BWW Interviews: Artistic Director Paul Hope Talks Bayou City Concert Musicals, Charity & Education
Despite being completely busy preparing for the concert staging of A TOUCH OF VENUS, Paul Hope, Artistic Director and Founder of Bayou City Concert Musicals, took a break from his busy schedule to talk to me about his innovative and charitable organization. Since it's inception, Bayou City Concert Musicals has been providing Houston audiences with well-produced and lauded performances of often-neglected musicals. Continuing to grow an ever-increasing loyal audience and fan following, I asked Paul Hope to tell me more about Bayou City Concert Musicals and the shows they choose to produce.
What is your inspiration for performing often ignored scores in a concert setting?
City Center Encores! in New York. They're our inspiration. They produce concerts of shows that they do not think in revival could sustain a commercial run. Ironically, some of their products have wound up on Broadway, most notably their CHCIAGO revival. I think their WONDERFUL TOWN, FINIAN'S RAINBOW, and maybe their HAIR wound up on Broadway. HAIR, maybe I'm wrong about that, but there was some overlap in the cast. Most of the City Center things do not transfer to Broadway. I think the impetus for their company and certainly for Bayou City Concert Musicals (BCCM) is that there is a whole raft of shows that were hits in their day, we're not talking about producing obscure flops-although there are a few of those that could certainly entertain an audience if their material is good- but these shows for one reason or another did not get filmed or they got filmed in a very inaccurate version, like ON THE TOWN where only two songs of Leonard Bernstein's score were retained for the Hollywood film version. As a result, audiences may not enjoy the piece when they see it on film, so then it becomes a risky prospect for producers to program that piece because audiences, particularly musical theatre audiences, respond to what they know.
As a result, ON THE TOWN, as one example, GENTLEMEN PERFER BLONDES, even though everyone loves the Marilyn Monroe movie; it's not very much like the stage version, and not much of the stage score is included, PAL JOEY was very much corrupted by bringing in other Rogers & Hart songs and cutting songs that were really written for PAL JOEY and actually kind of cleaning it up a little when it's a much racier show, and in the case of ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, which we're doing this year and was a big hit being Mary Martin's first starring vehicle; it was made into a film starring Ava Gardner and RoBert Walker, and all the songs were cut except for the hit song "Speak Low," which in the middle of an otherwise non-musical film, suddenly Ava Gardner bursts into song, albeit dubbed song, and sings "Speak Low." So, the masses never got to experience VENUS on film as a musical, so they don't know if they would like or enjoy it if they bought a ticket to it, so producers then are nervous about programming it. That should answer your question.
Oh, the difference between what City Center Encores does and what we do is in New York they usually edit the script and do a very abbreviated version of the book, mostly because I think they think New Yorkers already know these shows when they walk through the door. We do the complete script because, in many cases, this is the first time that Houston audiences will be seeing one of these pieces. Also, we are completely staged-no one holds book. There are costumes involved, even sometimes if it is just enough to give people a flavor of the period and the locale. We use bentwood chairs and stools, which are sometimes dressed with tablecloths or pillows or whatever, to suggest furniture or location. The orchestra is onstage behind us, and the numbers are fully choreographed. We've kind of taken City Center Encores! and gone as far toward a full production without it yet being one.
It's like you read my mind regarding the next question. However, for some clarification, I'll ask anyway: New York City Center Encores! does three concerts a year; however, they only rehearse for eight days and perform on-book. Tell me about the differences in your concert style and why you made these changes to the format.
That's to accommodate local audiences, and because we are doing a fully staged version it requires more rehearsal. So, we do rehearse for four weeks, although not every day. We do a five-day rehearsal week. We give money from each production to a local charity, so it's technically a charity event, and so that enables us to use members of Actor's Equity in our cast. I don't set out to cast Equity people; I just cast the show, so sometimes we have more Equity people and sometimes less. So, I have to be more careful about how many rehearsal hours I call them (members of Actor's Equity Association) for. Most of them are so into... well, they're all are so into what we are doing that even if it would only be kosher to call them for X number of rehearsal hours, they just show up (Laughs) because they want to be rehearsed. They want to know what they are doing. But, I do have to at least give them the option of if they're going to be there that day or not, up to a certain point, and then, I am allowed to rehearse them a certain amount of hours. So, we just try to be very sweet to our Equity people, but currently we've benefited a number of local organizations.
We actually got started as a benefit for the AIDS Foundation of Houston with our first production, which was FOLLIES. Then when we decided to remount downtown for a one-nighter, the Center for AIDS, which was an organization that I had not heard of, contacted us and said, "We want it." It was such a big success that we decided to do an annual event. That's when I got the idea that this would become the Houston City Center Encores!, or that would be our goal to become that or to emulate them. So, for about six years, we were a volunteer fundraising organization for the Center for AIDS, and then we became our own 501(c)(3). After that, we have also benefitted Ronald McDonald House.
Then, when we decided to start hiring a union orchestra-that was particularly the year we were going to do ON THE TOWN and I wanted to make sure any dissonance coming form the orchestra was intentional (Laughs). I wanted to make sure Mr. Bernstein had written that strange note, and so we dropped the other show and hired the union orchestra, and sort of as a you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours, we said, "why don't we benefit some charity that the local musician union supports?" They do have a benevolence fund for musicians that are out of work due to catastrophic illnesses or injury, so we have benefited-proceeds from our shows since we have had the union orchestra-proceeds are donated to that fund. So, we are also a charitable organization. Sometimes it's not as big a gift as others, but we still manage to make an impact.
Bayou City Concert Musicals wants to expand their season. Given the chance to expand, how many staged concerts can Houston audiences expect?
Well, this expansion is predicated on corporate support and grants from foundations, which we have already started getting that, but it's a slow process. What we need is a full-time grant writer, and we're in a search for that person because the rest of us are busy putting on a show. Our goal is to have three musicals a year. We also have two cabarets in the spring, which are tributes to particular Broadway songwriters and I pull the singers from the people who have appeared in our shows, mostly. And those have been a huge success and sort of a missionary (Laughs), if you will, for the musical. Because people who have not come to the musical get brought to the cabarets by their friends and find out about it, so then they come to the musical. And sometimes people who come to our musical don't know about the cabarets, and so the two performance types sort of benefit one another and have helped really grow our audiences.
Just to elaborate and clarify, as you have talked about this some already, how do you choose the shows you produce?
When we started out, I wanted to do neglected shows, but I was hoping to do a Sondheim every other year, but I got to a point where I knew Sondheim shows in Houston were not necessarily neglected. When we did A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, Everett Evans at the Chronicle wasn't particularly excited about it because it had been done by TUTS twice, and there had been a bus and truck that came through, and University of Houston had done it by that point. So, he wasn't really excited; he didn't consider it neglected. Also, I began to realize to build our audiences faster, I wanted to have our audiences come to see us no matter what title we were programming. So when we became our own 501(c)(3) and we moved out of Zilka Hall and into the Heinen Theatre at HCC Central, which is a much cheaper venue, we were terrified we were going to lose audience and we didn't. Our audiences fell in love with the space. We were going to do THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, and I thought, "well, if we were putting in all of these changes in front of our audience, let's do an older show that is neglected that may have more name recognition with older audiences." It was still a bit of a crapshoot because the show was FIORELLO, which is one of the most famous musicals that nobody does-it won the Pulitzer and tied with THE SOUND OF MUSIC for the TONY's, and then it disappeared. So, we programmed FIORELLO, and at every performance, and it was very well-attended, people were coming up and saying, "Oh, this is my favorite show album. I know all the words to all the songs. I haven't seen this since my father took me to see it when I was a kid in New York or to the national tour when it came through Houston." So, the light bulb when on and I thought, "Ok. In order for us to build a large, loyal following we need to do older neglected titles for a while to build the audience."
I made a list of older 1940s neglected titles, which we have proceeded to do within the last five years. Starting with PAL JOEY, following that with ON THE TOWN, then GENTLEMEN PERFER BLONDES, and last year's FINNIAN'S RAINBOW. All of these were well attended, ON THE TOWN particularly-it was a Houston premiere; it had never been done in the city. FINNAN'S and GENTLEMNEN hadn't been done in forty or fifty years each. I wanted to do ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, but I did not want to do it until we built up our audience with those other better-known shows, and VENUS was a hit, as I said. It shows up in a lot of collections, like anthologies of the 10 Greatest Broadway Musicals. It'll be there with CABARET, 1776, CAMELOT, and BRIGADOON. There was also this great coffee-table book that came out about three years ago called Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, and VENUS is in there because they are one of the great musicals. And City Center Encores! did VENUS in their third season, so they obviously thought it was something they needed to get to fast.
Once we finish with VENUS we're starting a series of neglected 1950s titles. Two years ago, I put a ballot in our program for our audiences to fill out, and it was a list of 15 or 16 1950s titles. I said, "let us know, what are the titles you'd most like to see us do and which of the titles on this list have you never heard of?" And, then we can have a sense of what sequence we should do these in. So, for instance, since we are doing VENUS this year, there's a chance it won't draw as well as the other shows-we don't know yet. There may be Kurt Weill fanatics that come out of the woodwork in Houston that have never been to a BCCM show. What was encouraging about that ballot was that a number of people wrote on it, "I don't know many of these titles, but just keep doing what you're doing and I'll be there." So, they like the quality of our work, and they know if they come to see a BCCM show that they will be entertained, that it will get a lot of bang for their buck, and see something that is so old that it is new again. Although, I don't consider something that was written in the 40s old, you know. God knows, Hugh Jackman is still getting kudos for playing in OKLAHOMA. That's sort of how I choose what we're doing.
For next year we're doing THE PAJAMA GAME because I figured, after VENUS, let's give them something that has not been done professionally in Houston since I was in high school when TUTS did it out at Herman Park. It's a very famous title, but as far as stage productions in Houston, its history here is very very limited. Then I would like to do a rarity following that, although we'll have to see. I am hoping to do a show called NEW GIRL IN TOWN, which was a Bob Fosse Gwen Verdon vehicle that she won a Tony for-the musical version of (Eugene O'Neill's) ANNA CHRISTIE. Actually, she and Thelma Ritter tied for the Tony, but it's a show that is completely forgotten. One of my choreographers is good friends with Ann Reinking, so we have an in to try and find some of the original choreography and recreate it for our Houston production.
That's what I try to do, to jump back and forth either with a couple of more familiar things to then chance it on something that is less well known or to simply alternate to something that is well known with something that is less well known. Again, the irony is that these are all shows that were hits, like FANNIE, WISH YOU WERE HERE, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, TAKE ME ALONG, Cole Porter's SILK STOCKINGS, CANDIDE, and WONDERFUL TOWN. The ones that got the most votes ironically were the ones that have had productions at Theatre Under the Stars, which were THE PAJAMA GAME, CAN-CAN, and KISMET. KISMET would come fairly far down my list since TUTS has done it three times. When they've done CAN-CAN they've added numbers from other Cole Porter shows and taken out numbers from the CAN-CAN score. If we did CAN-CAN, it would be very much like our production of PAL JOEY. We would stick to the score the composer wrote and not bring in other songs by that songwriter. So, in that sense, when we do CAN-CAN, in a way, it will be a Houston premiere because it would be one of the few, if not the first time, that that show would be done in Houston with all the original songs. I think there was a production at the old Houston Music Theatre that Anne Miller starred in, and perhaps they were faithful to the score, but I think other productions like the TUTS production tended to follow the movie a little bit in terms of what the songs were, like "Let's Do It" was in there and "You Do Something For Me," which were not written for CAN-CAN. So, that's how I pick shows.
With obscure flops out of the window, would flops, such as the now legendary CARRIE musical, ever be considered?
I think the CARRIE musical would be a blast to do! Particularly, since I understand it's being revived, that it's in workshop or something to do a revival of it off-Broadway. They're taking a look at it.
Yes, the MCC Theatre just recently closed their limited-run revival. It was fairly well received.
Ok. Everything I ever heard about the original was that like half of it was amazing, but half of it was so bad your jaw was on the floor it was so horrible. What's ironic is that our audiences' favorite show was the biggest flop in its original production, which was Kander & Ebb's 70, GIRLS, 70. I think it only ran a month in its original incarnation, but it was opening on Broadway the same season as FOLLIES and NO, NO, NANETTE. It was the third show with a lot of veterans, sort of old-timers, coming back to Broadway. You know, it's a real fluffy little piece, but it's about a group of senior citizens that form a gang and start knocking over fur salons and hocking the furs so they can buy their residence hotel. Our audiences ate it up. At that time, we were in Zilka Hall and only did four performances, and I think if we had done five we would have done even better. We had maybe half a house on Thursday, then by Sunday we were sold out. You could not get a ticket to it. People had a ball and people still ask us, "When are you going to do 70, GIRLS, 70 again?" And I say, "When I directed that show it aged me ten years." (Laughs) Directing a show with all senior citizens is like trying to heard cats, and it's sort of like the opposite end of The Little Rascals, you know. As Everett Evans said, "It's not that they're all kicking on the same foot, it's that they are kicking at all." It's a real fun time for the audience, and here it was the biggest flop of anything we had ever programmed and it was one of our biggest hits. That show still has a life around the country, some man came to our last performance and said, "We're going to do this in New Orleans."
Ideally, of course, this is why I want us to get more funding for what we are doing, so we can do more than one show a year. Oh, and another thing that has kept us from doing more than one show was that my full time job was as a member of The Acting Company at The Alley. I'm transitioning into teaching now, so my schedule is more flexible. Where as before, I could only afford to commit myself to a timeslot that was in August and the beginning of September, so that I wasn't conflicting with the first assignment in The Alley season, but I'm not having to worry about that so much anymore. I'm really ready for us to get the money to do another show and to put another show on the docket because there are so many wonderful shows on our list that I want to get to all of them before I kick the bucket. (Laughs)
One other thing is that all of our performers work for a $100 honorarium, and another reason we want more corporate support is so we can start paying the actors more. But, I don't have any problems talking people into doing our shows because the actors have a wonderful time-it's sort of like summer camp for them, and they have an ownership of the show knowing that they are doing because they want to do it not because it is a job. The actors realize they are doing a piece of material that they might never get to do otherwise, and I have to pat myself on the back because I have put together some pretty wonderful casts. Every once in a while, someone I have cast poops out and almost always whoever I wind up replacing them with turns out to be a better choice than the person I am replacing. So, knock wood, I've been very lucky in that respect.
So, our two main goals are to do one to two more musicals a year and to pay our actors more. That would be a wonderful thing for us.
What is the casting process like for Bayou City Concert Musicals?
I try as much as possible to go see local musical theatre, and that can be pretty difficult for me. But, I tend to have a pretty big Rolodex in my head of who's out there. Sometimes young performers will just e-mail me and say, "Hey, I'd like to work for you." That's how I found out about Cole Ryden, who was my male lead last year in FINNIAN'S RAINBOW. He sent me a video of him singing with his gorgeous voice, and he came in and read for me. I auditioned three different actresses for Sharon in FINNIAN, and I realized that I hated saying no to the two actresses that didn't get it, but they very graciously wound up in the production anyway. Mostly, I just start thinking about who is out there in the community and whom I would like to see in such and such a role. Then I make the phone call, and, if they are not available, I go back to the drawing board. Then, every once in a while, I have to call somebody and say, "Who do you think we could get for this?" As I've said, almost always, it has been a wonderful other choice if I'm not able to get who I want-I usually end up getting someone that I am very happy with. Rarely have we had anybody work for us that we have had any difficulty with. I say rarely, because there have been a couple, but 98% of The Players have thought of these as really incredible experiences.
Karen Ross who was our leading lady in FIORELLO was in tears on closing night, saying, "This was my favorite theatrical thing I've ever been involved with." I'm just bowled over with responses like that. There was one performer whose mother had been challenging at one of our cabarets, and she said she told her mother, "Mom, you've got to be nice. I want to work for these people." And we were like, "Oh my God! We feel honored that she's working for us." Just to know that this performer is afraid we'll be offended, no! It was like, "No, we feel so lucky that you want to work for us!" It's sort of a jaw-dropping thing.
There is one thing I would like to do in the future, and it's just not something we have put into place yet in any kind of formal way. We use a lot of students from Sam Houston State University's musical theatre program, particularly male dancers because it is hard to find male dancers in this town-male dancers who sing particularly and who would be available to us and are interested in musical theatre. I've talked with their chairman and some of their faculty about BCCM coming up to Sam and having an open call just for any of their students who are interested in working for us to audition for us, so we have a file and I'm not constantly having to call one of the Sam Houston folks that has worked for me and saying, "Hey, we need two more male dancers. Who's good up there? Who do I need to call?" or "Who can you call for me?" to get them on board. And, we love that because we feel like we're giving the Sam Houston folks an opportunity to be in an almost full-scale production outside of the school environment and work with some of the professionals in the Houston community.
There is another thing, just while I'm on that educational slant, we're in the process of trying to make happen. For many years, we have wanted to have an increased educational presence in the city and the community. We've wanted to try to have workshops to teach high school theatre teachers in underfunded programs how to do a musical in a concert staging. If you don't have the money for a set, don't worry. Just invest in 12 bentwood chairs and a couple of stools and do your musical. Unfortunately, when we've tried to go though HISD, anytime we talk to an enthusiastic administrator by the time we got back to them they've been replaced. It's like roulette over there as to who's in that administrative position. Also, we were warned that a lot of high school teachers do not want to go to a workshop unless they get credit for it, like continuing education. So, I thought, maybe we need a different carrot to attract these teachers. So, I thought of the Tommy Tune Awards. I called the Tommy Tune Awards people at TUTS, and I said, "I have an idea to get more high schools entering your competition. Those that don't probably don't have the money to compete with schools like Stratford, Cinco Ranch, St. John's-these schools with a lot of money. Why don't you create a new category of best concert staging of a musical? Then they can enter the Tommy Tune Awards. They can do a musical in a concert staging, be eligible for a Tommy Tune award, and compete in the event." TUTS has been very intrigued with this. I said, "We will do a workshop at no cost to anybody to show them footage of our productions and show them how to put on a musical this way and show them that they can be part of the Tommy Tune Awards." We're having this conversation with the TUTS people, and I think its something that they're very receptive to. There is nothing definite yet, let me hasten to say that. I said, "We don't want anything out of it other than documentation that we did the workshop and performed this educational function in the community." That is where it helps us; it gives us educational credibility when we are trying to apply for grants. So, we're very excited about that aspect of things.
You've mentioned that you have five rehearsals a week for four weeks, but what is the rehearsal process like?
We rehearse 7 to 10 during the week. We used to rehearse at the Emory/Weiner School; we're not there this year, but we're hoping to be back next year. It's this private Jewish school, so we could not rehearse there on Friday. I was tending to then give everybody Friday off and then have a three-hour rehearsal on Saturday and a three-hour rehearsal on Sunday. Then, I had a stage manager one year say, "Why don't you give them Saturday off and turn Sunday into a longer rehearsal? Rehearse 1 to 6 on Sunday and that way everybody saves on their gas money." I thought that was a great idea, so we're still giving two days off, and with the musicians union they need the hall on Mondays so, Sundays and Mondays are the days off for this show (A TOUCH OF VENUS).
Usually, I try and schedule musical rehearsals prior to the first day of rehearsal so people can at least have taped their music and had the chance to work on it before we start staging. We were able to do that with the principles, but not with the ensemble because it took me a long time to assemble the ensemble this year. So, the first week has been Michael teaching the ensemble their vocals.
We finally found a bootleg recording of VENUS that was done in New York in the 80s, so we were able to hear some of the songs for the first time. There was no original cast album of ONE TOUCH OF VENUS. There was a recording of Mary Martin and her leading man going into a studio, probably with a studio chorus-I don't known that the Broadway chorus came on board for any of it-and they did songs from ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, but it meant that there were about five numbers that were not recorded. I heard four of them on a record album, produced by Ben Bagley, Kurt Weill Revisited, so I knew what those songs sounded like, but there was still 2 or 3 numbers that I still had never heard-that none of us had ever heard. One of my dancers, who is also my assistant director, unearthed this bootleg and my conductor almost burst into tears when I told her we had this. She was so thrilled. Finally, we had a blueprint to go by. It was like we were unearthing this artifact or doing a new show because we had only heard a limited amount of the material. Luckily, the stuff that hadn't been recorded was also very fun. We haven't had any numbers that we were like, "Oh well, no wonder (Laughs) this wasn't recorded" or numbers that we've wanted to cut. They're all worthwhile, definitely.
Just to recap, not including this season's upcoming musical, what are some shows you hope to stage at Bayou City Concert Musicals?
THE PAJAMA GAME. If that does well enough, I hope to follow that with the lesser-known NEW GIRL IN TOWN. Some others on my list are A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, CAN-CAN, SILK STOCKINGS, WONDERFUL TOWN, PLAIN AND FANCY which is a really neat show about New Yorkers going into the Amish territory, a musical comedy, TAKE ME ALONG, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, FANNIE, WISH YOU WERE HERE, and this legendary show called THE GOLDEN APPLE. It is on every musical theatre historians list of brilliant Broadway shows that should have run longer and didn't. Why doesn't anyone do THE GOLDEN APPLE? It's really an opera, almost completely sung through. There is very little dialogue, and it is a retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but set in America during the Spanish-American War. There is this one sort of a hit from it called "Lazy Afternoon" that I first heard on a Streisand album in the 70s. That's the name of the album, Lazy Afternoon, but that song is from THE GOLDEN APPLE. I would program that way down the line, making sure that we've got the audience that will come see us no mater what we do, enjoying a show that is an album they've had and liked for a long time or experiencing a vintage musical for the first time.
In that way, we're lucky. Unlike audiences that will come in and say, "Well, I've never heard any of these songs before." Our audiences are excited about the prospect of seeing something that isn't their 31st LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS or their 22nd ANNINE. They like the fact that they're coming in and seeing and responding to new material. That's something else, in these classic musicals that are being done all the time, I always feels sorry for the people in the comedic numbers because people have already heard the jokes, you know. Does anyone want to see anybody do "Bosom Buddies" from MAME ever again? We can all quote the jokes in that song. Whether it is drag queens at a gay benefit or whatever, we keep dragging that song out. (Laughs) It's like that song needs to go away for 20 years so that a new generation can pull it out and laugh. When we unearth these shows, and there are plenty of people that don't know them-I was surprised at how many people didn't know FINIAN'S RAINBOW-and the lyrics get laughs it's a gratifying experience as an artistic director to know that we made people laugh with material that's been around for a while, but we made somebody laugh. It's a great feeling.
Bayou City Concert Musicals is thrilled to produce and perform Kurt Weill's ONE TOUCH OF VENUS at Houston Community College Central Campus' Heinen Theatre. ONCE TOUCH OV VENUS will run from September 6 to September 9, 2012. For tickets or more information, visit www.bayoucityconcertmusicals.org or call (713) 465–6484.