opportunity for benefit until “Miss Saigon” came along. Because I had maintained those relationships, it wasn’t like “oh, who is this kid?” I was already there and I was ready to maximize it.