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A tap-dancing Tony Curtis? Yet another My Fair Lady? The shows may be aging and tired, but TUTS remains Young at heart.

"I can't get the rights to Hello, Dolly! or Camelot or [other] stuff because they're doing this for profit for Broadway," Young says.

Authors, or their estates, "know what they might or might not get from spotty regional productions, so they'll take a million or so advance from Broadway instead, and that will have the rights locked up," Breckenridge says.

But that, of course, applies mostly to big-name, mainstream musicals. Other titles -- maybe something like the critically acclaimed but dark Parade, about the 1918 lynching of an Atlanta Jew, or one of Stephen Sondheim's musicals -- are readily available.

TUTS partnered with the Alley for the big hit Jekyll & Hyde, starring Linda Eder and Robert Cuccioli.
Courtesy of TUTS
TUTS partnered with the Alley for the big hit Jekyll & Hyde, starring Linda Eder and Robert Cuccioli.
The Hobby's cheap seats are high up but closer to the stage than at Jones Hall.
Deron Neblett
The Hobby's cheap seats are high up but closer to the stage than at Jones Hall.

Not for TUTS, though.

"They have a very safe repertoire, but then again they have a lot of seats to fill," says Becky Udden, artistic director of Main Street Theater. "I know there are a lot of people in town who'd love to see a more ambitious and edgier repertoire there -- it just seems very, very safe and full of stuff that everyone's had a chance to see their whole lives."

Evans, the Chronicle critic, wrote a story calling this season's choices "disappointing…[I]t's time to ask TUTS: Where's the leap of imagination in programming? The discernment to shape and lead public taste, as well as follow?"

Don't get Young started on the subject of Evans. They've been tangling for years; at one point Young inserted into the programs for TUTS's Jesus Christ Superstar a collection of raves from clergy who'd been invited to previews, contrasted with Evans's withering review ("Jesus Christ Superstar could turn a saint into a non-believer"), and added the direct phone lines for Evans and his editor.

"He and I have this love-hate relationship," Young says. "He really more than life itself wants me to do an all-Sondheim season. And I'll have no subscribers. I don't disagree with the shows he'd like to see, I'd like to see them too. But I have to give the audience what they want, not what he wants."

Young and TUTS do lots of subscriber surveys to determine what audiences want. And they say the box office backs them up. When TUTS put on Frank Loesser's difficult musical The Most Happy Fella in 1994, Evans wrote they had "done full justice to a magnificent show…For anyone who loves great musical theater, it's the must-see event of the season."

It flopped, Young says: "You could shoot deer in the theater." Breckenridge says Fella had only $100,000 in nonsubscription ticket sales, as compared to something like Miss Saigon selling $600,000 for the same length of run.

"You have to do these rarely done pieces, I understand that," Young says. "But he'd like a whole season of those, and the reality is I will always put some old warhorses in there that people want to see time and again."

He gets some support in that position. "What Frank wants to do and his aesthetic -- it's not one I share, but I really admire it," says Rob Bundy, artistic director of Stages Repertory Theatre. "It would be a very weird theater town without Frank Young doing those musicals."

And it's not like TUTS is alone in what it offers. In 1994 Young told the Chronicle: "Don't tell me about these important, artistic shows. To me nothing is more important than Marie Osmond in Sound of Music, because it's making a lot of money."

While other theater owners might not have been as blunt, they agree with the assessment. "There was a two-year period when Marie Osmond's tour of Sound of Music was the hottest thing on the road -- every theater in the country wanted to book it, audiences packed in wherever it played," says John Kenrick, a New York theater writer who produces the Musicals101.com Web site.

Even Main Street's Udden, who hopes to see "more edgy" stuff, cuts Young some slack. "In his heart, I think, he wants to further the American musical," she says. "And who am I to tell someone what to put on in a theater that big? We have a really small theater here, and I worry about filling it."

Young doesn't pretend to love everything he puts on. "We do some less-than-brilliant shows; we're human," he says. TUTS did Man of La Mancha in 1985 with John Cullum; another producer wanted to mount a tour of it, but insisted on Robert Goulet for the lead.

The tour was a financial success, but Young didn't go see it. "Goulet, or his wife, would call every three or four cities and she'd say, 'Bob wants to know, are you not going to come see this?' and I said, 'Have you read your reviews?…You opened in Washington and the headline said, "Robert Goulet Is the Man of Las Vegas." ' And she said, 'Look at the grosses, don't read the headlines.' "

Holly, who used to work with Young, says, "There's no question Frank can get tired of the same old stuff, but the audience recycles every six or seven years, so you've got people who haven't seen these shows… But Frank likes to do Houston premieres and world premieres of shows -- that gives him just as much a buzz as anything else."

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