September 3, 2008

Tom Hulce Sees Coming-of-Age As Ripe Material for Theater.

By Pat Craig

Both Pinto from "Animal House" and the fan talking to him agree it's been a long time.

But 30 years since the cult classic? Impossible.

It's been that long, actually a little longer, since Tom Hulce, now 54 and a bearded Broadway producer, was a fresh-faced, 20- something college graduate determined to make his mark on the Great White Way.

His arrival was quickly followed by a turn on the Broadway fast track: Hulce became understudy for the young man's role in Peter Shaffer's "Equus," and because of that he learned about a 19th- century German play about the sexual awakening of small-town youngsters in Germany.

"The guy who was playing the role, Peter Firth, had also played it in London, where 'Equus' was running in repertory with 'Spring Awakening,' the old German play by Frank Wedekind," says Hulce, who is one of the producers of the musical version of 'Spring Awakening.' Winner of six Tony Awards, including the 2006 Tony for best Broadway musical, it opens Sunday in San Francisco (with previews starting Thursday). "That was the first uncensored English- language production of the play. And then, along the way, I read it and began to imagine it as an opera."

He tucked away the thought as he wandered west. Hulce hit gold in 1978 when he was cast as Larry "Pinto" Kroger in "National Lampoon's Animal House." It was the first step in what would become a career of working mostly on projects dealing with coming-of-age issues.

That was certainly a factor in "Amadeus," Shaffer's biography of Mozart, and "Dominick and Eugene," a film in which Hulce played a mentally handicapped man working as a garbage collector to help his brother through medical school. He also ran into the theme on Broadway, where he played a Tony-nominated role in "A Few Good Men."

Between "Animal House" and "Amadeus," Hulce did little film work, mainly because he thought of himself more as a stage actor.

"I was a serious stage actor and considered film kind of an occasional odd adventure -- I was off doing Chekhov's 'Seagull' on one side of 'Animal House' and having a try at 'Romeo' on the other," he said.

"After that, I didn't find too much film that was challenging, nothing that really excited me. Theater was home base, so I waited for the right (film) opportunity to come along, and that was 'Amadeus,' which was an unbelievable experience and something that remains a lifelong thing." He still is extremely proud of the work and pleased future generations can see it on DVD.

He got an Oscar nomination for "Amadeus" and has done quite a bit of acting since then, but much of his work has been producing projects such as "The Cider House Rules," a six-hour, two-part theatrical version based on the John Irving novel. His stage work earned him numerous awards, including the 2006 best-musical Tony Award for "Spring Awakening."

Around the time he had completed "Cider House," he met director Michael Mayer. During a conversation one day, he mentioned the old German play and his idea for turning it into an opera set in a conservative mid-American town, but faithfully presented in operatic style.

Mayer told the would-be impresario to hold his elaborate horses and introduced him to Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, who were already busy with their own adaptation of the 1891 banned-in-Berlin "Spring Awakening." Their idea, however, was to leave the play in its original German time and place but to make the music rock, offering a single, liberating note into the repressed lives of the youngsters.

"I immediately got excited because it was such a purely theatrical idea." says Hulce. "Suddenly, the music literally became the instrument of liberation for these young people -- giving them hope, exhilaration and freedom to have that sort of outward expression. Then, when it ends, they go back to their ordinary lives."

Now, a little more than eight years later, audiences bought the concept of a coming-of-age story that deals frankly with sexuality and other typically hushed matters, in a way that brings parents and children together, often with tears in their eyes, Hulce says.

"As parents and their kids watch the story, it becomes impossible not to respond. When we started, I had no idea how this would play," he says.

But the subject matter of the show -- explosive, controversial, but vital to those going through the growing-up process -- seems to be what makes the musical so compelling to audiences.

"For us older folks, it is both amusing to watch and a little nostalgic at times," says Hulce. "A 50-year-old friend of mine with three girls was watching the show and said, 'I don't even know why there are tears dripping down my face, but that is such a potent time for anyone going through what we all went through such a long time ago."

Reach Pat Craig at [email protected] theater preview-- WHAT: "Spring Awakening," by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater-- WHERE: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., S.F.-- WHEN: In previews 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; opens 2 p.m. Sunday and plays 8 p.m. Tuesdays- Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 1 and 6 p.m. Sundays-- TICKETS: $30-$90; 415-512-7770,

Originally published by Pat Craig, Contra Costa Times.

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