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Beloved Houston-area high school musical theater awards show goes virtual

Beloved Houston high school musical theater awards show goes virtual

TUTS 16th Annual Tommy Tune Awards
The annual, high-energy Tommy Tune Awards celebrate Houston's brightest young stage stars. Photo by Melissa Taylor

One of Houston's most-anticipated, best-loved theatrical presentations is going virtual this year. The 2020 Tommy Tune Awards will air Tuesday, April 28, at 7:30 pm on the Theatre Under The Stars' Facebook page and YouTube Channel.

The annual celebration of high school musical theater will include at-home performances from students across Houston, along with appearances by bonafide Broadway stars like Andy Blankenbuehler, the Tony Award-winning choreographer for Hamilton and In The Heights; Alex Newell from the hit TV series Glee and the celebrated Broadway revival of Once on This Island; and Jeanine Tesori, the Tony Award-winning composer of Fun Home.

The annual show honors the best in Houston-area high school musical theater, presenting awards across 15 categories, including leading and supporting actor and actress, Best Musical, and lighting, scene, and costume design. This year, the 36 judges saw and evaluated 46 performances at the region's high schools to name the nominees

"We're excited to be able to bring you the Tommy Tune Awards online this year," Dan Knechtges, TUTS' artistic director tells CultureMap. "With everything that's happened, we wanted to be able to honor the work that the students did on their musicals this year."

Like the rest of TUTS' 2019 - 2020 season, the Tommy Tune Awards were a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, even as the organization shelved its remaining shows, there was very little question about the desire to host the Tommy Tune Awards.

"We were one of the nation's very few programs that honor musical theater that was able to finish the adjudication process," Olson Scott Kelley, TUTS artistic associate and director of this year's awards production, tells CultureMap. "So, for us, it was, we gotta do it. We're lucky enough to be able to, so we saw it as our duty to do so."

Kelly's been at TUTS for three years, and this year would've been his first time directing the Tommy Tune Awards on stage, an evening known for its sold-house house and raucous, cheering energy — the kind only a couple thousand theater kids can make. He'd picked production numbers, had plans for projection content, and was ready to take on the challenge of heading the show, so near and dear to TUTS' heart. He found himself having to move the whole thing online.

"Even in transitioning to directing a broadcast, I knew I wanted a lot of the elements of our stage show," he explains. "We wanted to be sure to find a way to represent those schools involved."

There were several ways he and the TUTS team found do do that, including asking nominees to perform their school's musical in 30 seconds, using only items they had around their house.

"We've got videos of them doing these shows using their parents or their pets as props or stand-ins," he says. "It's great."

There will also be segments that thank parents and teachers for their support. And then there are the guest appearances by stars, who will present some of the awards.

"We reached deep into our contact books, for our Broadway and theater friends," he says. "That's not something that is normally part of the show. But some of these folks went above and beyond in making their presentation videos for us. I think that's going to be really exciting."

Kelly realizes so many students around Houston — and the rest of the country — have had their springtime rituals canned, and the loss of milestones is even worse for seniors in the class of 2020, who've seen everything from proms to graduations cancelled as a result of the pandemic.

"They've had so much taken away," he says, mentioning his own sister, a current high school senior, is among them. "So, we saw this as something we could provide for them, and we love being able to do it. These are the next generation of theater-makers."

Finding a way to not only celebrate their accomplishments, but show that the show would, indeed, go on, was important for Kelly who, as a self-professed "theater history nerd" said that theater provides connection for people.

"It all comes down to human connection," he adds. "It's about how we share our stories. When all of this is over, we'll come together again, and we will laugh again. We will cry again. We will share these sacred spaces again."

In the meantime, TUTS and its audience will gather in a virtual space, to cheer on and celebrate these creative kids.