Broadway Baby

Somehow, Odessa will be Woodstock this summer for Sondheim lovers

Stephen Sondheim can be an acquired taste -- one well worth acquiring, actually -- but no writer of Broadway musicals has a more devoted following. And many of those followers are now discovering an obscure place in Texas named Odessa.

Odessa, an oil town in the Permian Basin known mostly for the high school football mania outlined in the book and movie Friday Night Lights, will be Sondheim Central this summer. Four Tony Award winners and one winner of London's equivalent to the Tony will be in productions. And Jonathan Tunick will be conducting the orchestra for one of the shows. That previous sentence probably means little to the general public, but obsessive Sondheim fans revere Tunick as the longtime orchestrator for the composer, the man who makes the tunes written on piano sound so amazing with a full array of musicians.

(Just to compare, Houston's Theatre Under the Stars this season has presented The King and I with Stefanie Powers, and Cathy Rigby in Peter Pan for the umpteenth time.)

Who convinced all these people to come to Odessa -- at the height of summer, no less? A 20-year-old guy who just loves theater.

Tony Georges grew up in a trailer home in Odessa and returned to the city after attending an arts college in Liverpool, England. And he's definitely not afraid to call up people and ask them to perform. Or to donate money -- this season will cost $2 million to put on.

"We started just a couple of years ago and we had no idea we'd grow this big so fast," he says. "Working in this industry is kind of a snowball effect -- things happen one after another. It's been really exciting."

Tony Award winners Betty Buckley and (tentatively) Shuler Hensley will appear in Sweeney Todd, with Tunick conducting. Bernadette Peters will give a concert. And Tony Award winner Daisy Eagan will be in Gypsy along with Maria Friedman, who'll be making her American debut after winning the Olivier Award. (Yeah, these names may not be big to you, but then again the average Sondheim fan would probably draw a blank on David Carr or Jeff Bagwell.)

So how do you convince everyone to come to Odessa? "I was talking to Friedman one day backstage about why she'd decided to play in Odessa," Georges says. "She said it was nice to have a great role without having to deal with the stress of playing in London or New York, not having to worry about performing to get an award. And people of great quality travel in blocks. You get one, and you can get lots of them."

Selling Sondheim in desolate West Texas might not be easy, but Georges says lots of Odessa folks drive to Dallas to see quality shows. Now they can see them in town.

And visitors coming to Odessa… well, they can also check out the statue of the World's Largest Jackrabbit on Lincoln Street. After that you're on your own until showtime.

Must-Miss TV

As he does whenever a shitstorm is about to descend on the Houston school district, HISD spokesman Terry Abbott put out a detailed internal memo May 6 about an upcoming CNN show highlighting the district's recent testing and dropout controversies.

The district gave the network a lot of information, he wrote staffers; "However, we do not expect the story to portray HISD in a positive light."

And it didn't. Not that any of the staffers would have known, though. Abbott told them all to tune in that Sunday at "8 p.m. our time." Which was precisely when the show was ending.

Secret Ballot

It's really no surprise that state Representative Dwayne Bohac, a Houston Republican who's vice-chair of the House Elections Committee, voted to kill a bill aimed at keeping secret corporate money out of Texas races. Bohac has drunk deeply from the corporate trough in past elections.

But you have to admire the way he did the deed: rushing through a vote by gathering three like-minded members of his committee around his desk on the House floor. No one notified the bipartisan sponsors of the bill, Republican Todd Smith of Euless and Democrat Rafael Anchia of Dallas.

"They were both not called," said an aide to Anchia, who said his boss "was a little disappointed."

Smith was sitting about four rows away when Bohac called for the vote. "I was on the phone and just happened to look up and notice that House members were around the desk and I noticed it was the elections committee," he said.

Both Anchia and Smith asked to have the committee revote but were denied.

"It certainly is possible," Smith notes, that "there was an interest that there not be a one-vote margin so the members of the committee could claim not to be personally responsible" for the bill's defeat.

Sure, it was mostly a moot point -- there's no way the bill would have passed the full legislature -- but you just gotta love slickness like that. And we're sure Bohac's trough-mates appreciated his letting them off the hook by keeping the bill from hitting the floor for a vote.

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