BWW Interviews: TUTS Puts the Whore Back in WHOREHOUSE, Takes Out Damn
THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS is a light-hearded musical based on the notorious Texas born brothel the "Chicken Ranch." Thanks to a silent agreement between the madam, Miss Mona Stangley, and Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (based on good ol' boy Sheriff Jim Flournoy), things are all quiet on the range. But when flashy, young reporter Melvin P. Thorpe (based on the late, great Houstonite Marvin Zindler) reveals the ranch to the town, sparks fly high in the heart of Texas. In the following interview, I get a lesson in Texas history from TUTS artistic director and director of the production, Bruce Lumpkin.
BWW: It's your second year as Artistic Director for TUTS. Could you tell me a little bit more about your overall process for choosing shows?
Because part of our season is tours as well as self-produced shows, Theatre Under the Stars is part of an organization called the IPN - The Independent Producer's Network. The IPN invests in Broadway shows in order to get the rights to do them on the road. So three of our shows usually, sometimes four of our shows a year, are tours. Once we know what those shows are going to be (because it's based on routing the shows - that's what they really say), we begin to choose the shows we are going to be self-producing.
And we have quite a long list of shows that we want to do for TUTS. It's just a matter of picking what would be for the best season that year. Like, next year our two self-produced shows are THE MUSIC MAN and VICTOR/VICTORIA. We thought that VICTOR/VICTORIA would be a really good show to open next season.
BWW: How you choose THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS?
Bruce Lumpkin: When we choose our summer shows like THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE, the park show, we keep a few things in mind. We take into account the fact that it's outdoors, the fact that it's not really our normal audience per se. It's actually a different clientele that we would love to have become part of the TUTS family audience, but many of those people don't really go to the theatre that much. It's an outdoor event more than a theatrical event. So we try to pick shows that will appeal to a wider variety of audiences like shows that are more uptempo, shows that are more fun. And will be more acceptable by people who have never seen theatre before.
BWW: So you consider this production more accessible?
Bruce Lumpkin: I do indeed consider it to be accessible. It's a show about Texas. It's a show about anyone over a certain age who actually remembers who Marvin Zindler was. It's a historical musical theatre piece, if you will. It's a fun show with some great choreography. There's some great humour in the show. And it's something that Texas audiences can relate to.
BWW: You mentioned in a 2012 interview with CultureMap that you wanted to add smaller shows with a different "flavor" to the TUTS lineup along with the big musicals. What do you consider this show? Flavor or giant spectacle?
Bruce Lumpkin: A little bit of both. It's certainly not a giant spectacle, but it is a large Broadway type show. Yes, a little of both.
BWW: TUTS staged the show in 2012, correct?
Bruce Lumpkin: Yes, they did. And they did it in 1990.
BWW: Can Houston audiences expect anything different from this production?
Bruce Lumpkin: I think obviously it's done by a different director. Roger Allan Raby did the one in 2012. I'm directing this. We both had contact with the show from the beginning of time. I was involved with, actually, the Houston production done here in, gosh, 1980. I stage-managed for that. So was Roger. And we both have known Tommy Tune for many, many years. I worked with him for 18 years in New York. The difference comes from directorial approach only. The material certainly is the same. The songs are the same. But anytime you add a new director, they're going to bring something else to the table which is why we try to vary our directors for each production, why just one person doesn't do them all.
BWW: What was your approach to directing BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE?
Bruce Lumpkin: Well, you know, here's the thing about shows about Texas. Many times - especially when they're done out of the state of Texas, in other states up eastward where I've spent a lot of time - people have a different idea of what Texans are and how they act. Like their accents. They sort of assume everyone talks the same way. But when you're from Texas, which I am, and you're doing a show in Texas, which we are, then there's a certain honesty and truth that you really have to strive for or else it's not gonna be bought by your audience. They don't want to feel like they're being made fun of. And the show's not making fun of by any means. But sometimes it can go that direction if you don't really have some sort of authenticity or roots.
BWW: Well, I think that ties into the next question. What has been the most challenging part of directing this show?
Bruce Lumpkin: The most challenging part [Pauses] working with some people who have never done the show before and working with some people who have done the show before. I think the most challenging part is making that blend happen so these people become one on the same level in a very short period of time. We only have two weeks to do that. It's also trying to give a little bit of history along the way to the younger people who weren't even alive when Marvin Zindler was doing all these things like closing down the Chicken Ranch and all of that. So that's challenging. But it's mainly the amount of time we have to do it. Also, we haven't gotten to this yet, but the real challenge is that I think it's 97 degrees outside today. [Laughs] When we move out to the park next week, it's going to be pretty hot. It's rehearsal day. So that's going to be a little challenging for everyone as well.
BWW: [Laughs] You better get some fans and set 'em up! What are you looking forward to most with this production?
Bruce Lumpkin: I've been connecting with this show for years and years and, as I said, I worked with Tommy Tune for many years. But I've never directed this show before. So I am very excited about the fact that I'm getting a chance to do that.
BWW: The performance of the Aggie Song at the 1979 Tony Awards was heavily censored and I've noticed in many of your promotional materials that you have censored the whore in WHOREHOUSE. Do you think the subject matter still makes some people uncomfortable today? Even when presented with some levity?
Bruce Lumpkin: Yes. Perhaps some people will be a bit offended. We have to be very careful about the way we approach this show knowing it's done outside. And censoring a little bit of the really strong language. We talked to the rights house and they said they understand completely. But we also must realize that it was 1979 and the words that they were censoring were things like "get laid" and "get made". That kind of dialogue on television today has been replaced with a lot stronger language. So I think that people are used to more [Pause] stronger language than they were in 1979. And I think that they were nervous about it because it was a show that dealt with subject matter that maybe had never been dealt with before.
Interesting story about the show when it opened on Broadway: the producer that was in New York City when Taxi Cabs starting taking advertisements on the roofs of the cabs had an ad that said "Come to the Whorehouse." Well, it caused quite a stir in 1979 New York City. But the stir also made lines around the block for the show. That's a point to be taken as well.
BWW: Any publicity is good publicity. [Pause] What did you have to censor for this show?
Bruce Lumpkin: Very little actually. The one thing that you don't do - I don't think it can be any show that's acceptable - is take God's name in vain and put it in front of a word like damn or anything like that. That's the main thing.
BWW: How do you think Houston audiences will respond to the production?
Bruce Lumpkin: Well, if history proves itself once again, I think they're gonna love it. They certainly have in the past. And it's fun. It's a fun show about a piece of Houston history. And that always seems to work with Houston or when it's Chicago or wherever else, history, local people seem to relate to. I know I do. I remember where I was when it came on the news that they were closing down the Chicken Ranch - having dinner with my mom and dad. And Marvin Zindler came on and I remember it like it was yesterday.
BWW: I know it's a fun musical, but do you think the closing of the bordello makes this musical slightly tragic?
Bruce Lumpkin: Tragic? I don't think the play takes on the tragic quality. Perhaps it could for some people. It tells the story like it was. One of the main points the show does make a few times is the fact that this had been going on
for a long time. Maybe 1930, 1937 or something like that. It was there. And was it a little bit political? Perhaps. But they don't really deal with that as much. It's a light musical. It's a fun musical. But it interjects history. It's not like an EVITA which deals with the tragedy of her life. It's not approached that way at all.
BWW: I know your traditional advice to young people attempting to forge a career in theatre is basically akin to "If you can do anything else, do it" but for those whose skills and interests are limited, what advice do you have?
Bruce Lumpkin: Well, welcome to the club. [I Laugh] I mean, seriously. I say this all the time in rehearsal: We're the luckiest people in the world to be doing what we want to do and we're creating art. Personally, I can't think of any better way to spend my life.
TUTS' THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS plays July 15 - 20 at 8:15 pm at Miller Outdoor Theatre.
Free tickets for the covered seats are available on the day of performance between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the Miller Theatre Box Office. Free tickets are limited to four per person. Any tickets remaining will be given out one hour before curtain. For each $50 tax-deductible donation to TUTS, the organization will set aside two reserved tickets under the covered pavilion. To reserve tickets, visit tuts.com/donatenow or call 713.558.2651. Ticketholders are asked to arrive early as any unfilled seats will be released to the general public at 8 p.m. No tickets? Bring a blanket or lawn chair to enjoy the show from the Miller Theatre lawn. Patrons are encouraged to utilize public transportation to Miller Outdoor Theatre. Click here for a complete list of bus schedules and routes.