Susan Powell trumpets Guys and Dolls, the Broadway values of TUTS & Miss America
Susan Powell (not that one) is a multitalented lady with an enviable resume. She was Miss America in 1981, the host of a television show on the Discovery Channel for nearly a decade, and she boasts a long and impressive list of concert appearances and theater performances to boot.
Powell is currently in town, portraying Sarah Brown in Theatre Under the Stars' production of Guys and Dolls, which runs through Sunday at the Hobby Center. CultureMap spoke with the entertainer about her some all-American past endeavors and where Houston's theater scene rates.
CultureMap: Susan, I understand that you're a Theatre Under the Stars veteran — tell me a bit about your previous TUTS performances, and about your perception of the theater scene here in Houston.
Susan Powell: I actually did Guys and Dolls here, at TUTS, in 1986, and after that I came back to do Cinderella. I did a show at the Miller called Texas Flyer, and then Zorro: The Musical with TUTS. That was a big, big production — really spectacular. I've come back to Houston to do a couple of benefits, too, and it's such a pleasure to be back here.
There's no doubt that Houston is a leader in the arts community in the country. Theatre Under the Stars in particular is a job coveted by my colleagues — the production values there are Broadway production values. The theater itself is beautiful, and it feels amazing to step out onto that gorgeous stage. The arts community here is thriving, and it's inspiring to see, that it's doing well despite the economic woes.
CM: Now, a few days into the performance, how is it going?
SP: It's going really well. It's a beautiful production with a really strong cast. The lighting is great, the set is beautiful, and the costumes are fantastic. It's a big show, but it's a perfect show. It's one of the most perfectly written musicals of all time, and even if there are glitches, the show really works. Guys and Dolls is a classic.
It really set a standard for Broadway theater — it raised the bar for everyone who came after.
CM: How do you keep your voice in shape for a play like this, that lasts two weeks?
SP: You just hope that you don't get sick! Sometimes I get allergies in Houston but this time — knock on wood — that hasn't happened. It's also a question of trying not to accept every social invitation that comes along. You have to really pace yourself. Lots of rest in between.
I also play a trumpet in the show. I was a band geek in high school, and part of my scholarship was that I played in band in college. In the original short stories by Damon Runyon, the Sarah Brown character carries around a trumpet. Normally the actresses playing Sarah Brown have tambourines, but I said, "You know, I play the trumpet . . ."
I think the audiences think that it's the orchestra playing the trumpet during performances, but it's really me.
CM: You were selected as Miss America in 1981, and you also hosted a show on Discovery, Home Matters. How did those other side projects affect your acting?
SP: Miss America was an amazing time and a great opportunity. I got my college paid for — books, room and board, tuition, everything — through that system. It was amazing training ground for what I was going to be doing, and it set me up financially to move to New York and really focus on what I wanted to do — study with some great teachers. For a 21-year-old girl, that's an incredible experience, traveling across the country and to Europe . . . Everything began with music. Music opened up opportunities for me, because I was so passionate about it.
The television show focused on anything to do with home- and personal improvement — cooking, home repair, a lot of do it yourself, one season we focused on fashion, beauty and makeovers, gardening. I had never done that kind of episodic television, and it was very hard work, which a background in theater prepared me for. We only taped three to five months per year.
Once we did that, I was free to do theater all the rest of the year. I really did walk a line in both worlds for a long time.
CM: What have you been doing during your stay in Houston? What else do you plan to do while you're here?
SP: I have family here, so I plan to spend a bit of time with them. We don't have much time off, so I'm mostly just trying to explore some restaurants, spend time with family, shop. I've been running in Memorial Park if I get up really early.
I love being here. I live in New York City, but I'm originally from Oklahoma, and Houston is reminiscent of home. So far it's been so fun. I love spending time with the theater, it's like family. This is a great place to be.