Tony Awards 2012

And then there were three.

When the producers of “Leap of Faith,” starring Raul Esparza, closed the show a few days after receiving a Tony nomination for best musical, they defied the awards pressure to keep an honored production up and running. Remember how 2000′s “The Wild Party” and 2008′s “Cry-Baby” stuck it out against all odds, only to shutter shortly after the Tony ceremony?

Which leaves “Newsies the Musical,” “Nice Work if You Can Get It” and “Once” to battle it out in the new musical category. These contests are rarely nail-biters; the winner is almost always pre-ordained.

But not this year. All three shows are running at or near capacity, touring prospects are bright for each of them. The contest hasn’t been this tight since 2004 when “Avenue Q” and “Wicked” waged the classic David-and-Goliath battle that left almost no oxygen for the other nominated shows, “The Boy From Oz” and “Caroline, or Change.”

The three 2012 contenders for best musical opened within a month of one another. That goal aside, the roads that led to Broadway and the Tonys could not have been more different.

Broadway bound

“Once” may set the record for going from concept to full Broadway production.

“It’s sort of blurry, the whole thing has happened so quickly,” says playwright Enda Walsh. In December 2010, he and director John Tiffany held a reading of Walsh’s adaptation of the 2006 screenplay. “There were a couple of actors, a boy and a girl. They sang the songs and read the script and John did the other parts in bad accents.” On the second day, according to Walsh, Tiffany said, “Let’s show them the first act.”

“Them” were the lead producers, including Barbara Broccoli and Fred Zollo.

“Fifteen minutes into the first reading, I said, ‘We can go right to Broadway,’ ” Zollo says.

Five months later, Robert Cole came aboard as exec producer after the tuner’s second workshop, at Harvard U.

“The goal was clear, it was to produce this on Broadway. How can we do that? What’s the best to get there?” says Cole. A full production at Off Broadway’s nonprofit New York Theater Workshop came out of that dialogue. As for casting the show with a couple of stars, Tiffany says: “There are always discussions about casting stars in lead roles in theater — especially when you’re working with commercial producers — and it’s not something I’m against, not at all. But any casting has to be right for the project. And Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti are perfect for my production of ‘Once.’ There’s a delicacy and rawness to the story, music and their performances which feels whole, honest and unshowy. And sometimes it should be the job of Broadway to introduce stars as well as cast them.”

Cracking the nut

Shortly before that first 2010 reading of “Once,” Harvey Fierstein met with Disney Theatricals’ Thomas Schumacher to discuss his working on a project for the legit org.

“But Harvey said what he really wanted to do was ‘Newsies,’” says Schumacher, referring to the stage version of the 1992 movie about a newspaper boys’ strike. “Having him write the book was not my idea. It was his.”

As the book writer so aptly put it in the wake of his Tony nomination, “Harvey Fierstein writing a family show? It is fucking funny!”

It’s also lucrative. As Schumacher points out, “Having done ‘Hairspray,’ Harvey knows about licensing value.” At that point in time, the plan was to send the show directly to stock and amateur. “He had three or four big ideas, it was a natural,” Schumacher says of giving Fierstein the job. Before Fierstein, “We just couldn’t crack the nut on how to make it stage worthy.”

The scribe’s ideas included making the hero an artist, giving him a love interest who’s an activist at the birth of the women’s movement, and not only reordering the Alan Menken/Jack Feldman songs but giving them new context. Impressed, Disney gambled on a full production at New Jersey’s Papermill last autumn.

“We were in the land of (Gov.) Chris Christie,” says Schumacher. How would the pro-union message play there? “At its core, the show plays to the simple issue that these boys are asking for a square deal and a fair shake. That plays to the 99%.”

On Broadway, those 1% parents from Park Avenue haven’t objected to their little ones being exposed to such lefty propaganda. Then again, “Newsies” skews older than most Disney shows.

“The sweet spot is 25 to 30-ish,” Schumacher says of current auds. “That’s the movie’s fanbase.”

Post Tony noms, Disney Theatricals turned its limited Broadway run into an open-ended run.

“Every step of this show has been shocking,” says Menken, who means that in a completely positive way.

Right person

Unlike “Newsies” and “Once,” the “new” Gershwin tuner “Nice Work if You Can Get It” took a very, very long time getting to the Rialto. Or as its book writer, Joe DiPietro, says, “It’s really a crazy business. The show sat around for years with little interest and suddenly the right person finds it and likes it and here we are with 10 Tony nominations.”

That right person with regard to “Nice Work” is producer Scott Landis, who first contacted the Gershwin estate in 2007 about “An American in Paris,” only to find that the rights weren’t available. The estate’s Mike Strunsky suggested he look at another Gershwin project, something called “They All Laughed,” which had preemed six years earlier at Goodspeed.

A workshop with Harry Connick Jr. and Erin Dilly ensued, with Kathleen Marshall at the helm. There was a falling out, then more waiting, until Landis, a former CAA agent suggested an erstwhile client, Matthew Broderick, to headline. That 2010 workshop took an 18-month road to Broadway. “We were waiting for everybody’s availability,” Landis says of Marshall, Broderick and Kelli O’Hara.

DiPietro reflects on the 10-plus-year journey. “The essence of the show remains the same, but I dropped and added several songs, changed much of the dialogue and even cut a character.” Way back when, Estelle Parsons’ matriarch entered with a young Italian lover in “They All Laughed.”

“Nice Work” marks Landis’ first shot as a lead producer of a new musical, his having shepherded “The Pajama Game” at the Roundabout.

“It’s a lot more work than doing a play,” he surmises. “It has a lot more moving parts, it takes a huge number of people. That was the big surprise.” He quickly adds, “No, it’s not raising the money. That was easy, the investors liked the combination of elements.”

Did he learn anything from watching “Smash” on the tube?

Landis laughs. “It doesn’t have hardly anything to do with reality,” he says. “It’s fun to watch. The thing you do share is the excitement, all the pressure and fun of putting on a show. But the drama of scheming chorus people, the backstabbing, doesn’t exist in our world. Not on this show anyway. I may tell you a different story on another show.”

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