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.
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.
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.
On the Record
All great quests need to be chronicled. Some not-so-great quests, too. And in the Age of Blogs, no quest seems to go unrecorded.
And so we have the "Plunk Biggio" Web site, at www.plunkbiggio.blogspot.com, which follows the Astros' Craig Biggio as he closes in on becoming the major-leaguer who has been hit by a pitch the most times.
The blog is put together by a 31-year-old programmer from Boston who, understandably enough, prefers to remain anonymous.
"Before last Friday," he said recently by e-mail, "I was neither an Astros fan nor a Biggio fan, but as soon as I found out he was close to breaking a 102-year-old record, I became a fan."
In case you're wondering, the record for being hit by a pitch is 287, held by the not-so-immortal Hughie Jennings. Biggio's been hit 260 times.
Celebrating baseball's fanatical attachment to statistics, the blog revels in facts. "May 11th, in Biggio plunking history, is some sort of Pennsylvania vengeance day," a recent post read. "Biggio has been hit four times on May 11th, three by the Pirates and once by the Phillies. He has been hit in three of the four Pennsylvania ballparks he's played at."
Biggio, of course, is scorned by some baseball fans for the extensive armor he wears to the plate -- hard-plastic elbow and arm pads that are to the hit-by-pitch record chase what steroids were to the home-run record.
Should he be allowed to just go ahead and bat with a full Kevlar bodysuit?
"Kevlar is nice, but I'd like to see him wear something that would make a nice metallic cling when he got hit," the plunkbiggio guy says. "Maybe they could mike it up so the sound could echo like a gong going throughout the park."
Which would require ranking hits by decibel level, no doubt. Baseball, computers and too much spare time -- a deadly combination.
Proud to Be Anti-American
We all know the Liberal Media hates what is best about America, like the brave men and women in the armed forces. It's not often the media brags about it, though.
But there it was, a press release blasted around town by KHOU-TV. "An investigation by KHOU-TV's 'The Defenders' has led to a nationwide stand-down of U.S. Army recruiting efforts," it shouted.
That's great, Channel 11. Valiant soldiers out there fighting what we're told is a War on Terrorism, and you're happy making sure they have no reinforcements? Why don't you just run a few "Osama wants you" posters while you're at it?
The station had broadcast the voice-mail message of an army officer threatening a youngster with arrest if he didn't show up at the recruiting station. And reporter Mark Greenblatt admits they were wary about being perceived as troop-hatahs.
"You never know in our community, with it being so patriotic," he says. "It really came up in a big way in our discussions about how to do the story."
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So far, though, there's been no backlash. "I have not had a single personal call or e-mail complaining," he says. "I think far and wide, people realize this is not something they want to happen in the army they have."
The Houston Chronicle managed to write about the May 20 one-day recruiting stand-down and the Houston incident without noting how KHOU broke the story.
Greenblatt takes the high road. Kind of. "If you look at The New York Times [May 12], you'll see KHOU credited on the national scene in one of the nation's most credible papers," he says.
We'll see if the Chron mentions Greenblatt's planned follow-ups, tentatively titled "Ten Ways to Avoid Registering with Selective Service," "The Army Is for Suckers" and "Motherhood and Apple Pie -- the Hidden Time Bombs in Your Kitchen."