NEW YORK – A classroom door opens at New York University and a 20-something student at the piano tries to not seem flustered by the two men who have joined him.
Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman are peeking in to hear how final projects are going for master's candidates at the musical theater program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.
These two guys know a thing or two about writing for the stage. Their "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" won four Tony Awards last year, including best musical and best book.
They also know a thing or two about what the students must be thinking. They were, after all, in the first class that graduated from the groundbreaking program in 1983.
"They are sitting where we sat," said Lutvak, who is also a cabaret singer with two CDs. "I know where they were, and I see us in their faces."
Lutvak and Freedman are being honored Monday at an NYU gala and will receive the Tisch Big Apple Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Theatrical Arts.
Both have fond memories of the program — the first of its kind — that brought them together. The inaugural class of 16 also included director George C. Wolfe and Winnie Holzman, who wrote the book for "Wicked." Their teachers included Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Arthur Laurents.
Lutvak was 21 and applied after seeing an ad for the program in The New York Times. At first he balked at the application fee but then fate intervened. "I found $25 in my burgundy overalls. Because we all wore overalls then," he said, laughing.
Freedman, who studied screenwriting at UCLA, was 24, and he'd been lured to New York University partly because he heard that the musical theater program was soon to start.
He and Lutvak were paired together for only one assignment during their two years in the program but remained friends after graduation.
"We just thought, 'One day, we're going to write a musical together. By hook or by crook,'" Freedman said. "We like each other's work, and we were friends. It just seemed logical."
They would eventually collaborate on the musical "Campaign of the Century" but scored their biggest success with a comedy about a serial killer you could root for.
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" is about a poor man who eliminates all the heirs standing in his way to inheriting a fortune. It's based on a 1907 novel called "Israel Rank," which was the source of the 1949 British film "Kind Hearts and Coronets."
Freedman, who wrote the story and lyrics, and Lutvak, who wrote the songs and lyrics, got a 10-year lesson in patience and determination getting it to Broadway.
They wrote it whenever they could find time together — a retreat in Sheridan, Wyoming; an empty house near Guadalajara, Mexico; a home in Cambria, California. "Wherever we could find places," Lutvak said.
Early success in workshops was derailed by a lawsuit, and years passed without any work on the film. "We just wanted to crawl into a hole and cry," said Freedman, whose TV credits include writing the TV movie "Life With Judy Garland."
After the legal storm settled, they reworked the material and were even happier by the result. "I think we would agree that we think our show is better for it," Freedman said. "We found better solutions."
The show finally made its Broadway bow in October 2013 with Jefferson Mays starring. It did well initially at the box office until winter came. Freedman and Lutvak gave up their royalties for a few weeks to keep the show running.
Then it won four Tonys, including the best musical crown, and never looked back. It recouped its $7.5 million capitalization, the theater is full and a national tour is planned to kick off in September.
"For some crazy reason, we believed in the show and we believed that it was our best work," Freedman said. "We couldn't let go. I'm sure a lot of people thought we were crazy."
Not anymore. Lutvak and Freedman are back at New York University this week as cherished alumni. When they peek in the classroom, it's like Stephen Sondheim has just stepped in.
"When people come to me for advice, I can say, 'Don't give up on your dream' and I can really mean it," Freedman said. "That's a really thrilling thing."