It may be a theatrical cliche to say that what goes on backstage can often be more entertaining than what the audience sees, but in the case of first-time producer Michael Farrand's late-December production of Hair at the University of Houston, the cliche proved itself true. Of course, given that what appeared in front of the curtain was a troupe of college actors limping through off-key production numbers and sloppy staging, it wouldn't have taken much to make a peek behind the curtain more enjoyable. But even had this Hair been a rousing success, it would have been hard-pressed to match the intrigue, backbiting, bruised egos and financial foul-ups that brought it into being. Under the moniker of Empire Productions, Farrand dallied in paying the show's licensing fees, held his actors' paychecks to keep them performing, cut out his contracted production partners and, perhaps most notably, stopped payment on $27,500 in checks to UH and $8,000 to the show's acoustical designer, Cypress Sound.
If reservations employees of UH weren't all that impressed by the quality of the drama Farrand brought to the Cullen Performance Hall's stage, they were certainly struck by the producer's assessment of his own failure to pay. "I think we've helped Cullen by expanding their horizons into more theatrical events," Farrand said last week, "You have to understand, they thanked me for [stopping] the second check."
In point of fact, the UH reservations department wasn't particularly cheery about Farrand's not honoring his check. "That," says Ray Domingue of the University Center in response to Farrand's claim, "is the most ridiculous and absurd thing I've ever heard." Still, given the history of Hair's often rough road to the Cullen theater, absurd comments are probably to be expected.
Farrand, best known around Houston as an actor in community theater productions, has always felt a reverence for Gerome Ragni and James Rado's '60s musical. He says, rather passionately, that Hair ushered in a new kind of Broadway show; just as passionately, he felt it was time Houston had another look at the musical -- and that he was the man who could make that possible. He began by trying to cast local actors, but when his audition notices failed to light a spark in Houston's acting community, he considered casting the show out of New York. That proved too expensive, so he moved on to Illinois State University, which had done a production of Hair that morphed with another student production from California State University into a monthlong show in Chicago. That show had done well, Farrand noted, so he contacted David and Nancy Watts, its Illinois-based producers, about doing a production in Houston. Farrand signed a contract with the Wattses that outlined their responsibilities as co-producers. They were to provide some costumes as well as recommend the best actors from both the Chicago and ISU productions, and they were also to advise the Houston production. Farrand would hire the actors himself, making them employees of his newly minted Empire Productions.
According to David Watts, Farrand appeared to be in over his head from the beginning. The simplest business transactions -- writing checks, signing contracts and reimbursing expenses -- caused Farrand a great deal of anxiety, Watts says. But the real eye-opener for Watts was when the actors stepped off the airplane in Houston on December 15 only to find that, despite what was promised in their contracts, Farrand wasn't prepared to pay them either $250 in expense money or the first installment on their salaries (which averaged around $400 each for the full run of the production). Then there was the issue of lodging: "We were to be housed on or near the University of Houston campus," Watts says. "His solution for that was to put us 50 miles away in Galveston." The troupe was housed in Lone Star Performing Arts's dormitories, where there was no heat for the first night. Much of the company fell ill -- a less than ideal beginning for voice rehearsals.
"It became clear that he had done very little preparation and that he had very little idea of the work that needed to be done," Watts says. The actors apparently felt much the same way. Although payment amounts and dates were explicitly stated in their contracts, they were never paid the full amount they were promised when it was promised. Farrand's inability to meet the demands of a contract he'd written inspired Tony Hill, a senior from Illinois State, to get himself elected as the acting company's representative. On December 23 he met with Farrand to discuss the actors' grievances. Threatening to strike unless they were paid, Hill succeeded in getting the actors part of their salaries. Farrand wrote out checks for $271 each, though he continued to withhold a portion of the actors' expense money in order to make sure they'd perform. By that time, says Hill, the actors' respect for Farrand had hit rock bottom.
Though Farrand basically agrees with the details offered by Watts and Hill, his interpretation of the events is far different. Concerning the pay glitches, he notes, "I'm human, I make mistakes." As for the actors, he refers to them as a "tribe," a la Hair's nomenclature, and the tribe, he insists, adored him. "They saw the Wattses as charlatans, as Svengalis," he says. "I became their hero." He also says he gave each of the actors a $100 Christmas bonus to demonstrate good faith. Better yet, those checks cleared.
Though David and Nancy Watts had been the ones to put Farrand in touch with his actors, and were supposed to be listed as co-producers, their names ended up missing from the program. That stung, but not as much as Farrand's refusal to pay them the $2,500 left on their contract. "This guy was lost," David Watts says of his one-time producing partner. "He didn't have a clue."
The checks that bounced in the first week of January, Farrand says, were his way of letting UH and Cypress Sound know that their services simply weren't up to his standards. As for Cullen Performance Hall, Farrand says that his show was without air conditioning for six of Hair's eight performances, and that he wasn't informed of the University's overtime and holiday pay rates. However, a copy of Farrand's contract with UH clearly details overtime pay for ushers and stagehands. And a Cullen Performance Hall employee present for the duration of Hair's time in the theater says that while the air conditioning was sluggish, it always worked.
It didn't take the theater staff at Cullen or the employees of Cypress Sound long to join the Wattses in their opinion that Farrand was in over his head. Most troubling was a December 18 letter Cullen Performance Hall received notifying the theater that Farrand had not paid his licensing fees for Hair, and that the university would be sued if they housed an unlicensed production of the show.
As for Cypress Sound, Farrand signed his contract with them just a day before their sound design and delivery services were to begin. The show went on to rehearsals, but not before the sound designing staff -- who during the actual production hid in the lighting booth during intermissions, fearful of being seen by the audience and blamed for the performers' uniformly flat vocals -- endured a sound check in which the actors sat on-stage and cried about how much they loved the show.
After learning about Farrand's failure to pay the actors on time, and to a lesser degree his problems with the Wattses, the staff at Cullen Performance Hall and Cypress Sound had reason to be wary. On New Year's Eve, the show's closing night, Mike Connor, who owns Cypress Sound, and Jeff Salzberg, who manages the Cullen theater, demanded final payment from Farrand, informing the producer that they wouldn't be providing services until they saw their final checks. At the time, Farrand was busy sorting 300 unalphabetized will call tickets, patron by patron, because he hadn't put the tickets in order. Under the gun, Farrand scribbled out payment to both Cypress Sound and the Cullen theater. But by the time the checks were presented at his bank on the morning of January 2, Farrand had already stopped payment on them.
Farrand continues to insist that the reason he failed to honor his final check to Cypress Sound is that he didn't get what he didn't pay for -- a balanced stereo effect that blended the live performers and the band. Cypress Sound's response has been a lawsuit, and the statement through lawyer Ed Fair that given the company's experience producing more than 300 musicals and concerts, it's hard to believe the problem lay with the technical equipment or its design.
Meanwhile, Farrand and his attorney, David Hollrah, are negotiating final payment with UH, which has yet to make a statement about their plan of action.
Despite being hit with at least one lawsuit, Farrand feels confident that UH won't be taking legal action against him. "They don't want to be in a position where, if you rent their hall, you end up in court," he says. Nor, one suspects, do they want to be in a position where they rent to Farrand again.
-- Megan Halverson
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.