When the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is at a creative impasse, she deploys her secret weapon: Mandy Hackett. “Her keen insights help me with my re-writes,” says Parks. The actor and writer John Leguizamo describes Hackett as a great storyteller and script doctor. The pop-music superstar Alicia Keys calls her “so special.”

The army of fans that Hackett, 53, has acquired over the years will come in handy as she prepares to leave her post as the No. 3 at the Public Theater, the vaunted New York nonprofit, and hang out her shingle as an independent producer.

The first item on the agenda is Hell’s Kitchen, a semi-autobiographical jukebox musical assembled from Keys’s life and catalogue. It just began previews on Broadway (opening night is April 26), following an acclaimed run last fall at the Public.

Mandy Hackett and Keys.

It’s a logical step for Hackett, who will be credited as the show’s co-producer and consulting producer. (She’ll be billed as a co–lead producer on the plays and musicals she’s developing, but declined to give details because the projects haven’t yet been announced.) The Public has decades of experience incubating work that has ended up on the Great White Way—among the five dozen examples are Hair (1968), A Chorus Line (1975), and Hamilton (2015)—and Hackett herself has been deeply involved in more recent transfers, such as Fun Home (2015), Latin History for Morons (2017), Girl from the North Country (2020), and now Hell’s Kitchen.

“Around the time of Hamilton it was decided to formalize my role a little bit more around commercial products,” says Hackett, whose attention to detail and great calm would seem to make her an ideal leader for a Broadway-bound musical. “So I became the director of Public Theater productions, which meant that I oversaw all the shows that had a Broadway producer or any sort of commercial producer attached from when we began work on them.”

“Her keen insights help me with my re-writes.”

Hackett began mulling her second act before the pandemic. She had joined the staff of the Public as an associate producer in 2005, initially charged with revitalizing its play-development programs, but gradually she took on more and more responsibilities. “I love the Public so deeply,” she says, “but I was starting to think about what was beyond not-for-profit institutional theater. And I love Broadway. I love the energy of Broadway.”

“I love the Public so deeply,” Hackett says, “but I was starting to think about what was beyond not-for-profit institutional theater.”

Hell’s Kitchen was the right show at the right time. Hackett, an early reader of the script at the Public, was instantly smitten. “I really wasn’t sure what to expect,” she says. “A lot of people would assume it’s a sort of biopic that tells Alicia’s story from beginning to middle to end stardom, and I immediately thought, Wow, they’re making such a great decision because it focuses on a teenager over two or three months.” In that short time frame, the central character discovers music, falls in love, and falls out of love. “But really, at the center is a mother-daughter story,” Hackett says. “I have two teenage daughters, so I could really relate.”

She would have maintained a connection with Hell’s Kitchen once it moved on from the Public thanks to her role as director of Public Theater productions. “But I didn’t want to be looking at it from the outside,” she says. “I really wanted to stay with it.”

This was partly about the show. It was a lot about Alicia Keys. “She obviously is so gifted and talented as a musician and artist,” Hackett says. “But she’s also a deeply inspiring person. Someone recently told me there are two kinds of people, detractors and illuminators. Alicia is an illuminator. She just brings out the best in everyone around her.”

That seems to be the case with Hackett too, according to Keys: “She is super-smart and deeply attached to the vision, and takes great care in understanding the needs of the show and of each member of the team.”

“I love the energy of Broadway.”

An only child, Hackett grew up in Englewood, New Jersey, on a steady diet of theater. “My parents were progressive Jews who believed the arts were essential,” she says.

Hackett’s mother took her to Broadway shows, “which I loved,” she says. Her father took her to see works by Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Pinter, Arthur Miller, and, as she put it, “the Greeks.” “I remember it so clearly,” she continues. “He would open up The Village Voice and start circling plays. I didn’t really like them at the time, but I appreciated them as I got older.”

The cast of Hell’s Kitchen.

Hackett was a mainstay of her high-school drama department—she was in the ensemble of Fiddler on the Roof and directed a production of The Crucible. During college—first Bennington, then Barnard—she interned in the literary department at Manhattan Theatre Club, directed a pair of Pinter plays for her senior project, and after graduating became a freelance script reader and occasional dramaturge for New York Theatre Workshop, a job that introduced her to the playwright Tony Kushner, now a close friend. It was through Kushner that Hackett met Oskar Eustis; she was his first hire when he became the artistic director of the Public.

One afternoon in early March, Hackett was at Open Jar Studios, a rehearsal space in Midtown Manhattan, where she reviewed a schedule with the production stage manager. It felt like old-home week. Several cast members came over to say hello and give Hackett a hug. The Public Theater production of Hell’s Kitchen ended in mid-January, and the performers and creative team were only now re-assembling to ready the show for Broadway.

“Are you enjoying the changes we made?,” Nico DeJesus, an ensemble member, asked Hackett. Yes, she was enjoying them very much.

“I’m not a writer myself, and I’m not a director,” Hackett said as she watched some dancers warm up. “But when I see a great script I want to be the linebacker … I want to run down the field and clear it of any obstacles or challenges so that artists can do their work—as only they can.”

Hell’s Kitchen is in previews at the Shubert Theatre, in New York, where it officially opens on April 26

Joanne Kaufman is a New York–based journalist and critic