TUTS Musicals Won't Be Back Till May 2021 (at the Earliest)

The North American tour of Come From Away is still on the schedule for a return to Houston.
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The North American tour of Come From Away is still on the schedule for a return to Houston.
This is the kind of news where people are doing all the right things for the right reasons and it still is hard to hear. Theatre Under the Stars is announcing today that for safety and financial reasons, it is delaying its 2020-21 season to mid-May 2021 because of the ongoing pandemic.

What TUTS is now calling its Homecoming Season will run through February of 2022 beginning with Come From Away and culminating in South Pacific.

“The safety of our audiences, artists, staff and volunteers is our No. 1 priority,” said Dan Knechtges, TUTS Artistic Director. “While we’re disappointed to once again delay our season launch, we’re excited that we can retain all six musicals for the Homecoming Season. We want to deliver our supportive subscribers the shows they have been anticipating.”

TUTS leaders waited till now to announce the new schedule, Knechtges says, because the non-profit was trying to "keep everything together" for as long as it could for the people who depend on it for jobs.

TUTS was coming off a very successful if truncated 2019-20 season. It won several top honors in the Houston Theater Awards including Best Musical for A Chorus Line, Best Choreography by Dan Knechtges for Elf and Best Director, again Knechtges for Elf. "We keep wanting growth for our theater and we were all set to have it. We were going into a really great season."

Then all that momentum ran smack up against COVID-19 and it, like other theaters found itself assessing and reassessing its abilities to not only keep audiences safe, but the actors on stage and the crews behind the scenes who work in such close proximity to each other when putting on a musical. 

"In many ways the audience is the easiest one to protect. It's the actors, the musicians the crew who all are working within inches from other people. How do we keep them safe and yet still be able to do a show. Musicals are much more difficult in this new environment," Knechtges says, explaining that while some smaller shows and venues are able to go on in ways that TUTS cannot.

What helps during the pandemic is that the Hobby Center stage is so large and moves the actors away from the audience, he says. 

"The conversation I want to have is how we can get back to maybe not normal, but how can we get back to the communion of actors, theater, audience, all of that taking place in the same place," he says. "To me theater is like church. It is that communion of ideas. I don't want actors with masks on stage.  I don’t want them acting behind screens. That isn't theater to me. I want that exchange of ideas and exchange of passion and a large audience all laughing at the same time."

The new schedule:

Come From Away — May 18 through 30, 2021
Rock of Ages — August 10 through 22, 2021
1776 (Direct from Broadway) — September 28 through October 10, 2021
Sister Act — November 2 through 14, 2021
Disney’s The Little Mermaid — December 7 through 24, 2021
South Pacific — February 8 through 20, 2022

In the original schedule, Pure Country was going to be the first large new musical that TUTS had done in some time. "We spent quite a bit of money on it," says Knechtges, adding that now it will have to be delayed two and perhaps three years.

TUTS is still hoping to program some of the shows it has had to drop and slot them in at the end of the  2022 season, Knechtges says. He says he hopes to make an announcement on that soon.

Theatre Under the Stars expects a record $11 million shortfall for the next season. It, like other theaters in town, is financed in large part by donations (ticket sales don't come close to covering the costs). "Everyone talks about the revenue but people can’t donate at a time when many of them have lost their jobs," he says.

Asked if he thought any playwrights were out there writing about the coronavirus and its effects on society right now, Knechtges laughs but then says he wouldn't be surprised at all. In any such play or musical, he predicts, COVID-19 won't be the focus but it will be a part of whatever story unfolds with it on stage.

As he points out, Come From Away really isn't about 911 as much as it is about the willingness of a small town of Canadians to take complete strangers into their homes after the airline passengers were re-routed from New York air space.  In like manner Les Miz used the revolution in Paris in the 1830s as its setting and the musical Annie used the Great Depression — not so much as stories of those events, but to tell about the kind of people who lived through them.

Right now, he says, putting his "positive hat on," is the time for a lot of creative people to think and brew up ideas. "I think this time is the longest time many artists have had to sit and think for a long time without trying to figure out when when their next gig was because there are no gigs to have.

"I do think there is going to be a big creative outpouring."