by Craig Malisow

Yes, Houston is an oil town. But it's also one of the few cities in the nation with permanent, professional companies in opera, ballet, music and theater, all of which attract visitors to the city.

One of the best ways to ensure that the performing arts stick around is by encouraging and nurturing up-and-coming talent. Which is why, in 2002, Theatre Under the Stars launched the Tommy Tune Awards to honor excellence in high-school musical theater.

As TUTS's Web site explains, the awards are "designed not only to acknowledge remarkable artists in musical theatre at the high school level, but also to encourage their future in the profession by providing an opportunity to win scholarships, compete on a national level, and receive recognition from their peers."

For the 2009/2010 awards season, Episcopal High nailed the Musical, Direction, Costume Design, Ensemble/Chorus and Choreography categories for its production of The Drowsy Chaperone. Eight students took home a scholarship award.

Named after Tommy Tune, nine-time Tony Award winner and Lamar High graduate, the Tommy Tune Awards competition is a massive undertaking, with more than 150 schools invited to participate each year. Only the first 45 schools to apply are accepted. A three-judge panel evaluates and scores each production, and, showing that the judges aren't just playing around, the scores are tabulated by an accounting firm. The ceremony is held at the Hobby Center, where the winners get to perform.

The awards are not only an incredible honor for the winning schools and students, but a real boon to the arts in general. Not every city is lucky enough to have such a legendary theater figure willing to lend his name to a program that fosters creativity at the high school level.

At Lamar, Tune was taught by Ruth Denney, who would go on to found the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. So when Tune allowed his name to be used for the awards, he stated, "High school theater was extremely important for me in helping to shape my later career. I was fortunate to be encouraged at Lamar by a great teacher, Ruth Denney. The recognition provided by these awards can provide the encouragement that a gifted student may need to become a successful professional."

The annual awards ceremony is free and open to the general public. Attending is a great way to show support for local high school theater — and who knows, you might just get a chance to see tomorrow's big stars today.

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