Near the close of this year’s Tony Awards, a swarm of men and women converged to accept one of the ceremony’s top awards, filling the Radio City stage to bursting point. But this wasn’t the massive cast of “The Coast of Utopia” — it was the producers of “Spring Awakening.”
Gone are the days when the name of a producing titan like David Merrick, Harold Prince or Alexander H. Cohen loomed solo above the title. Populous producer breakdowns now have become the norm rather than the exception in high-stakes Broadway. But even by today’s standards, the “Spring” contingent raises the bar in terms of sheer numbers.
The Playbill for the winner of eight Tonys lists a staggering 29 producers, who came together in a long and complex process.
” ‘Spring Awakening’ came out of a film Michael Mayer directed: ‘A Home at the End of the World’,” explains lead producer Ira Pittelman. Tom Hulce produced the film, while “Spring” composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist-book writer Steven Sater wrote songs for the soundtrack. The team worked well enough to seed the idea of putting together a project for the theater. Soon, the four had adapted German writer Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play “Spring’s Awakening” into a musical that needed a home.
The tuner initially was earmarked for Roundabout Theater Company but those plans fell apart, and the restrictive post-9/11 climate made such dark material — teen angst, sexual confusion, abortion and suicide, among other things — seem a risky prospect.
“On the one hand, I’m miserable that the Roundabout didn’t do it, but I really do love the piece and I’m thrilled for Michael and the others,” says Roundabout a.d. Todd Haimes.
After a number of theaters passed on the project, Hulce and Mayer put together a concert staging of the show as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. When Pittelman saw the show there, he says, “Something about it really blew me away, but I didn’t understand what kind of commercial potential it had. After a while, I didn’t care.”
Pittelman, Hulce and the Atlantic Theater Company (which had also been at the reading) decided to produce “Spring Awakening” as the Atlantic’s first musical. And when the positive reviews started to hit, Pittelman had an awakening of his own. “Tom and I decided we were going to give it a next life no matter what happened,” he says.
Hulce and Pittelman enlisted fellow commercial producers Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel, who “put together half of our $6 million capitalization,” according to Pittelman. “The day after we closed, we did a daylong shoot, and then we put everything together on the Web site. I think that really got young people interested in the show.” Web content included a full musicvideo for the song “The Bitch of Living.”
The second half of that funding had a much larger number of individual people behind it, including producers who had worked on everything from commercial hits like the “Annie Get Your Gun” revival to low-key entries such as Off Broadway showcase “Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver.”
“I told people, ‘If you’re not prepared to lose all your money, it’s not a good idea, because there’s no way to tell what the public’s reaction is going to be’,” offers Pittelman. “Every step of the way, I didn’t think in commercial terms, and I’m a commercial producer. I did ‘The Odd Couple.’ ”
Despite that caveat, “Spring Awakening” attracted enough money to propel the show to Broadway, and Pittelman and Hulce maintained sole creative input within the group of producers.
“That’s not to say that Jeffrey and Jerry weren’t passionate about it,” clarifies Pittelman. “They would come to us with concerns and gave us suggestions that were good notes to take. And Tom is a really hands-on producer.”
Asked about future plans for the show, Pittelman notes that “Spring” wrapped slightly less than $1.2 million between the start of the June 10 Tony telecast and the end of sales the following day.
“It looks like we’re going to have a serious road company,” he says. “We have 74 weeks booked already, and we’ve been approached for foreign productions.” Pittelman indicated interest from the U.K., France, Spain, South Korea, Japan and Australia, noting that Austrian and German producers were enthusiastic about the work because “they consider it their material anyway.”
Better add them to the list.