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'Spring Awakening' and Deaf West's unlikely road to three Tony nominations

'Spring Awakening' and Deaf West's unlikely road to three Tony nominations
Daniel N. Durant in Deaf West's "Spring Awakening," which moved from Inner-City Arts in L.A. to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills to the Brooks Atkinson in New York. (Kevin Parry)

From its humble start in a small theater space in downtown Los Angeles to its three Tony Award nominations on Tuesday, including a nod for musical revival, Deaf West's production of "Spring Awakening" qualifies as this Broadway season's little theater production that could.

The innovative staging, which combines sign-language and spoken delivery, didn't have New York on its radar when it opened at Los Angeles' Inner-City Arts in 2014.

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"It was never in the cards," said Michael Arden, who staged the musical and received a Tony nomination for his direction. The plan was "just to make it a local production and to just get it through the run."

The production at Inner-City Arts received funding in part from a Kickstarter campaign, and "we didn't even have a place to stage our production until well into rehearsal," recalled David J. Kurs, artistic director of Deaf West Theatre.

"Even back then, we didn't have an inkling that the show could go on to Broadway and so quickly at that."

But strong word-of-mouth and glowing reviews propelled the show first to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills and then to New York, where it concluded its run at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in January.

Arden, a Silver Lake resident, spoke Tuesday from the Hamptons in New York, where he is directing a production of "My Fair Lady" at the Bay Street Theater. "I'm about to measure some wing space," he said.

His next projects will bring him back to L.A. He will serve as the first artist in residence at the Wallis and will direct two productions at the Beverly Hills company in the months ahead.

"I'm most excited about making theater in L.A. I think it's an exciting place," he said.

"Spring Awakening" is still scheduled to launch a national tour, with details to be announced later, according to Ken Davenport, the production's lead producer. The show's Broadway investment was $4.5 million, but Davenport declined to elaborate on the show's finances.

"Right now we're celebrating the Tony nominations," he said. The musical also received a nomination for Ben Stanton's lighting design.

"Spring Awakening" tells the story of adolescent sexual awakening through songs by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. The musical was originally produced by New York's Atlantic Theater Company and ran for more than two years on Broadway in a 2006 production directed by Michael Mayer.

Deaf West, which is based in L.A., produces plays and musicals that feature hearing and deaf actors. Its productions of "Pippin" and "Big River" ran at the Mark Taper Forum, with the latter transferring to Broadway in 2003. They were both directed by Jeff Calhoun.

"Spring Awakening" isn't the only Broadway show with L.A. backing to garner Tony attention.

Center Theatre Group is one of several investors in "Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed," which landed 10 nominations, including one for new musical.

The company first became aware of the production a little more than a year ago, "and we knew that we wanted to be a part of the producing team as the production was developed," said Michael Ritchie, CTG's artistic director, via email.

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He added: "With our investment of time, talent and money we always anticipate that it will yield a production for one of our stages."

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