“You’ve just got to keep moving,” says Theatre Under The Stars artistic director, Dan Knechtges, when I asked him what lessons he’s learned about programming the company through several years of theater under crisis.
Probably one of the biggest of those surprises is the number of touring shows they’ll present. TUTS has become a unique type of theater company over the years, as they both produce their own shows and present touring Broadway musicals. On average that count came to four self-produced shows and two touring, but this year they’ve opted for three.
TUTS made a surprise late announcement of an additional summer touring show, 1776, as part of its 2022-2023 season. This revival production that cast women, transgender and nonbinary actors in all the founding father roles was originally scheduled to make a pre-Broadway stop in Houston but the journey back to stage after the pandemic changed that.
This season will offer six shows with one world premiere special add-on, so Knechtges said it made sense to up their presented tours to three.
“Honestly, we got offered those three tours and we couldn’t pass it up,” he explained, adding, “Who can say no to Cher?”
This brings us to a self-produced surprise of the season, Sweeney Todd (Oct. 17-29), just in time for Halloween. With the death of the great Stephen Sondheim in late 2021, it’s not unexpected that Knechtges would want to play tribute, but he acknowledges that The Demon Barber of Fleet Street probably isn’t the obvious choice for TUTS, especially as it will be the first time they produce the musical in their history.
“It’s the greatest of his shows, in my opinion. It’s the only show that started from him. He generated the project. All the other ones were brought to him,” Knechtges explains of the choice. “There should be no question that Sweeney needs to be a part of the history of Theatre Under The Stars.”
One of the other self-produced surprises in the lineup is a second holiday show and world premiere, The Ugly X-mas Sweater Musical (Nov. 28-Dec. 24). In past talks with Knechtges, he’s discussed wanting to return to the Hobby Center’s Zilkha stage for the occasional intimate and perhaps even interactive production. Sweater, with its book co-written by Knechtges and Megan Larche Dominick will accomplish just that.
Knechtges has wanted to write a show with a fashion focus for quite some time, but thought the idea constrained by either having to be set in the past or the costuming would need major alterations with each production as fashion changes.
“The other thing, frankly, is we were looking at doing a show that we could bring back each year at Christmas.” With these criteria and inspirations came the idea for this interactive story about a crisis at a sweater manufacturing company. When the owner takes the employees’ holiday bonuses to Tahiti and then sells the company to a German conglomerate, with a mysterious director who looks like Heidi Klum, someone has to save the company.
When I asked if this would be the first American musical that makes an HR director the hero, Knechtges was pretty certain Cheryl wins that distinction.
Knechtges will choreograph and direct both Sweeney and Sweater, a bit of back to back scheduling he seemed both excited and exhausted by already.
“Oh yeah, that’s what happens,” he laughed, but assures that the “crackerjack” TUTS staff will give him ample support.
TUTS will get something of a producing respite in the new year with the two touring shows before ending the season with a definite audience favorite Newsies.
And while it looks like smooth dancing ahead, taking a look at the new season it’s easy to see Knechtges lessons-learned shining through: “Be flexible. Be passionate and care a lot about what you’re choosing. But at the same time just realize what it is. Sometimes those of us who care deeply think it’s the end of the world when a show doesn’t work out or doesn’t resonate with an audience. It’s not. There’s always going to be another one coming down the pike. You’ve just got to keep moving.”