Theatre Under The Stars
Playing a Texas Legend: Michael Tapley brings back Marvin Zindler in The BestLittle Whorehouse in Texas
Texas has a wealth of noble history ripe for theatrical spectacle and drama. But on Broadway, Texas' biggest tale is of one Houston television reporter’s fight to close down the oldest brothel in the United States.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is based on the true story of the closing of the Chicken Ranch, a 130-year-old house of prostitution in La Grange. Originally staged on Broadway in 1978, this month Theatre Under the Stars brings it back to the Houston stage for the first time in twenty years.
Michael Tapley plays Melvin P. Thorpe, the character based on legendary Houston investigative journalist Marvin Zindler, a force of nature and scourge of ice machine slime everywhere.
Tapley is a bit of Best Little Whorehouse scholar. He directed it at the old Great Caruso Dinner Theater, and in the last TUTS production, he played a dancing Aggie. Yet his love for the show goes back even earlier than his clogging Aggie days.
“I know the show so well because it ran here in Houston for almost two years at the Tower Theater," says Tapley. "It was basically the Broadway show. It wasn’t a regional company. It wasn’t a community theatre company. It was the Broadway producers, directors, all the creative design staff that recreated the Broadway production in Houston. That was the first time that has ever happened in Houston and might be the last time it ever will happen."
"Now that he’s gone, I think it’s much more endearing. Rather than laughing at him, dare I say, we’re laughing a what a crazy, wonderful entertainer he was. At the end of the day I think he was an entertainer, even though he was out to do good. And he did amazing things for people.”
“We’ve never had a Broadway show come and sit down for an unlimited run in Houston. It’s part of Houston theatrical history and I look back on it with fond memories. I was too young to be an Aggie at that time, too young to be in the show, but I was a groupie.”
Best Little Whorehouse is the type of musical that seems a bit old-fashioned, yet its satire on politics, the media and hypocrisy everywhere is still apt.
“It’s so relevant especially because of the upcoming elections and the debates we just had," says Tapley. "The second act opens with the governor of Texas at a press conference and the original dialogue from 1978 kind of makes him out to be a buffoon. John Holly plays the governor and he’s absolutely hysterical. We were able to put some current references onto what was written in 1978 that fit purposely with what’s going on right now in the state of Texas today and our governor.”
Growing up in Houston, Tapley was also a fan of Martin Zindler, and the real-life character informs much of his portrayal of Thorpe, with a dash of televangelist and other media personalities thrown in.
“I grew up watching him. Not only did his reports get bigger and better but his face morphed. His look changed throughout the years, and he got bigger and crazier. When you’re a ten year old kid, you remembered him vividly," says Tapley. “Now that he’s gone, I think it’s much more endearing. Rather than laughing at him, dare I say, we’re laughing a what a crazy, wonderful entertainer he was. At the end of the day I think he was an entertainer, even though he was out to do good. And he did amazing things for people.”
When I asked Tapley if Melvin would consider himself the hero of the story, he begins describing the fictional Melvin’s perspective but quickly changes that analysis to focus on the real Marvin Zindler.
“Melvin would absolutely think of himself as the hero. Not only was [Zindler] able to shut down an operation going on for ninety years, it catapulted to him fame and to the point that they wrote a Broadway show about him and his story, and he loved it. He came to productions I did in Houston," says Tapley.
"You know Marvin was a twirler, a band major, and he twirled the baton. He would come out onstage for the curtain call, whenever he was in the audience, and come out twirling his baton. He was really something.”