Houston's Theater District anchors a flourishing performing arts landscape that enriches and amplifies the culture of our city. The downtown marvel joins only a handful of cities in the country with resident companies in all of the major performing arts disciplines including opera, drama, musical theater, symphony and ballet. To help introduce the offerings of our major arts players, the collective hosts one free day of performances and events to show the treasures they have to offer. Known as Theater District Open House, the annual event takes place the last Sunday of August. In a lead up to Open House, the Houston Press is taking a deeper look at the people and programs that make our arts scene vibrant.
The majority of teenagers would probably rate prom as one of the most memorable nights of their high school years, but for theater kids, the Tommy Tune Awards takes the cake. Each year, thousands of students from all across the Houston region - from The Woodlands to Galveston and Baytown to Sugar Land - fill the audience chamber of Hobby Center with squeals and thunderous applause in a celebration of local high school theater's best and brightest.
A homegrown version of the Tony Awards, Theatre Under The Stars' Tommy Tune Awards spotlights student productions in 15 categories as well as awards scholarships to bring attention as well as support to the up-and-coming stage stars. It's part of TUTS' mission to extend theater beyond the stage and into the community.
Just like the Tony Awards, each nominee for Best Musical gets a chance to show an excerpt from their production, and the night includes treats like medleys from the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees and other spectacular rehearsed numbers throughout the night.
And then, there is the announcement of the award winners - a sight to see in and of itself. At the announcement of each category's winner, there are inevitable hoots, hollers, cheers, hugs and tears of joy. The vibe is nearly palpable.
"The energy that happens in that room is like a rock show. We have to put [the award winners' names] up on the projection screen otherwise you never would know who got called because it gets so loud," said Megan Larche Dominick, associate artistic director and director of new works.
To get to that point takes a year in the making. Schools are able to apply for entry each year in August. Then, in teams of three, adjudicators will attend the participating schools' musicals and submit their scores to TUTS. After all the scores are tallied, nominations are announced in March and the awards ceremony takes place in April.
Now entering its 18th year, the program has become a staple among the high school arts crowd. "This year, we had 51 schools who participated. It’s so very exciting to see because you see schools over the past 18 years. We have schools who do it every single year, and we see programs that start in their infancy and are now nominated for Best Musical," said Sara Brunow, TUTS' director of community engagement.
Fittingly so, the program was named after Houston's own Tommy Tune. An alumnus of Lamar High School, the performer, director and choreographer has entertained audiences for more than 50 years, received numerous Tony Awards and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2003 by President George W. Bush.
Throughout the years, Tune has been known to make a guest appearance during the awards ceremony. After all, he is the name sake. Yet Brunow says the organization doesn't want to lose sight of the fact that artists don't have to go to New York or Los Angeles to make a living. They draw many of the hosts and presenters from right here in Bayou City.
"Really, the big thing for us here is utilizing the talent in Houston to show the kids you can make a living in this community if you so desire," she said, rattling off previous award presenters like theater regulars Christina Wells and Mark Ivy.
The blood, sweat and tears poured into high school theater brings more than just bragging rights and some hardware for the trophy case. For some, it also brings scholarship money. The organization has awarded more than $444,000 in scholarships for students to pursue a fine arts education in college. For the winners of the Best Actor and Best Actress category, they receive an invitation to a similarly-styled national competition named the Jimmy Awards where they meet, study and network with Broadway performers and industry leaders.
As school system budget cuts loom and the fight to keep arts in schools intensifies each year, the awards offer a demonstrable case for preserving art education. "By celebrating the arts in the education system, it's elevating it in a way. We allow lawmakers and administrators to see arts education as something important to students and how incredible the art educators are," Brunow said. "Their focus is the students and helping them to better their art form every year. Tommy Tune Awards allows them to showcase that and have a larger visibility and grow their programs."
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Creating and sustaining art is part and parcel for TUTS' programs, which is why the organization is looking forward to another year of Theater District Open House.
"Here, performance is for everybody. Theater District Open House allows everyone to see that," she added. "People get to see the venues and that they're welcoming and warm. We want everyone in the city to see the work we're doing. Any opportunity we get to open the doors and create access and community, it's exciting to be a part of it."
Participating schools will present musicals starting in Fall 2019 through March 2020. The 18th Annual Tommy Tune Awards takes place Tuesday, April 8, 2020 at Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, visit tuts.com/about/tommy-tune-awards.
Theater District Open House takes place noon - 5 p.m. with a concert starting at 4 p.m., August 25. Locations include Alley Theatre, 615 Texas; Hobby Center, 800 Bagby; Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana; Revention Music Center, 520 Texas; and Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, visit theaterdistrictopenhouse.com. Free.