This week should've been the season opener for Theatre Under the Stars' 2020-2021 season, raising the curtain with a hotly anticipated new production of 1776, in its pre-Broadway run. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, TUTS pushed that show — and the rest of its season — back to January 2021.
But on September 9, the theater company postponed the season one more time. It'll be May 2021 before Houstonians see a TUTS show.
In what the organization has dubbed its "Homecoming Season," TUTS opens with the much-loved Come From Away, a musical that examines the lives of airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland, Canada in the wake of 9/11. It will run May 18 - 30, 2021.
“The good news is that Come From Away runs during its original dates,” Hillary Hart, TUTS' executive director, tells CultureMap. “With [that show] and 1776, those are tours, and of course we are reliant on the commercial touring Broadway circuit. Those shows want to create a touring schedule through multiple cities. And Come From Away is far enough out on the event horizon that we feel confident saying it will happen.”
The rest of the reasons stacks up like this:
Rock of Ages runs August 10-20, 2021
1776 (now coming direct from Broadway) will run September 28-October 10, 2021
Sister Act runs November 2-14, 2021
Disney’s The Little Mermaid runs December 7-24, 2021
South Pacific runs February 8-20, 2022
“The safety of our audiences, artists, staff and volunteers is our number one priority,” said Dan Knechtges, TUTS artistic director, in a press release announcing the move. “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.”
Providing that six-show season, even though it now might span two fiscal years for TUTS, was paramount in all the schedule juggling. But being able to offer them in a setting where actors, directors, designers and audience members are safe has been the north star guiding TUTS as it made these decisions.
“We [balanced] the needs of inside and outside our organization,” says Hart. “And this is our best solution and best effort of good faith to deliver on the season we promised. It's just on a slightly different timeline.”
Like many other theater companies in the Bayou City, TUTS has had to constantly reevaluate its schedule throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in April, it scrapped a live production of its annual salute to the best in high school musical theater, the beloved Tommy Tune Awards, moving the show online. (More than $44,000 in scholarships was awarded during the event). And the organization has kept abreast of best practices and Covid-19 infection rates as it determined what was best for its artists and audience.
To be sure, it's been a challenging season. In the press release TUTS sent announcing the date changes for the new season, it noted that, to date, TUTS has incurred close to $6 million in revenue loss due to the cancellation of performances and major fundraising events. It's anticipated the group will lose another $11 million over the next 12 months. That's unprecedented, and its' led to layoffs of 10 percent of its staff, as well as significant programmatic cuts, salary reductions and reduced benefits for all employees.
But if theater makers have a mantra, it's that the "show must go on," and TUTS has worked diligently to provide art for the city it's called home for 52 years. That's meant that much of TUTS' programming has shifted to the virtual space, like its summer classes and other offerings through the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre. But it's also mean the launch of original programming. This week, TUTS begins a podcast and webcast series that's part of its Spotlight initiative.
"We'll do podcasts related to musicals inside the canon," Hart explains. "We'll explore general arcs of story lines, why certain shows created the way there were. We'll go all the way to music theory and how shows are developed. One of our webcasts will be with Dan and other leaders of arts groups about the impact COVID is having on the arts. These are opportunities to have an online experience with real time with some of our industry's notable people, from artists you'll see on stage, to the set and costume designers. It's our effort to continue to connect our community through meaningful engagement with artists and experts in the field."
And while audiences are taking in that virtual content, Hart and the rest of the team at TUTS are working toward the day everyone can gather back in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and take in a show, together.
"It's going to be amazing!" Hart says of that day. "No one is looking forward to coming back more than we are. We are a community service organization, and there is nothing like the community feeling than being in the audience with a thousand strangers and experiencing a moment together. And we'll get there. It's going to be some time yet, but we will."