"In every way with this show, we're in some kind of hybrid territory," Tom Hulce said, sitting in a balcony of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre a few weeks before the opening of Spring Awakening. "We're definitely not Broadway as usual—we're in some kind of exciting middle ground."
Hulce might as well be speaking about his own eclectic career as about this sizzling new musical based on a once-banned German classic about youthful sexuality, for which Hulce is a producing partner with Ira Pittelman. Best known for his Oscar-nominated lead performance in the 1984 film Amadeus and his Tony-nominated role in 1989's Broadway premiere of A Few Good Men, Hulce has since quietly made a name behind the scenes. As co-director, with Jane Jones, of an epic stage adaptation of John Irving's novel The Cider House Rules, Hulce shepherded the show from the Seattle Repertory Theatre to L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, and finally to Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theatre
—an experience which led him inexorably to his current role.
"Cider House was a glorious, unique adventure and education, and in some way pushed me toward producing work," Hulce recalls. "It was eight hours long over two evenings and had a cast of 25 people, and that was about the time in the 1990s when every theatre was looking for solo pieces. So the process of turning a 'no' into a 'yes'—of taking every obstacle and finding a way to overcome it—was so much a part of just shepherding that piece." In short, Hulce found that he had a knack for fundraising, cheerleading, and developing. Though he has a small role in the recent Will Ferrell vehicle Stranger Than Fiction, Hulce now talks about acting like a bad habit he's happy to have kicked.
"I successfully stopped acting about 10 years ago," Hulce says. "It was addictive. It's unbelievably luxurious, very hard, fulfilling, obsessive work. But my brain changed, and putting a story together as a whole, as opposed to living inside a story, became much more compelling to me."
Hulce the producer next got behind a movie adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel A Home at the End of the World. The film was notable as the film directing debut of stage powerhouse Michael Mayer (Thoroughly Modern Millie, The View From the Bridge), and the link with Hulce turned out to be a lasting one. In their first meeting about the film, Mayer briefly went off-topic and told Hulce about a pet project he was developing for the stage with playwright Steven Sater and singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik: a unique rock musical version of Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind's 1891 coming-of-age tale.
Coincidentally, Hulce was already a fan of the Wedekind play.
"My first job in New York was covering for Peter Firth in Equus," Hulce recounts. "And the same season that Equus had premiered at the National they had done Spring Awakening, so I got a copy of it to see what it was." Hulce liked it well enough to have formed his own notions about musicalizing it: "My idea was to commission an opera of it and set it in America, in some conservative religious sect in New England, or in the swampy Southern Gothic world."
Then he heard the Mayer/Sater/Sheik approach. "As soon as they told me their idea-to keep the story in the 1890s but to have contemporary songs—I loved the inherent theatricality of that, and the tension between a story in a repressive community 100 years ago and the freedom and exhilaration of a contemporary, somewhat 'rock' score."
Here Hulce pauses for a moment to mull one aspect of the show's unclassifiability.
"I never know what to call our score," Hulce confesses. "You say 'alternate rock' to 19-year-olds and they look at you like you don't know what you're talking about. We have been advised that our song 'The Bitch of Living' is actually 'pop punk'—a category I'd never heard of."
It's a safe bet that most Broadway audiences haven't heard much of that genre, either. For his part, Hulce seems almost as puzzled as he is exhilarated to be shepherding this boundary-breaking musical to the Great White Way after its Off-Broadway hit run last summer at the Atlantic Theatre.
"This is not where we expected to be," Hulce claims. "We did not do the piece at the Atlantic as a Broadway tryout. We did the piece at the Atlantic to do the piece, and to see how close we could get to what everyone imagined it might be." Then, about 10 days after nearly unanimous rave reviews, Hulce says "something that I hadn't really experienced before started to happen. The company galvanized, and suddenly the piece lifted in front of us. Audiences began demanding another curtain call; they all stood up at the same time. Suddenly the numbers felt like they wanted to burst out."
It was only then, Hulce says, that Broadway seemed like a possibility. "In some ways, the show told us where it wanted to go," says Hulce. He seems optimistic that that same message will be heard loud and clear by audiences.
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