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Don’t Stop Believing

USC College alumna Kristin Hanggi directed the five-time Tony nominated musical, Rock of Ages, featuring songs from Journey and other classic 1980s bands.

By Stephanie Jones MA ’10 and Pamela J. Johnson
July 20, 2009

Kristin Hanggi, a graduate of USC College's Master of Professional Writing program and Tony nominated director, will direct a new movie musical based on the book series <em>Dear Dumb Diary</em>.  Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.

Kristin Hanggi, a graduate of USC College's Master of Professional Writing program and Tony nominated director, will direct a new movie musical based on the book series Dear Dumb Diary. Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.

Curled in a blanket, Kristin Hanggi was in her Manhattan apartment journaling, anxiously listening to the Tony Award nominations.

The USC College alumna hoped that Rock of Ages, the metal musical she directed, would earn a few nods. When the show, a spirited ode to the big-hair bands of the 1980s, was nominated for best musical, “my heart was flying,” she said. When it was nominated for three more Tonys, she could barely contain herself.

Then came what Hanggi called her “little girl moment.”

“They said my name and suddenly, you see in my journal where my hand starts shaking,” said Hanggi, her long, tight curls framing cerulean blue eyes and a wide smile. “It was so crazy. You can see where I wrote in large letters, ‘OH MY GOD!’

“Then I jumped up and down in my living room. It was a feeling of, ‘my life just changed.’ ”

At 31, Hanggi had become the youngest musical director nominated for a Tony. But she is also a writer.

In 2000, Hanggi graduated from the College’s Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program with an emphasis in playwriting. Raised in Fountain Valley and Murrieta, Calif., with an older and younger brother, her parents are retired teachers. She earned her bachelor’s in theatre at UCLA.

She chose MPW because “I really wanted to tackle my skills as a writer. The program was amazing for me because there was so much flexibility, in terms of learning poetry, comedy, structure, playwriting, screenwriting — you name it.”

After MPW, she helped to develop The Pussycat Dolls, an all-girl burlesque troupe, into a hugely successful, star production at the Roxy Theatre.

At the legendary theatre on Sunset Strip, Hanggi discovered material for Rock of Ages.

“The entire time that I’m there, I’m hearing people’s stories,” she said. “The sound man’s story and the bar back’s story. Everyone had a story because there was so much rock ‘n’ roll mythology deep in the clubs. The stories were on the bathroom walls in graffiti. All these stories were alive and breathing on The Strip.”

Intent on directing, she pitched the idea of rock ‘n’ roll life on Sunset Strip in the ’80s to producers and recruited Chris D’Arienzo to write the musical.

Whether directing or writing, the goal is always the same, she said.

“What I love is great storytelling,” she said. “MPW taught me how to tell a story, which is an art form, understanding the protagonist, the importance of watching them go through challenges, the importance of the ‘ah-ha’ moment. What I find is, the way we tell stories and watch stories mirrors the lessons we learn in life.”

Currently, Hanggi is writing a screenplay based on the young adult book series Dear Dumb Diary by Jim Benton. She will also direct the movie musical about an only child — an awkward middle school girl with a giant crush on a boy.

“The books are so funny, I laugh out loud to where my side hurts,” she said.

Hanggi has learned that hard work, an earmark of a Trojan, is mandatory to reach one’s goals. She needed that attribute for Rock of Ages, she said.

“For me, it was a huge testimony in persistence because this project had been on the road for five years,” she said. “There were lots of dark nights of the soul where it didn't seem like it was going to happen. Now, I just want to run around and tell everyone that dreams do come true.”

In the weeks prior to award’s night, she attended events with Liza Minnelli, Elton John, Dolly Parton, John Lithgow, Jeremy Irons and Angela Lansbury, to name a few larger-than-life performers.

“When you have these living legends in front of you talking about work — it’s not that the goal is over there somewhere to get, but the goal is right here, right now, right in front of me,” said Hanggi, who didn’t take home a Tony that night.

“Then I realized, oh yeah, we’re just people doing our thing. And I can do my thing to the best of my ability.”