With Houston’s renowned Theatre Under the Stars ramping up to enter its 50th season a month from this Friday (11 August 2018), newly-minted artistic director and Tony Award-nominee, Dan Knechtges, sat down to talk to About Magazine about what brought him to Houston, the 50th anniversary, and what the LGBTQIA community can find at TUTS.
(HOUSTON) – Picture it: Houston, 1968. It was the year that the very first NCAA basketball game was broadcast on live TV, featuring the University of Houston Cougar’s and the University of California at Los Angeles’ Bruins at the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Astrodome. It was the year that the since-forgone amusement park, AstroWorld, first opened its gates to the world. It was the year Andy Warhol signed posters at the University of St. Thomas, where he also spoke onstage to students about his work. It was the year that the film Hellfighters was shot just around the corner. Houston was–even fifty years ago–a pinnacle of culture and style. It was on the map. And at the very same time, the enormous amphitheater we now have all come to know and love as the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park had just been rebuilt to the glory we know it for today. Shortly thereafter during that fateful year, a young, Baylor pre-med student named Frank Young took note of the beautifully reconstructed theater and was inspired.
Assembling a small team, Young dedicated what little free time he had between medical school and working part-time at the Houston Grand Opera as a production manager and occasional chorus vocalist to producing free shows at the outdoor amphitheater. Shortly thereafter, a production of the then-still relatively new Bells Are Ringing premiered with Young at its helm on the the stage of the new Miller Outdoor Theatre right there … well … under the stars. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fifty years and innumerable shows later, including one giant leap to Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2002 to the delight and bewitchment of theatergoers throughout the city, TUTS is still the nonprofit that is going strong and producing shows to this day. While most take the main stage at Hobby’s Sarofim Hall, TUTS still produces yearly free performances that take the stage under the night sky at Miller. In that time, TUTS has presented musicals and lent the stage to stars that have gone down in history for their talent. Actors such as the late Debbie Reynolds have graced the stage, and shows as famous as Beauty and the Beast began at TUTS before making the transfer to Broadway for a successful thirteen-year run. TUTS also hosted the opening of the then-new musical Phantom, a second adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera, with a book by Arthur Kopit and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. While this adaptation of Phantom never proved to be quite the seminal Broadway hit that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (which this year celebrated its 30th anniversary on Broadway and saw a major motion picture treatment), the Yeston and Kopit musical (which never made it to Broadway) still proved to be a financial and celebratory success for Houston audiences.
Now, ringing in their historic fiftieth season is none other than artistic director and Broadway-gone-Houston transplant, Dan Knechtges, who joined TUTS in late 2017. Knechtges’ CV is nothing short of impressive. The director and choreographer has tackled the stages of the Great White Way, choreographing fan-favorite The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which was nominated for Best Musical at the 59th Annual Tony Awards (and for which Knechtges was nominated for a 2005 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Choreography) and was even nominated for a Tony Award (universally known as the highest honor in theatre) for his choreography of the 2007 Broadway adaptation of the 1980 cult classic film, Xanadu.
Now, Dan Knechtges is back in Houston, where he previously directed the 2016 revival of the musical How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying. The forthcoming season opens with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, followed by The Wiz, Beauty and the Beast, Mamma Mia!, Ragtime, and the newly-announced Jerome Robbins’ Broadway–an anthology musical that honors the career of Tony Award-winning musical director and choreographer, Jerome Robbins, who directed the Broadway production of TUTS’ very first production at Miller, Bells Are Ringing. And ahead of the premiere of TUTS’ monumental 2018-19 50th anniversary season, Knechtges sat down with About Magazine to discuss what’s in store at TUTS, how he got here, and what the LGBTQIA community can find with his amazing nonprofit organization.
About Magazine: Theatre Under the Stars is a Houston institution, and innumerable people come from far and wide to see the shows TUTS produces at the Hobby Center. Aside from just delivering great theatre, what do you think it is that has kept TUTS going for 50 years?
I think what’s kept TUTS going for 50 years is that it is a community service organization, in addition to being a home for music theatre in Houston. And those two things combined make it this potent thing that keeps attracting people to come to our shows and to be proud of this organization that was grown in Houston, for Houston, and for the betterment of the community.
Tell us a little about your history with TUTS and your story of coming to be the artistic director.
I was a freelance director and choreographer in New York, and I’d always wanted to work with TUTS because of its great reputation. I had known about it because Beauty and the Beast had started here; and it was where Phantom [the Yeston and Kopit adaptation] started. So, I knew it from those various productions and its reputation. I finally got the opportunity when I was asked by Sheldon Epps to direct and choreograph How to Succeed in the fall of 2016. And I had never really spent that much time in Houston and was amazed at how much I really liked Houston, and also the gorgeous theatre. And it won me over. From there, when the position of artistic director became open, several people asked me to put my name in; and I did; and lo and behold, here I am.
The line-up for the forthcoming season is stellar, and people are so excited to see all of these amazing shows. How is it TUTS went about picking them out for this milestone season?
Well, we picked them out because we thought that in order to honor the fiftieth anniversary season of Theatre Under the Stars, we wanted to make it a celebration and a party of musical theatre here in Houston. So, for instance, Oklahoma! is where the modern musical started; and it was a show that was seminal in TUTS development. It’s also the 75th anniversary of that show. So, we decided we’d kick off the season with that. The Wiz is a party through-and-through. You laugh, you cry, and you’re taken on this journey. Beauty and the Beast started here in 1994. It’s the 25th anniversary of that and we could not pass that up. Mamma Mia! is a party from beginning to end. And Ragtime, I have found, has never been done at Theatre Under the Stars; and it is also celebrating its 20th anniversary. And what better way to celebrate than bringing the best of musical theatre? And our sixth show [since announced to be Jerome Robbins’ Broadway]—that is going to be something that I’m very excited to bring to Houston’s community.
Were there any shows that were considered, but that ultimately didn’t make the list?
Yes, there were a few. But I’m not telling you, you nosy person! I’m keeping those hidden because they may appear in later seasons. But, yes, we start with a large list, and we get whittled down. And for one reason or another, meaning there’s no interest among the people here, or we can’t afford it, or we can’t get the rights—which is a very big issue for us, because we’re in a very big market here in Houston— and so there are various issues. But they will always come back and always be recirculated.
What’s it like to work for a theatre company that isn’t only renowned, but that also just puts on such amazing art?
It’s great! Who else—what artist wouldn’t want that?
When you think back over the years that TUTS has been serving the community, what are some of your favorite productions? Both before or since you’ve been in your position?
Well, as I’ve been looking at the history of TUTS, I would have to say that Phantom—the Maury Arthur Kopit version—was an amazing event that Houston was premiering their own production of an original music. And it seemed to sell like hot cakes, and it was a very big deal. And it seems to me that in the history of Theatre Under the Stars, that is at the top of the list. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been most proud of Memphis, because it seemed it was a lot of factors coming into play. We had the involvement of the school; we had a local lead, Simone Gundy, playing our lead along with Barrett Riggins come in from New York. So, it felt like exactly the mission that we are going forward with, which is a combination of Broadway-level, high-caliber talent with the best that Houston has to offer.
TUTS has always been a huge supporter of Houston’s LGBTQ community and it’s no secret that this community loves the theatre. What does it feel like to know that the work you do impacts such an underserved community in such a large way?
I think musical theatre has been kept alive in the lower parts of its [musical theatre’s] popularity by the LGBTQ community. And, we through their low times, must support them, as well. It’s um … tit-for-tat is probably the wrong word to say. [Laughs] But it’s a reciprocal relationship. And we encourage LGBTQ members to participate in all aspects of Theatre Under the Stars. One of the interesting things is that theatre is a great equalizer. It doesn’t ask if you’re black, white, Asian. It doesn’t ask your color. It doesn’t ask your gender. It doesn’t ask your sexual preference. It just asks you to be a human being and participate. And we celebrate that.
How has TUTS changed in your time with it?
That’s a good question. I’ve only been here now eight months. But the thing that I feel I am most proud of, along with Hillary Heart, who is the executive director, is that before, it seemed to feel like there were many different departments not working in sync with each other. And one of the things that we’ve been really trying to do is, not only internally make all departments work in synchronicity, but also to make Theatre Under the Stars work synchronistically with all of the other arts organizations. And I feel the wheel starting to turn in that direction.
Looking forward, what are your goals and aspirations for the future not only with TUTS but as an artistic director?
It’s one-in-the-same. I want to be at the forefront—I want TUTS to be at the forefront of musical theatre, which is our mission. And that means being the incubator and the creator of new works. And one of the things going forward is that we’re starting a new works development series that will focus on works that have not been produced elsewhere. We will be developing them, we will be curating writers of musical theatre, and we will ultimately be putting [shows] from development, to readings, to workshops, and then […] ultimately productions on our stage that we can then ship off to Broadway and then to elsewhere. It’s also about Theatre Under the Stars becoming and being the try-out place for Broadway shows so that we get those shows before Broadway does. And that’s about being aggressive in pursuing those opportunities. And that’s one-in-the-same for me as an artistic director—developing new work that goes on to other places.
What’s the one show you’d like to stage at TUTS that hasn’t been done here yet?
Well, that’s complicated. Because both of my shows that I have directed have been done at TUTS. And very recently Dreamgirls was done, which is my #1 favorite show. My #2 favorite show is Follies, which has been done at TUTS, and famously—I heard at the Frank Young memorial—that both times TUTS has done it, it has lost a lot of money. So, we will not being doing Follies, sad to say. I wish we could. That is a complicated questions. I have many favorite shows, but many of them have already been done at Theatre Under the Stars. So, I would have to think a little bit harder on that.
What’s the one thing you’d like the LGBTQ community to know about the work that TUTS does that they may not already? Or maybe a point that can never be reiterated enough?
The point that can never be reiterated enough is that the theatre is the most welcoming place for everyone, and that anybody who is questioning their sexual orientation, their sexual preference, they’re bisexual, they’re transgender, they’re questioning any aspects of their lives—the theatre is a home, both onstage and offstage. We have many vibrant programs that we have members of all ethnicities, all genders, all sexual orientations coming and participating. And those members [of the LGBTQ community] who aren’t involved in those [programs], they should know that they are welcome to participate and we would welcome their participate on all of those committees. And that is to say that we want their stories to be told with their participation.
For season or individual tickets to any of Theatre Under the Stars’ shows, you can follow this link.