Holding High the Musical Flame
Theatre Under the Stars Strives Forward
There is a song in the musical Jekyll & Hyde that describes “The Moment” when Dr. Hyde’s hard work and perseverance finally come to fruition. Of course something goes amiss, and Hyde finds himself split between two competing personalities.
In a sense, it is fitting that Houston’s musical theater staple, Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) will be staging this Broadway hit October 9-24, as they too have multiple “personalities” to contend with. On the one hand, their 2012-2013 season is replete with the old standards: Peter Pan, Camelot and Man of La Mancha will be revived. On the other hand, TUTS has mixed in newer Broadway titles such as Monty Python’s SPAMALOT, Flashdance and the aforementioned Jekyll & Hyde.
TUTS did not always blend the old with the new, though. Originating in 1968 by founder Frank M. Young, TUTS was envisioned as a company that would bring musical theater to the people. TUTS’s first productions were held at Miller Outdoor Theatre (hence, “Under the Stars”) offering theatergoers an outdoor, affordable venue (Miller performances are free). Despite TUTS’ move to the indoor Sarofim Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, they still offer complimentary outdoor concerts at Miller once or twice a year, which they feel opens the door of musical theater to a greater audience.
“Since being at Miller is a part of our roots,” says John C. Breckenridge, President and CEO of TUTS, “it’s tremendously important to what we do.”
Breckenridge has been with TUTS since 1990 and has seen the organization broaden and expand; yet he stands firm that their “roots” remain securely planted. With the newly appointed artistic director Bruce Lumpkin, change is in the air.
When putting together their season, Breckenridge and Lumpkin take several factors into account; some are harder to grapple with than others. TUTS is a nonprofit with donors to appease, but it is also a theater company that needs to evolve and change and, undeniably, put bodies in seats. What they have found is that sometimes “nary the two shall meet.”
When TUTS established itself, it became known as a producer of revivals. Breckenridge recounts the multitude of times that the company revived Oklahoma, until they finally decided enough was enough. “We knew that if we were to survive and remain relevant, we needed to do more than revivals.”
As Broadway’s tastes have changed, TUTS offerings have also been given a makeover, which has occasionally caused waves. TUTS has acquired a “family-friendly” brand, which is not necessarily a label they had been looking for. With Broadway’s move toward edgier, more rock-n-roll types of shows, TUTS has had to walk a fine line. “When we look at putting our season together,” Breckenridge notes, “we look at what’s current on Broadway and then also what revivals we can do.” It is a balancing act. There have been times when patrons objected that TUTS was straying too far from the family model expectation.
“We do struggle…internally. OK, is XYZ title going to be too much of a stretch for what our audiences think we should be doing?” Breckenridge mentions that there have been productions they have avoided because of this perception.
So how does a theater company entrenched in the world of song, delicately trying to balance the old musical with the new, forge ahead? The recent hiring of Lumpkin as Artistic Director is one step forward. Lumpkin brings to TUTS vast experience in Broadway and a history with the organization; Lumpkin’s first job in the theater was with TUTS in the 1970s. Lumpkin has plans to integrate more emerging theater into TUTS’ season, and expand its audience at the same time.
“Something John and I have been talking about for several months is utilizing an alternate space,” Lumpkin says. Having the ability to utilize their smaller space at Zilkha Hall for lesser-known productions would allow TUTS to expand its offerings to a younger demographic and bring productions that would play better in a more intimate setting. Both Breckenridge and Lumpkin agree that TUTS will continue to move forward, even if it means shaking up their family-friendly image a bit.
There’s more to TUTS than its season. In 1972, TUTS received a grant from the Humphreys Foundation of Liberty Texas and launched the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre (HSMT). “It has grown tremendously,” TUTS new Artistic Director, Bruce Lumpkin says. Now, enrollment has increased to several hundred students.
TUTS also runs a summer program for teenagers called ACT @ TUTS, which culminates into a full-length musical at the end of each season. ACT gives aspiring actors the opportunity to learn from directors and coaches working professionally in the field. TUTS prides itself on this program, which has seen its graduates win coveted roles and awards; Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Bruce Norris is a graduate of the program.
In 2002, they established the Tommy Tune Awards, which recognizes excellence in high school musical theater. Now in its tenth year, the Tommy Tunes have become a celebrated event brimming with healthy teenage competition. “The Tommy Tunes are like the state football championships for the arts,” Breckenridge gushes.
TUTS is not the theater company it was all those years back when Frank Young brought it to life. However, despite its new location, expanding outreach, new offerings and adventurous choices – at its core, musical theater will always reign as king. Breckenridge adds matter-of-factly, “We are and always will be about musical theater.”
Abby Koenig is a writer and playwright, occasional storyteller and has been known to tell a joke or two. She teaches Mass Communication at Houston Community College.
Jekyll & Hyde
Jekyll & Hyde Master Class and Vocal Intensive with Frank Wildhorn