HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Houston, Texas, is home to a famously diverse melting pot of metropolitan cultures. It's a chief reason why the city also boasts one of the world's most vibrant performing arts scenes.
"There's just a lot of groups of people in conversation with each other, and it makes great art," Theatre Under the Stars, or TUTS, artistic director Dan Knechtges said.
This September, TUTS embarked on its 55th season, leading the way on the Bayou City musical theater stage. The new season comes during a renaissance for musicals in the cultural zeitgeist, with smash hits like "Hamilton" and, more recently, "West Side Story" on stages, in box offices, and on streaming screens across the country.
Yet, with industry-wide funding cuts and the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, when most arts organizations were forced to close their doors, challenges for companies like TUTS are more acute than ever. So ABC13 went behind the scenes with Knechtges and TUTS to understand the approach toward putting this year's season together.
"We've been immune to some of that, partially because we do populist theater, which are musicals. It's an American art form. And I do think that helps us versus some of the other arts organizations like ballet and opera. But it's hard out there right now. There's so much uncertainty in the world," Knechtges said. "I still feel people need comfort. And so what I was trying to do is develop a season that delivers not just the laughs and the magic, but also there is some sort of comfort in seeing characters that are worse off than you are on stage. Real horror."
The TUTS season indeed begins in dystopia, with a modern American family trying to sort out pain and heartache in "Jagged Little Pill" (Aug. 29 - Sept. 10) - a fictional story inspired by Alanis Morissette's landmark 1995 album. That's followed by "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Oct. 17 - 29) about a vengeful, murderous barber in a 19th century London, England laid bare by the Industrial Revolution - a musical Knechtges calls one of the greatest ever written.
The season turns lighter with hits like Rodger's & Hammerstein's "Cinderella" (Dec. 5 - 24) and Disney's original musical "Newsies" (May 21 - June 2). But the crown jewel for TUTS this season may be its original, world premiere production of "The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical" (Nov. 28 - Dec. 24) that Knechtges co-wrote along with Megan Larche Dominick during the COVID-19 shutdown.
"While it was the most stressful of times, trying to keep the organization together and solvent, we also had time for ourselves. And we created something that made us laugh, and we thought, 'Oh, well, we should give that to the world. And maybe they'll think it's funny too,'" Knechtges said.
From new musicals inspired by a global crisis to texts about a country over-industrialized, the best art always engages societal dialogue. Right now, performing arts, theater especially, finds itself an actual party in America's culture war over gender identity, censorship, and representation. What do we look like? How do we identify? Who gets to say what we should read, teach, and perform? Knechtges believes it will all pass.
"I have thousands of years of history to back me up on this: either men playing women, women playing men or non-gender is literally as old as civilization. And speaking as an artist, I stand behind that the art will speak for itself. I just need to deliver art that affects people," he said.
Knecghtes referenced last season's production of "Rent", which featured non-binary artists playing roles like a drag queen on stage, that he says performed extremely well at the box office.
When asked whether he felt an onus to represent that extreme diversity on stage as an answer to pushback and prejudice, Knechtges replied, "Our impetus is to represent the human experience and all of its permutations. And you can't do any of these shows without that. Every single show, especially in the musical theatre canon, deals directly with things that might upset people, and if we sit there and pick apart every little thing, we're not going to be successful."
FULL THEATRE UNDER THE STARS (TUTS) 2023-24 SEASON. For information visit www.tuts.com
Jagged Little Pill - August 29 - September 10
Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street - October 17 - 29
The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical - November 28 - December 24
Rodger's & Hammerstein's Cinderella - December 5 - 24
On Your Feet - January 30 - February 11
The Cher Show - April 16 - 28
Newsies - May 21 - June 2