Tony contenders from birth

The pros share the joys and pays of delivery

WHAT: 61st annual Tony Awards
WHERE: Radio City Music Hall, New York City
WHEN: June 10, 2007
BALLOTS DUE: June 8, 2007

Plays begin with playwrights. Musicals, however, are an entirely different legit animal. When compared with the purebred form of dramas, they’re definitely the mongrels of the theater world, and seem to be conceived every which way.

Take the oeuvre of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, whose long-gestating musical “Curtains” has earned these songwriters their ninth Tony nom.

“All of the above,” says Kander, referring to the different ways tuners are conceived. Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” (1966) was the brainchild of its director-producer, Hal Prince. Their “Chicago” (1975) began when leading lady Gwen Verdon and director Bob Fosse acquired the stage rights. “Curtains,” however, got its start with K&E and book writer Peter Stone.

“The three of us had done ‘Woman of the Year,” and we liked working together,” Kander recalls, thinking back to the early 1980s. They discussed doing a musical about a Broadway-bound show. “Then it became a murder mystery in which the producer is killed,” says Kander. They even had an unofficial title for the musical: “Who Killed David Merrick?”

“It was so long ago, Merrick was still alive,” Kander jokes.

Of that original scribe team, only Kander lived to see “Curtains” open on Broadway in a version that features a retooled book by Rupert Holmes.

Nominated for seven Tonys, “Legally Blonde” came together a lot more quickly thanks to its lead producer, Hal Luftig. He saw the Reese Witherspoon comedy, about a California girl who follows her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School, along with a few other million moviegoers in 2001. Then some friends dragged him back for another viewing.

“Seeing it a second time freed me up to focus on the story,” says the producer. “And I knew this is what musicals are made of.”

In other words, all the movie “Legally Blonde” lacked to be made into a tuner called “Legally Blonde” was a creative team, whom Luftig found in the order of director Jerry Mitchell, songwriters Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and, finally, book writer Heather Hach, a legit newcomer whose “Freaky Friday” screenplay had impressed the producer.

Over at “LoveMusik,” it was a veteran helmer who gave birth to the show, which has been nomed for four Tonys. Back in 1999, Hal Prince asked playwright Alfred Uhry to read the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. It was Prince’s concept that they could take the songs Weill wrote with 12 different lyricists and fashion them into a successful musical because, among other things, “You can answer what the show is about in one sentence: A marriage is what works for two people,” says the director.

Obviously, this biotuner did not start with its songwriters. Two other Tony-nommed tuners, however, did.

“Grey Gardens” composer Scott Frankel spent “low-to-mid figures” out of his own pocket to cover the legal fees, and option the 1975 doc about the reclusive Edie and Edith Beale, then brought on lyricist Michael Korie and book writer Doug Wright. From option to Broadway preem, the tuner took about five years.

“It would be great to have more creatives option material,” says Frankel, “but there’s so much against that happening, most of which is financial. For creatives, the trick is to find something that isn’t a blockbuster — or better yet, something that’s in the public domain.”

Which describes the genesis of “Spring Awakening.” Intriguingly, Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play about teenage love, abortion and suicide sang to composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater. “The play is just so full of the unheard cries of young people. I could hear Duncan’s music in that play,” says Sater, who had written a few songs, but never a full theater piece, with Sheik.

Meanwhile, the Wedekind play topped Michael Mayer’s short list of works he wanted to direct, and actor-turned-producer Tom Hulce just happened to be looking to commission an opera on the drama.

“In some ways, opera is an easier fit for dark, complex material,” Hulce says. “But as soon as Michael told me that the idea was to keep the story in 1890s Germany but make the songs rock, the tension created there was exciting in a theatrical way.”

No tuner could be further afield from “Spring Awakening” than “Mary Poppins,” and that includes their respective routes to Broadway.

In 1993, Cameron Mackintosh acquired the stage rights to P.J. Travers’ children’s stories because, despite the 1964 movie musical starring Julie Andrews as the magical nanny, those rights were there to be bought.

“I wasn’t shocked that the rights were available,” says Mackintosh. “In those days, film people didn’t think you made that much in the theater.” Mackintosh’s productions of “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” however, soon changed that thinking.

“Now you get all rights for everything,” says Disney Theatrical’s prexy, Thomas Schumacher.

But in 1993, Disney Theatrical didn’t even exist, with “Beauty and the Beast” a year away from opening on Broadway.

Over the years, Mackintosh and Disney wanted to buy or license what the other owned. Finally, in 2001, Schumacher hopped a plane to London to meet with the producer to learn how he conceived “Mary Poppins” as a stage musical. “I’d been told he had crazy ideas. Not true,” says the Disney exec. In fact, Mackintosh’s concept in many ways replicated what Travers herself had envisioned in an unproduced screenplay for the “Mary Poppins” movie sequel.

A rapprochement established, the two men set about putting together their creative team.

While the current Broadway season offers a veritable textbook on how musicals happen, who does the conceiving doesn’t always mean very much in the end. Now that the big tuners of 2006-07 are up and running, it’s anyone’s guess as to which becomes a classic, which makes the most money or which wins the Tony.

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