Putting on a show is expensive, a musical even more so, even when it's a concert version.
Modeling it on NYC's fabled City Center Encores series, which presents neglected, overlooked or forgotten gems from Broadway's golden age, Alley Theatre veteran Paul Hope, perhaps Houston's most acclaimed lover of all things musical, founded Bayou City Concert Musicals in 2000 to give audiences a chance to share that love of the Great White Way.
Employing local talent exclusively, a full orchestra playing the show's original orchestrations, minimal sets (if there were sets at all), witty costuming, inventive dance routines, and some of the best direction this side of the footlights, Hope changed our perception of what a musical, an old one, could be to our lives.
On a shoestring budget, he made these warhorses sing and dance as if newly minted. It was a revelation. You might think that Stephen Sondheim's classic Follies wouldn't need a reworking of any kind, but when Hope programmed that haunting showbiz homage as BCCM's first production, as a benefit for the Center for AIDS, it was a stunner. There was a new guy in town to rival venerable TUTS and Broadway Across America. Produced at Ovations, a nightclub space better suited for crooners, Follies was gangbusters, starring a veritable Who's Who of Houston's most accomplished musical stars.
That first production ran two nights only, more's the pity, as I said so at the time for another publication, but the following years unearthed such beauties as Assassins, Fiorello, One Touch of Venus, A Little Night Music, Pal Joey, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, New Girl in Town, Finian's Rainbow, She Loves Me, 70 Girls 70, Falsettos, The Secret Garden, The Pajama Game and Promises, Promises, BCCM's show from last season. Who knew the Burt Bacharach/Hal David tuner would be BCCM's last.
In addition to these jewels, most making their Houston premieres, Hope presented a lecture series on the Great American Songbook every fall and spring, delving into the composers and lyricists who made Broadway shine so brightly. Enlarging the idea, he turned it into a cabaret showcase, housed in Ensemble Theatre's black box on Main Street, where we were treated to an in-depth look at George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Jerome Kern, Bacharach and David, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. It was a Broadway lover's education, filled with champagne charm and wicked wit by emcee Hope, highlighted always by the music and his star performers. What music they made! Best of all, when regaling us with the backstage stories of these giants of the industry and how they struggled to produce their shows, if Hope knew where a body was buried, he'd tell it with that wry twinkle in his eye. Last year BCCM won the Houston Theater Award for Best Cabaret.
For its main shows, BCCM found better space and more reasonable rents at Houston Community College's Heinen Theatre in Midtown. Subscriptions rose, and the shows played for two weekends. It was still a struggle to make ends meet, with BCCM usually asking the pros to take a cut in salary, if any salary at all, just for the love of performing. But rent must be paid, stagehands must be paid, musicians must be paid, royalties must be paid. It's a never-ending cycle of raising money and spending it on quality.
But there comes a time when all good things must end. The money finally ran out, and new subscribers were difficult to corral. On June 12, the board of directors called it quits. “This decision was not made lightly,” said its press release. “It has become increasingly obvious that the business plan and finances are simply not sustainable long term...The organization has lived on the financial edge for its entire history. With no change likely in the near future, the Board chose to bring down the curtain with dignity.”
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But what memories I have, indelible ones, some the best of the best I have ever seen on a musical stage. That opening of Follies, for one, with that leggy Weismann Girl high above the Ovations stage wheeling her pink fan, haunts to this day; Joel Sandel tap-dancing madly up the scaffold in Assassins; grande dame Sylvia Froman as the old countess in A Little Night Music as she related her youthful liaisons; Krissy Richmond and Melissa Pritchett's spirited and just-right jazz-age pastiche choreography for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Mark Ivy making his first show-stopping appearance as Og the leprechaun in Finian's Rainbow; Dylan Godwin's lit-up face as he finds love in She Loves Me; a radiant Danica Johnston as Venus come to life in One Touch of Venus; and countless more.
BCCM never disappointed as it brought these Broadway baubles to the stage. It always made me think, Why can't other shows do it this simply, economically, with this much reverence, pizzazz and know-how? And with this much talent on display? The love shone through in everything these Broadway Babies did.
To BCCM, who brought us innumerable pleasures through the years, especially you, Paul Hope, and your talented team of Houston musical wizards, we say Godspeed. You had an impressive run for Houston theater, for any theater anywhere, for 17 years!
Bayou City Concert Musicals will be sorely missed. It's a sad day in Houston when all we have to look forward to is another revival of Grease, Wicked or The Lion King. “Where or When,” as the classic Rodgers and Hart song goes. Where or when, indeed.