History of Theatre Under The Stars
In the 1960s Houstonians saw the first sparks of a new energy that would soon cause an explosion in the theatre world. Those were days of bold new ventures, bordering on what some thought was foolish recklessness. The first phases of the Galleria were built so far out Westheimer Road that getting there was an adventurous trek. The city was moving full-throttle into the jet age with a new airport bearing the awe-inspiring name “Intercontinental.” Skeptics were shaking their heads about skyscrapers with “glass skins” and “loop roads” to circle the entire city. New buildings for symphony, opera, ballet, and theatre were sprouting like mushrooms. National companies and foreign consulates were rushing to establish headquarters here. It was a wonder-filled, visionary time when one could feel the city take a deep breath in preparation for a headlong dash into the future. Excitement was everywhere, and not the least of it was the completion in 1968 of Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park, an event that would trigger its own burst of creative energy.
A budding impresario named Frank Young, who had been producing touring musicals in the United States and Mexico, saw the new Miller Theatre and quickly became excited. Only the Houston Symphony had plans to use the facility, and it seemed a natural location for musicals — America’s own form of popular theatre. These performances, Young believed, should be offered free to the public, to bring musical theatre to the entire community. Young received encouragement from City of Houston officials; his coterie of enthusiastic performers contacted their friends; rumors began to bubble; and within a few months a production started to emerge. Cast members worked for free, supplied their own costumes, and even helped raise the $4,400 required to cover production expenses, including the payroll for stagehands and musicians. In a single performance of Bells Are Ringing, seen by 4,500 people on Sunday evening, September 15, 1968, after being rained out the previous night, Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS) was born.
Next year, 1969, saw the open-air, free-to-the-public park musicals increase to two—The Boy Friend and Carnival. Two shows were done each summer through 1976, as Theatre Under The Stars built a community-wide audience and established a growing reputation for exciting, high-quality musical theatre. TUTS has continued a lavish Miller production—always free of admission charges—every season, and it is the only institution that has performed there every summer without interruption since the Miller Outdoor Theatre opened.
In its fifth year, 1972, with a grant from The Moody Foundation, TUTS hired its first paid employee, a general manager, and moved out of Frank Young’s apartment into a two-room office in the River Oaks Center. There the company expanded its volunteer workforce and planned its first indoor subscription performances at the Music Hall to help offset the costs of the free summer shows. Troupe members also began performing small touring shows for hospitals, retirement homes, correctional institutions, and civic organizations. If someone asked, TUTS would be there!
It was also in 1972 that the TUTS staff recognized the need for a school to provide training for young people. Underwriting was obtained from The Humphreys Foundation of Liberty, Texas, to get the school started. Named the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre (HSMT), it offers courses, workshops, and summer and winter camps in acting, voice, and dance for students from pre-school to adult who are new to musical theatre, and also to professionals seeking enrichment of their technique. Both open-enrollment and audition-only courses are offered. Notable Humphreys alumni include Chandra Wilson of ABC-TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy”; Bruce Norris, Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright for Clybourne Park; Manuel Santos of NBC-TV’s “Smash”; and Broadway actors Michelle DeJean, Kevin Cahoon, and DeLee Lively.
TUTS has initiated successful ongoing collaborations in theatre arts training with the YMCA of Greater Houston, Texas Children’s Hospital, the Shriners Hospitals for Children, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center Children’s Cancer Hospital, and the Page Parks Center for Modeling and Acting. TUTS' professionals provide pediatric patients in hospitals and treatment centers the opportunity to participate in singing, dancing and acting. TUTS' faculty, in conjunction with the medical staff, help bring out the 'creative child' in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Other services offered include performances for young people presented in such venues as Miller Outdoor Theatre, theatre field trips for school groups at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, in-service courses for educators, artist-in-residence programs, Musicals for Young Audiences in Zilkha Hall, and student matinees of selected mainstage productions in Sarofim Hall.
As part of its educational mission, TUTS in 1993 pioneered Professional Internships for graduate students in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin and at the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance. Today the Internship Program is in conjunction with the Musical Theatre Program of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. The Summer Conservatory Program was launched in 2004 (as ACT@TUTS) for high school students, and it produces a full-scale musical every year in Zilkha Hall in the Hobby Center. The 2012 production is the Broadway musical Legally Blonde. Previous productions have included Vote! (a new musical), The Who’s Tommy, 13, Disney’s Geppetto and Son, and The Stephen Schwartz Project.
With a common goal – to expand arts access to children of all abilities – Theatre Under The Stars merged with The River Performing and Visual Arts Center in 2010, providing accessible, affordable, fine arts education for children, ages 3 -19, who have disabilities, chronic illnesses, or are economically disadvantaged. The River offers year-round, barrier-free classes in music, art, drama, and dance, and financial aid is available. This merger of the two highly revered “Houston-grown” non-profit organizations expands TUTS’ education division into the city’s special-needs community through the demonstrated expertise of The River.
A highlight of TUTS’ community outreach is the annual Tommy Tune Awards, instituted by TUTS in 2003, to honor excellence in high school musicals. Named for the Lamar High School graduate and winner of nine Tony Awards, who is now a legend of musical theatre, the competition attracts entries from about 45 Houston area schools, and has been acclaimed by teachers, students and school officials as a significant encouragement of student achievement. Best Actor and Best Actress Award winners in Houston are eligible to compete in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, held in June in New York. As part of the program, college tuition scholarships are awarded to students selected by a committee of community leaders. In the first awards ceremony, Tune presented a special tribute to his former drama teacher, Ruth Denney. This award was named the Denney Award, and in the following years has honored choreographer Patsy Swayze, the Musical Theatre Program of Sam Houston State University, teacher/performer Bettye Gardner, and Dr. Sidney L. Berger, former director of the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance and founder-director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival and the Houston Children’s Theatre Festival. The Denney Award is now a special scholarship grant for a high school student to study theatre in college.
In 1972—the same year that TUTS launched its educational activities—it produced its first show indoors, the Houston premiere of Scrooge: the Stingiest Man in Town, at the 3,000-seat downtown Music Hall. The following season TUTS engaged its first “big name” to enhance the drawing power of a show. MGM musicals’ leading man Howard Keel, star of such movie blockbusters as Show Boat and Annie Get Your Gun, was brought in to play the leading role in TUTS’ Kismet, one of four productions that year. For the first time TUTS established a relationship with Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers, and Keel became the first of dozens of musical theatre stars whose names graced TUTS’ marquee.
During all this growth, TUTS has never forgotten its origins in the open air. By 1972, when a highly acclaimed South Pacific was produced in the park, people customarily arrived early in the morning in order to be in line when free tickets for the seated areas were dispensed at noon. Today TUTS shows may draw as many as 5,000 to 10,000 people each night. TUTS’ 1999 production of Grease still holds the attendance record for a single production, according to Miller officials, with a total audience of 91,000. Other highlights of the free musicals at Miller over the years have included Gone with the Wind, Fame: the Musical, Show Boat, The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie, Gigi, Juliet Prowse in Mame, Ain’t Misbehavin’ starring the Fifth Dimension, John Schneider in The Will Rogers Follies, A Chorus Line, Disney’s When You Wish, 42nd Street, Urban Cowboy, Yankee Doodle Dandy—and four world premieres.
In 1976, in addition to the Music Hall and Miller Theatre productions, another venture was launched. TUTS Cabaret Theatre opened at one of Houston’s most notable hotels, the Shamrock Hilton, with a production of Company attended by America’s “First Lady of the Theatre,” Helen Hayes. In a 250-seat setting that provided the audience with drinks and hors d’oeuvres, The TUTS Cabaret Theatre continued until 1979 with seasons of five or six small-cast musicals, including Pippin, Dames at Sea, Cabaret, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, The Boy Friend, and Where’s Charley?
Seven major musicals a year are now the standard for a TUTS season. From its early days, when performers and administrative workers were all volunteer, TUTS has moved into a fully professional mode of operation, with a fulltime staff of more than 40 and with employment agreements with members of Actors’ Equity Association, the American Federation of Musicians, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, The Theatrical Wardrobe Union, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, and the United Scenic Artists.
As TUTS’ national reputation has grown, the presence of well-known performers in its shows has increased. Among them have been Debbie Reynolds, Tommy Tune, Robert Goulet, Anthony Newley, Tony Randall, Robert Wagner, Stefanie Powers, Tony Curtis, Roy Clark, Juliet Prowse, Jean Stapleton, Marilyn Maye, Patrice Munsel, Licia Albanese, Virginia Mayo, Edie Adams, Debbie Allen, Stubby Kaye, Denise Darcel, Marie Osmond, Jo Anne Worley, Tammy Grimes, Jane Powell, Giorgio Tozzi, Leslie Uggams, Larry Gatlin, John Schneider, John Davidson, Jennifer Holliday, Gladys Knight, Gavin MacLeod, Cathy Rigby, Frankie Avalon, Larry Kert, Hermione Gingold, Carol Lawrence, Robert Morse, Donna McKechnie, John Cullum, Tom Bosley, Laura Bell Bundy, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, George Hamilton, and Constantine Maroulis.
With the growth of reputation also grows the level of responsibility, and once again the TUTS family has been equal to the challenge. In April 1985 the first meetings of a new association of theatres and producers, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT), took place in Houston, with TUTS as its driving force. Long a dream of Frank Young, Theatre Under The Stars’ visionary Founder, this organization has become a major association, with 160 members in 34 states and several countries abroad. Young, its founding president, was reelected for two successive terms and in 1990 was named “Producer of the Year,” an honor he shares with such legends as George Abbott, Harold Prince, and Roger L. Stevens. Carrying on this TUTS tradition of national leadership, TUTS President and Chief Executive Officer John C. Breckenridge was named President of NAMT in 2005.
TUTS’ reputation for excellence led in 1988 to an agreement with The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, Washington, to launch a resident musical theatre company by producing a four-show season in 1989-90 and each season thereafter for more than a decade. A runaway success, the Seattle venture quickly garnered more than 36,000 subscribers.
TUTS has pioneered in producing new musicals. Phantom, the Arthur Kopit-Maury Yeston musical premiered by TUTS in Houston in 1991, has been produced by more than 300 theatres throughout the world. In 1992, TUTS shared two new musicals with Seattle: Annie Warbucks, the sequel to the 1977 hit Annie, which TUTS produced with four other Alliance member theatres prior to its New York opening; and James Michener’s Sayonara, which played in Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, Kansas City, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre in New York, where it enjoyed a six-month run. In 1993 TUTS worked for the first time with The Walt Disney Company to produce the world premiere of Beauty and the Beast in Houston, prior to its 13-year run on Broadway. In 1995 TUTS co-produced Jekyll & Hyde with Houston’s Alley Theatre and the Seattle 5th Avenue Theatre. It had a 36-week national tour and played Broadway from 1997 until 2001. TUTS also co-produced the pre-Broadway tryout of Hot Mikado. Other new musicals seen on TUTS’ stage are Sir Jack, Ninfa!, Chaplin, Hot Shoe Shuffle, Zorro: the Musical, Larry Gatlin’s Texas Flyer, Scrooge, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Happy Days, and Bring It On.
Such productions, some of which continue to be enjoyed by audiences world-wide, not only bring royalty revenue to TUTS but also burnish the international reputation of TUTS and Houston.
TUTS has been a leader in producing both national tours and new Broadway productions. Debbie Reynolds headed the company of TUTS’ production of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which toured throughout the United States in 1989. Juliet Prowse starred in a 25-city international TUTS tour of Mame in 1989-90, and in 1996 TUTS co-produced a 40-week national tour of Man of La Mancha starring Robert Goulet, which set an all-time box office record of more than $1 million in a single week at Wolf Trap Park in the nation’s capital. In 1996, TUTS co-produced and originated the national tour of the Royal National Theatre production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, along with the Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles and others. In the same season, TUTS was part of the production teams for Victor/Victoria and Rent on Broadway. In 2004 TUTS joined with several other American theatres to co-produce with Theatre Deaf West a landmark production of Big River, which toured the United States and Japan. Through its affiliation with the Independent Presenters Network, TUTS has been part of the 2006 national tour of Doctor Dolittle with Tommy Tune, as well as a member of the Broadway producer teams for Thoroughly Modern Millie, Bombay Dreams, The Color Purple, Monty Python’s Spamalot, Legally Blonde, and 9 to 5: the Musical.
During TUTS’ years in the Music Hall, the Houston community recognized that the company needed its own permanent theatre in which to perform and house its offices and rapidly expanding school operations. TUTS negotiated an agreement with the City of Houston providing for demolition of the Music Hall and support for the new $100 million Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Under the leadership of the Houston Music Hall Foundation, created by TUTS for the purpose of overseeing the project, funds were raised from private sources, with a lead gift from the Hobby Family Foundation. The complex, designed by world-renowned architect Robert A. M. Stern and completed in 2002, includes the 2,650-seat Sarofim Hall and the 500-seat Zilkha Hall, an adjacent parking garage, the elegant Artista restaurant, offices, rehearsal studios, classroom space, and TUTS’ own “Encore” theatrical boutique. The twinkling fiber-optic ceiling in Sarofim Hall keeps TUTS “under the stars” all year long.
Other accomplishments have included upgrades in an unparalleled customer service program for TUTS patrons at the new Hobby Center, including an on-line ticketing system enabling buyers to print their own “e-tickets” on their computers. With the publication in 2002 of Stars In Your Eyes, a 240-page, full-color pictorial history, TUTS celebrated its 35th season and its move to its new home at Hobby Center. The TUTS website at TUTS.com provides complete information about current and previous seasons, ticket access, educational and outreach programs, donor opportunities, information on how to reach the theatre and nearby hotels and restaurants, and access to TUTS blogs, BroadwaySpace, Facebook, Flickr, RSS, and YouTube pages.
As TUTS celebrates its 44th Anniversary in 2012, it has enjoyed the leadership of John C. Breckenridge as President and CEO since 2006, when he assumed the reins from Founder Frank Young, who had been CEO since 1968. Breckenridge is a leader in national musical theatre service organizations. He is a former President and Board member of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, an Executive Committee member of the Independent Presenters Network and, as a member of the Board of Governors of The Broadway League in New York, a voter in the annual Tony Awards. He is on the Board of Trustees of Atlanta’s Theatre Of The Stars, and he was a co-producer of the national tour of 9 to 5: the Musical.
Among his civic responsibilities, Breckenridge serves on the Executive Committee and Board of the Houston Downtown Alliance. He is also a member of Class XXVII of the American Leadership Forum and of the Airport Rangers, a community-based mounted security patrol at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Breckenridge joined TUTS in 1990 to oversee all production operations. In 1994 he assumed the title of Producer, and in 1999, added the duties of Chief Operating Officer. In all, he has overseen more than 160 productions for TUTS. He was the primary TUTS representative on the design development committee for the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Prior to joining TUTS Breckenridge was supervisor for numerous international tours, which have taken him to 48 states, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan, and Russia. A graduate in technical theatre of the University of Michigan, he has been a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees for more than 25 years.
In July 2012, Bruce Lumpkin joined the staff as Artistic Director to maintain artistic oversight of TUTS’ producing operations, to provide creative direction to TUTS’ Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, and to enhance TUTS’ voice in the arts community. Lumpkin originally got his start in theatre as the resident director for the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre. He has previously worked with Tommy Tune for several Broadway shows including Grand Hotel, My One and Only, Nine, Stepping Out, and The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. Additionally, Lumpkin co-directed Grand Hotel on London’s West End and served on the creative team for the national tours of Dr. Doolittle and Nine. He received the Barrymore Award for Best Director and Best Musical for his revisionist look at Cabaret. Other personal milestones for Bruce include his work in the world premieres of Dodsworth and Grossingers and the US premiere of La Vie En Bleu.
As always, Theatre Under The Stars’ prime commitment remains the production of musical theatre of the highest excellence for audiences in south Texas and elsewhere. It is equally committed to the vital importance of education in theatre arts and of providing opportunities for participation by all constituents of the community through its outreach programs. Today TUTS continues to thrive in Houston and make its artistic impact felt across the country.