Amadeus Reinvents Himself

Amadeus Reinvents Himself Tom Hulce's journey from actor to producer (of Broadway's Spring Awakening) is distinguished by a love of music and theatre.

Tom Hulce
Tom Hulce

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Tom Hulce, the Oscar-nominated "Amadeus" whose little gold man was swiped by that second-rate Salieri in 1984 — will these injustices never end? — turns out to be the son of a Phil Spitalny chantoosie, but chances are you never saw him sing on stage or screen.

He grew up outside Ann Arbor, MI, with a song in his heart. "My voice didn't change until I was well into my 15th year, so I got some extra years to sing, worked on harder music and joined a boys' choir. The singing brought me to theatre and, therefore, to musical theatre, and that brought me to acting. My entire upbringing was about music."

Now he's taking up the musical baton again and waving it wildly with great Wolfgang abandon — albeit behind the scenes, as a producer (along with Ira Pittelman, Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel and the Atlantic Theater Company) of Spring Awakening, a startling theatrical fusion that couples contemporary rock (songs by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater) with Teutonic teen-angst (Frank Wedekind's 1891 play). Its home is the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

The title is quite dead-on for the 53-year-old Hulce. "What's so rewarding for me is that in this period of time, now that I am taking on the work of shepherding new projects, I have decided they will all be musical projects or they will have a significant musical element." This amounts to a musical intermission of almost 40 years. As an actor, he left Broadway at the top of his game, originating the lead role in Aaron Sorkin's military courtroomer, A Few Good Men. He signed off the stage officially at Michael Kahn's Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., having a stab at Hamlet — an apt exit if you buy Olivier's belief that it's the tragedy of a man who can't make up his mind. On his way out the door, Hulce grabbed an Emmy for portraying the gay pediatrician in director Paul Bogart's TV-movie edition of Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles."

But the spark was gone. "It wasn't sudden," he admits. "It happened over a 10-year period. My passion, my thirst, for acting lessened — and my intrigue for the story as a whole increased. Eventually, I just shifted over, and the beauty part of that, for me, is, because I had the opportunity to play so many leading parts, I had developed skills that had to do with how a story works as a whole. It allowed me to develop an arsenal of skills that are useful in this work because, as I am in the room to a certain extent collaborating creatively, I bring all those skills I had as an actor that have to do with how to organize."

As a producer, he followed the same rebel-without-a-cause beat that he did as an actor. When he left North Carolina School of the Arts at age 19, it was to come to New York to be in a play — a specific play: Christopher Hampton's gay, "Amadeus"-like opus about French poet Arthur Rimbaud, Total Eclipse — but the producers didn't see it that way (an unforeseen occurrence for young Tom). Through the kind intervention of Polly Holliday, he landed a job shopping for costumes at The Public.

Six weeks later he signed up for Equus to understudy Peter Firth, then fresh from his London triumph in Spring Awakening (small world, isn't it?), and took over the part of the troubled teen when Anthony Perkins replaced Anthony Hopkins as sympathetic shrink.

"9/30/55" — the death of James Dean — marked his movie debut (he played a young Southerner unhinged by that tragedy). He was also in "National Lampoon's Animal House," Class of '78: Larry Kroger, the white-bread candidate. And he was the unruly vulgarian in the court of Emperor Joseph II — one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Is it, then, any wonder that he would be artistically, if not intrinsically, drawn to the traumas of teenagers springing awake in a hopeless, hormonal struggle with burned-out, buttoned-down authority types of the late 19th century? Still, it was hardly a straight line.

According to Hulce's clock, it started a good seven years ago when he was searching for a director for a Michael Cunningham novel he had bought and wanted to film, "A Home at the End of the World." "Because of the nature of the story, I was convinced it would be really right for a theatre director who was ready to make the jump to film the way the British directors like Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry had done. I did not know Michael Mayer, only his work — Stupid Kids, Side Man, A View From the Bridge — and, in talking to him, I said the one thing I wanted to do was to commission an opera based on Wedekind's Spring Awakening. He said, 'That's so interesting, because I've just begun work with Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater on a theatre-musical adaptation of that.' Their scenes would stay in this repressive, conservative, 100-years-ago world, but the songs would allow it the possibility of freedom, articulation and the exhilaration of today's audience. The theatrical tension of that so excited me I decided not to pursue an opera version. I thought this was actually the much better idea — a harder idea, mind you, but a much better idea."

The further adventures of Amadeus will include a deep bow to his mom's Spitalny past, to the World War II heyday of all-girl bands and squealing bobby-soxers and Evelyn and her magic violin — but, for now, his focus is on a gentler Germany that only eats its young.