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Producer Hulce springs to new Rialto role

Hyphenate's test comes when 'Awakening' premieres Dec. 10

NEW YORK — You can’t throw a BlackBerry in New York without hitting three actors who want to direct, but thesps who dream of producing are a scarcer breed.

Even among that group, Tom Hulce may be unique. The projects he chooses and the manner in which he develops them reveal an unusually hands-on approach to a job that often centers on fund-raising and numbers crunching. In many ways, he’s a throwback to a breed of creative producers largely superseded by money men.

Hulce’s approach is certainly intriguing, but will the industry accept a neophyte producer who’s as interested in script beats as profit margins?

His method will get its biggest test Dec. 10, when rock musical “Spring Awakening” provides the Oscar- and Tony-nominated actor with his Broadway producing debut.

Co-written by pop star Duncan Sheik and playwright Steven Sater and based on Frank Wedekind’s 19th century expressionistic play about adolescent sexuality, “Spring Awakening” is not an obvious candidate for Rialto success. Early sales haven’t set records either, but the show’s strong word of mouth — Internet wags have reported enthusiastic standing ovations at preview perfs — and its successful berth last summer at Atlantic Theater Company suggest the tuner may find a fan base.

For Hulce, who with producing partner Ira Pittelman has been attached to the project since its early readings, success could prove the viability of his aesthetic. “I’m extremely interested in bringing contemporary songwriters to a narrative experience. There’s a hybrid between musical theater and (traditional) concerts that interests me,” Hulce explains.

In other words, he wants to shepherd artistic fusions between songwriters and legiters, not just create jukebox tuners. Echoing that spirit, “Spring Awakening” has shades of a rock show, with a number of patrons seated onstage and cast members often standing face-forward concert style as they belt their power-pop anthems.

The stylistic marriage also is apparent in Hulce’s next project, a musical created by playwright Keith Bunin and country-folk songstress Patty Griffin. Set to bow at the Atlantic next May, the untitled show will thread Griffin’s songs through the story of two on-off lovers on a cross-country trip.

Hulce further reports he’s developing a tuner about an all-female orchestra that rose to fame during World War II. (His mother sang with the group for several years.)This interest in a production’s shape and content is becoming Hulce’s calling card. Though he fully participates in fund-raising and other financial endeavors, he prefers sitting in the rehearsal room, being part of the process of a work’s creative development.

“I’m the equivalent of an artistic director, except I have no institution,” he says, defining his approach. “As an actor, I have had the opportunity to develop skills at telling a story, and I have an understanding of process. (As a producer), it’s unusual to be in a (rehearsal) room as much as I am, but my prior experience might help me understand the right time to step in and make suggestions.”

His creative impulses lead Hulce to favor projects still in need of development over those that are ready for immediate production. For instance, at the dawn of “Spring Awakening,” he was instrumental in the decision to cast age-appropriate actors instead of twentysomethings playing teens. Hulce felt that having actual youngsters would enhance the show’s impact and inspire a simpler, sleeker design that didn’t have to compensate for the youth missing in the ensemble.

He already has been shepherding the Bunin and Griffin musical for two years; one of his primary projects has been helping the songwriter feel comfortable crossing from the music biz to theater.

But Hulce is also wading into new waters.

Beyond “Spring Awakening,” his only other commercial credits are 2004 indie film “A Home at the End of the World” (on which he first collaborated with Sheik, Sater and “Spring Awakening” director Michael Mayer) and productions in New York and L.A. of Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads.”

Though his acting has slowed in favor of producing — a small role in current dramedy “Stranger Than Fiction” marks his first screen work in years — some may resist aligning with a producer they still perceive as a moonlighting thesp.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve met with resistance as much as healthy skepticism,” offers Hulce. He acknowledges he has much to learn about his new job, and cites colleagues like Pittelman as vital resources in helping him learn the ropes.

Of course, some have already embraced Hulce’s transition. Mayer — who also will direct the Griffin tuner — insists he would work with Hulce on anything. “It’s a completely satisfying and unusual (producer-director) relationship,” he says. “He’s a real thinker and theater lover. It never feels like he’s hired me to do a job as much as he’s invited me in on a collaborative process,” Mayer says.