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It's Frank Young's taste, and show-business instincts, that have largely decided what Houston musical-theater fans have been able to see in any given year. And if that means 76-year-old Tony Curtis donning tap shoes, that's just fine with him.
The Pasadena Scrap Iron & Metal Co. -- and this was back in the day when Pasadena was really Pasadena -- seems an unlikely spawning ground for a career in the theater, but the 61-year-old Young grew up being known as "the junkyard kid" because of his parents' business.
Young's parents, however, were not your standard Pasadena scrap-yard owners -- they often drove to Dallas to catch the touring musicals that bypassed the less sophisticated burg of Houston. (His first show: Mary Martin in Annie Get Your Gun in 1946.)
Young dabbled in the theater in high school, but aimed for a medical career. After getting a psychology degree from UCLA and returning to Houston, he found himself drawn to the stage.
After working for Houston Grand Opera for a few years -- doing a little bit of everything -- he approached management in 1968 about putting on a free musical in Hermann Park.
HGO had no interest, but didn't discourage him. Lots of his opera colleagues were enthusiastic, so in the best "let's put on a show" tradition, Bells Are Ringing became the first TUTS musical.
Two shows a year followed, each getting more and more elaborate and professional; after a lavish 1972 production of South Pacific, the organization also began offering shows -- and charging for them -- in the Music Hall. Stars began to appear, like Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Juliet Prowse in Mame and Robert Goulet in Man of La Mancha.
Soon TUTS became a major player, its 30,000 subscribers the envy of less well-off arts organizations. The group got more and more ambitious, launching tours of productions it had put together, creating new shows that -- at least for a while -- were "Broadway bound," and seeing its budgets go ever higher. Productions cost about $1 million each nowadays.
TUTS also runs the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, providing singing, dancing and acting classes for more than 1,000 students each year.
Overseeing it all has been Young, the effervescent impresario who makes every big decision at the organization. There's a board of directors, but, chairwoman Cheryl Thompson-Draper says, their job is to raise funds, not make artistic decisions. There are longtime and loyal employees who perform the nuts-and-bolts work, but when it comes to what is seen on the stage, it's Frank Young's call.
It's a call that's usually made in a constant state of near-chaos. Shows fall through, stars get other jobs, musicals derived from cult horror movies need extensive reworking and have to be delayed.
"Things are very busy," says John Holly, a former TUTS executive producer who now is the western regional director of Actor's Equity, the union. "That's where Frank can get into a bit of trouble -- he doesn't always plan far enough ahead. There's a lot of frantic, last-minute stuff. He loves it, but it was the beginning of an ulcer for me."
"By definition of the people involved in it, things are always a little frantic," says John Breckenridge, TUTS's chief operating officer. "It always tends to be exciting -- these are artistic persons with artistic personalities."
Including Young, who's never shy about expressing opinions. "I've made some catastrophic mistakes because I'm a micromanager and I know it all and I will argue with people," he says.
There's no way to keep things on an even keel, he says.
"We started planning this [upcoming season] two years ago," Young says, "and I promise you, no matter how passionate I get about a show, something goes haywire, or the star you're doing the piece for gets a sitcom, so suddenly stuff gets put on hold. So you have to keep a lot of balls in the air. We are juggling constantly."
There are several different types of balls to keep in the air. Some shows are prepackaged tours of old shows, where TUTS merely pays a guarantee and a percentage of the box office to the producers. Others are revivals TUTS has put together itself (or in conjunction with other regional theaters), casting, set-designing, directing it and mounting a tour. Finally, there are utterly new pieces commissioned by TUTS (again, typically with other theaters), pieces that dream of being huge on Broadway after touring the provinces.
The number of shows a theater like TUTS has to choose from in any given year is relatively small -- perhaps as few as a dozen, says Trudi Biggs, executive director of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, an umbrella group of profit and nonprofit regionals. "In terms of shows available to you, that are the right size for your theater -- you can't have a two-person show in a place that seats 3,000 -- the list is pretty short."
As Broadway becomes ever more enamored of revivals, the list grows even smaller.
"No one's been able to do Oklahoma! for seven or eight years because Cameron Mackintosh locked up the rights in hopes that his London production of it would come over to Broadway," says Kaplan, the Pittsburgh executive who is also chairman of the NAMT board. Mackintosh, the producer of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, opened his revival of Oklahoma! on Broadway March 21.
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