Arts / Performing Arts

TUTS Keeps Theatre Texas Large With Big Show Swings and a Brand New Building in a Pandemic World

What Houston's Broadway Experts Are Planning Next

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“Theatre Under the Stars does musicals in a way that other shows cannot across the country. We produce things big. It’s Texas. They require it.” So says TUTS artistic director Dan Knechtges in a recent conversation with PaperCity about the great leap back to live performances at the Hobby Center.

As a producer of musicals that rival Broadway shows in scale, TUTS offers a unique perspective on that challenging journey home to the stage that many Texas theater companies faced this fall. TUTS had to change its 2021 to 22 performance season several times since it originally announced the schedule back in 2020. A rarity among Lone Star performing arts organizations, TUTS both produces its own large scale musicals but also presents touring Broadway shows.

This required rejigging the lineup when a pre-Broadway touring show, the revival of 1776, was delayed. 

TUTS’ Rocking Homecoming

Knechtges says that ended up being somewhat of a fortuitous break as it gave them a bit more control over the situation and time to regroup and get people back in the room together. 

TUTS opened in October with its production of the jukebox musical Rock of Ages, turning the show into a kind of head-banging reopening party. 

“It was all of us relearning how to work and communicate together,” Knechtges says. “It’s hard because some of the information and knowledge was lost over the pandemic, frankly.”

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Some of TUTS’ staff had left the organization and even the theater industry. Beginning rehearsal in September when the delta variant COVID numbers were still up, added an intense focus on safety.

“The stress levels were as high as the COVID reproduction rate. We felt like we were one test away from being shut down,” Knechtges says. “At the same time it was also joyful finally being able to be in rehearsal, have this people sing this music and be back. It was a mixed bag of emotions.”

When opening night finally arrived, there were plenty of happy tears all around.

TUTS_Rock of Ages_Melissa Taylor Photography-741
Diana Huey as “Sherrie” and Justin Matthew Sargent as “Drew” in Rock of Ages.

With the shuffling of the season order, Knechtges found the two shows he had planned to direct, Sister Act and Disney’s The Little Mermaid now scheduled back to back. When I ask if he was regretting that decision, he laughs a definite “Yes.” “I love what I do,” he adds. “Am I exhausted? For sure, but at the end of the day I think it’s for best for the organization.”

Knechtges notes that he had originally chosen Sister Act for Houston native and NBC’s The Voice alumni Simone Gundy to star and he wanted to direct that show in particular. 

“I have a real affinity for that material,” he says. “On the same token, Little Mermaid is one of my all time favorite Disney pieces. At Christmas, we generally have quite a large contingent of our students in it and I wanted to make sure they were taken care of.”

Disney and TUTS have a long history of partnerships, as TUTS world premiered Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the first of its animation to live musical smash creations. Years later, TUTS spearheaded the touring Little Mermaid production after its not as successful Broadway run, helping to make it “a big licensed property across the country,” Knechtges notes. “Disney is very thankful for everything that TUTS did to make that happen.”

Knechtges has also directed and choreographed several of Disney’s park shows. 

Serious Theater Fun

For Mermaid, running December 7 to 24 in Houston, Knechtges says audiences can expect what TUTS does best, bring a Texas-sized spectacle to the show. But he also plans to treat these fairytale characters turned animated, now turned live performers, as real beings with motives, losses and loves.

“I’ve told the actors that we have treat this serious in the fun and the story because we’re already in fairytale land with mermaids and princes,” Knechtges says. “The genius of the animate movie is that those people took those relationships seriously. That’s what we’re going to do too, treat them as human relationships.” 

One thing the Tony-nominated choreographer would not do for Mermaid is both direct and create the dance sequences for the show, thinking directing and choreographing two in a row would kill him. In a celebration of local talent, he instead brought in Urban Souls Dance Company artistic director Harrison Guy, whose recent Colored Carnegie dance was a highlight of Society for the Performing Arts’ Houston Artist Commissioning Project. 

“I felt Harrison was such a feather in our cap, if we were able to get him because he’s so talented and he’s local,” Knechtges says. “He’s also an advocate for all under-represented communities, and he’s so positive about it. I wanted our actors, our staff to be able to interact with him as an artist, not just an advocate.”

38_TUTS_Sister Act_Photo by Melissa Taylor
TUTS brought the fun and spectacle with its second show of the season, Sister Act.

In the past, Knechtges has spoken about the importance of balance when importing national and even international actors and artists for shows while also showcasing local talent. Yet, Sister Act and Little Mermaid seem to be heavy on Houston and Texas talent.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is create Houston musical theater, not just for the audience, that’s for artists as well, giving them a big stage for them to work on,” Knechtges says. 

In February, TUTS will produce the classic South Pacific, likely also maintaining the local/national balance when it comes to artists. Then they will present two touring shows. In March, Come From Away tells the true story of a small Newfoundland town that hosted thousands of international travelers when all transatlantic fights had to land on 9/11. The shows’s themes of human connection during tragedy will fly in some much needed joy. Later, May brings the fan favorite Jersey Boys. 

TUTS’s commitment to nurturing musical theater for Houstonians of all ages will also take a leap forward, as it recently revealed plans for new facilities in the emerging Rice Innovation/Ion District to house its Humphreys School of Musical Theatre and The River schools, as well as giving the organization administrative space. While its Texas-sized performances will still dance on at the Hobby Center, the new building will also give TUTS another performance stage for school productions and development projects. Knechtges hopes the space will “energize that district and keep it alive at night.” 

“I think it’s going to be incredible,” TUTS artistic director says. “It’s right off the light rail, right near the Museum District, but also right near the Ensemble Theatre and MATCH. I feel like we’re going to invigorate that area tremendously.”

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