Sondheim, Con Men and Certain Death

Spaced City

So Long, Sondheim
Houston's drought continues

by Richard Connelly


Sondheim musicals

TUTS (Theatre Under The Stars) has announced its musical choices for the 2009-10 season; there are (as usual) no surprises.

If you're a Stephen Sondheim fan, you're out of luck. Not that we would expect TUTS to put on any Sondheim (see "Les Passe," April 11, 2002) but, you know, hope springs eternal.

It's clear: Houston is a bad, bad place to be a Sondheim fan. Years can go by without a production, and even then it's typically Sweeney Todd, which we've seen, man.

We called Paul Hope, the actor behind the terrific Bayou City Concert Musicals, the nonprofit group that puts on a weekend's worth of (almost always) exquisitely executed musicals as an annual fund-raiser. Cast and musicians work for $100 each, and since it's not a long run, the best in local talent participates.

Awhile back, while talking to Hope as research for giving Bayou City a Best of Houston award, he told us he planned on choosing a Sondheim show every other year for the annual event.

Now he's talking every five years.

Which, given the stunning productions Bayou City did of Assassins and A Little Night Music, is a development that — as Sondheim probably wouldn't say — sucks monkey balls.

"I haven't abandoned Sondheim — it's just I thought I could build our audiences faster if I did older, more accepted titles," he says. "Then I can get away with doing a Sondheim show."

This year's show will be On the Town; after that it's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Finian's Rainbow and One Touch of Venus.

Part of the blame, Hope says, should go to Everett Evans, the Houston Chronicle stage critic. Bayou City depends on heavy amounts of preview coverage and then a review, and Everett has shown, Hope says, that he won't do that for shows that have been produced in Houston before, even if it was a relatively long time ago.

Evans is a Sondheim fan himself, it must be said, but Hope says Bayou City had to back away from doing Company because they didn't think they'd get the needed Chron publicity.

"I'm under a lot of pressure from him not to do anything that's been done before," he says. "Even with Company, I told him, 'It's been done, yes, but this time it will be with a full orchestra.' Didn't matter."

So why does Houston shy away fromSondheim?

"I just think Houston audiences are more conservative," Hope says. A Little Night Music is a big-enough name, and Follies presents a chance to have beloved Houston stage vets appear again.

"Anything else, though — except maybeInto the Woods — and you start to have a diceygame," he says.

Your loss, Houston.

Spaced City

Bad Bones
HMNS and the con man

by Richard Connelly

In the small Montana town of Malta, a paleontologist named Nate Murphy pleaded guilty recently to stealing a rare fossil from a landowner.

Murphy had found an exceedingly rare ­turkey-sized raptor fossil and made money off it, but he faked the paperwork declaring where he found it. He said he discovered it on land owned by someone he already had a deal with regarding fossils, instead of the real site, neighboring land where he had no such agreement.

Why does this matter in Houston?

Because Murphy is the guy who found Leonardo, the prized and celebrated "best-preserved dinosaur" that is displayed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.


Robert Bakker, the HMNS curator of the Leonardo exhibit, talked to Hair Balls from a dig in Baylor County, Texas.

While he says there are no doubts at all about the provenance of Leonardo ("I've been to the site many, many times; it's been surveyed a jillion times and all thoroughly vetted"), there are plenty of doubts in his mind about Murphy.

"I thought I knew him," Bakker says. "I helped him raise money for the museum. But about two and a half years ago, I noticed he was telling stories, tall tales, stuff about bands he had played in or football medals he had won. I just thought it was an eccentricity."

But, obviously, it wasn't. "The hanging offense, if you're a paleontologist, is lying about provenance — where you got the thing," Bakker says. "And he just lied, again and again."

At least he didn't lie about Leonardo.

Hurricane Ike

Blunt Enough
"Certain death" is too subtle?

by Richard Connelly

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported recently that the National Weather Service plans to offer guidelines on changing the warnings it gives for hurricanes and tornadoes, because not enough people are paying attention to them.

The paper said that NWS meteorologist Robert Molleda "said the change stems from Hurricane Ike, which slammed Galveston and Houston last September. Some of the local weather advisories 'buried' information urging people to evacuate, he said."

To which we say: Whaaat?

The Ike warning became ­legendary: "Persons not heedingevacuation orders in single-family, one- or two-story homes may face certain death," it said.

How much more clear does a warning have to be? (Putting aside the fact that lots of people survived the "certain death" storm.)

Dennis Feltgen of the National Hurricane Center tells Hair Balls the Sun-Sentinel story mistakenly referred to "advisories," which are put out by the NHC.

The "certain death" warning did not come from a NHC advisory, but from a "Hurricane Local Statement" given by the local office of the National Weather Service.

Still, he said, the meterologist quoted was not referring to the "certain death" statement, but other statements the local office put out that he felt had been buried or not taken seriously enough.

The NWS issued a report recently analyzing why people ignore dire warnings.

It dealt mostly with tornadoes, focusing on the so-called "Super Tuesday" group of tornadoes that slammed the Midwest in February 2008.

But it offered several explanations for people refusing to evacuate: "Two-thirds of the victims were in mobile homes, and 60 percent did not have access to safe shelter (i.e., a basement or storm cellar)...Some indicated they thought the threat was minimal because February is not within traditional tornado season....Many people minimized the threat of personal risk through 'optimism bias,' the belief that such bad things only happen to other people."

Maybe the NWS should issue more "certain death" statements. Assuming, of course, there won't be survivors who will then ignore the next "certain death" statement.

Update: Dan Reilly of the local office of the National Weather Service has returned our call; he too is a little baffled by the reference to Ike warnings not being strong enough. "The warnings were pretty blunt," he says.

They are making some changes, though. Now they'll emphasize that the "Category 1" or "2" or whatever refers only to wind and not to the potential storm surge.

As to people who stayed on the island and survived despite the "certain death" warning, Reilly doesn't think that will affect credibility in the future.

"For the people who did stay, I think to a man the ones I talked to have said, 'I regretted it,'" he says. "Yeah, they survived, but everyone said they would leave next time rather than go through that again."


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