By Donalevan Maines
Stephen Louis remembers making the “dreadful mistake” of not preparing an acceptance speech the first time he won a prestigious Tommy Tune Award. “It was a complete surprise,” explains Louis, now 20, who is the most-honored student in the history of the Tommy Tunes, a Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) program that honors excellence in musical theater at Houston-area high schools. The nationally renowned program will celebrate its 15th anniversary on April 18 with another Tony Awards-style ceremony at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Fortunately, when Louis was announced as the best featured performer of 2012–2013—for his role as the power-mad theater-critic Daryl Grady in the 2007 Broadway musical Curtains—his mind snapped to the number his school was performing that night, “Show People.” The audience loved it when Louis expressed his gratitude to “all the show people” in the packed house.
“He was absolutely convincing,” said his mother, Diane Robinson. Actually, she is one of the actor’s two mothers, as Louis is the son of both Robinson and his birth-mother, Allison Louis. The married lesbian couple lives in League City.
They and their son weren’t “show people” at all until Stephen Louis came home from Clear Springs High School one day in 2012 and said he had auditioned for a musical. “But you don’t sing!” said his parents.
“It’s true,” admits Louis. “I grew up singing with relatively no relationship to pitch. But I got called back and I got cast—not in a leading role, but in the ensemble.”
The show was The Drowsy Chaperone, and to the delight of its cast and crew, the musical was nominated for 14 Tommy Tune Awards. Louis recalls saying, “Cool,” then adding, “But I don’t know what that means.” What it meant is that, as a finalist for Best Musical, the Clear Springs thespians would get to perform a number on the Hobby Center’s grand stage on the night of nights for Houston’s teenage actors.
“It’s like prom, only it’s a lot better than actual prom,” says Louis.
The 2016–2017 competition for Tommy Tune Awards kicked off last fall with the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Montrose performing Urinetown. However, there is still time to see some of the 33 remaining musical productions that are also in the running for 2016–2017 Tommy Tunes.
This month alone, openings include Brooklyn at Nimitz High School, Into the Woods (productions at both George Ranch and Austin), Once on This Island (productions at both G.W. Carver Magnet and Aldine), Honk! (Clements), The Addams Family (Terry), Sister Act (Bush), Pippin (Pearland), The Little Mermaid (productions at both Dulles and Foster), Oliver! (Fulshear), In the Heights (Klein Forest), Mary Poppins (Memorial), Me and My Girl (Stratford), Annie (Cypress Ridge), Once Upon a Mattress (Klein Collins), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Klein), Curtains (Klein Oak), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Clear Lake), It Shoulda Been You (Emery/Weiner), Xanadu (Spring Woods), and Les Misérables (Friendswood).
February bows include Big Fish (productions at both Seven Lakes and Clear Springs), Once Upon a Mattress (South Houston), Curtains (Houston Christian), The Boy Friend (Second Baptist School), On the Twentieth Century (St. Agnes Academy), and Into the Woods at The Kinkaid School.
Three productions to be performed in March—You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (Cypress Christian), Lucky Stiff (Episcopal), and Shrek the Musical (Incarnate Word Academy)—will be fresh on the minds of voters when nominations are decided later that month.
Until four years ago, Louis didn’t know how busy March and April are for high-school thespians, with some drama students competing in University Interscholastic League one-act play contests while also rehearsing for the Tommy Tunes with band and choir members. For example, if HSPVA’s Urinetown is nominated for Best Musical, its cast will revisit that score in order to perform a production number from the show at the Tommy Tune Awards ceremony.
The same goes for students in fall musicals who score nominations for Best Leading Actor or Actress, as they get to perform solo turns in medleys of numbers that helped earn them a shot at a Tommy Tune award. Winners go on to represent TUTS at next summer’s Jimmy Awards, a national competition that’s held on a Broadway stage in New York City.
The solo medleys are always a highlight of the Tommy Tunes. In 2015, it became another milestone for Louis when he was nominated for Best Leading Actor as the suave and charismatic Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man.
Robinson admits that she and her wife used to be as “clueless” as their son about the Tommy Tunes. “In fact, we were a little bit more behind the curve,” she says. But after attending the 10th annual affair in 2012, and hosting a watch party when the ceremony was broadcast that summer on ABC Channel 13, the Louis-Robinson family became Tommy Tune regulars.
“It was exciting and fun and thrilling,” says Robinson, who is a surgeon. “I had no idea these awards were so special.”
“My knowledge of theatrical history was extremely limited,” admits Stephen Louis. “I couldn’t name more than five musicals.” He added Urinetown to that short list during his sophomore year, and he won the 2014 Tommy Tune Award for Best Supporting Actor as Officer Lockstock in that Tony Award-winning Broadway show from 2001. The Clear Springs High production of Urinetown set a record at the 12th annual Tommy Tune honors by winning nine trophies.
Louis is among the first generation of young performers who aspire to be Broadway “gaybies” (children of gay parents). After winning a $3,000 scholarship at the 13th annual Tommy Tunes, when he sang “Trouble” from The Music Man in the medley of Best Leading Actor finalists, Louis spent his freshman year of college as a Dean’s List student at the University of Evansville in Indiana.
This year, he’s back home with his moms, working in children’s theater, conducting private acting lessons, and teaching fight choreography to students in area high-school productions. He plans to enroll in an acting conservatory in the fall.
“Stephen is one of those kids who is a dream for a teacher; he is the pinnacle of that dream,” says Mark Stonebarger, who directed the young actor to his acclaimed performances at Clear Springs High. “You give him something and he takes off with it and takes ownership. He is truly hungry. Theater is constantly churning in his brain.”
Colette Currie, the theater director at nearby Clear Lake High, adds, “His moms are the most amazing women.”
Allison Louis and Diane Robinson barely knew each other, growing up in Dickinson, Texas. “We would run into each other,” says Robinson, whose older sister, Debbie, was friends with Allison. However, it wasn’t until five or six years after each of them graduated from Dickinson High School that the two women got reacquainted in 1984 and fell in love.
Louis was conceived by artificial insemi-nation.
“We knew his father very well, and his father’s wife,” says Allison. “We wanted to pick someone we knew, so that if and when Stephen was teased about having two moms, he could say, ‘I’ve got a dad and his name is (blank). I spoke with him yesterday.’”
The young actor adds, “I am very lucky that I got to meet him, both as a child and as an adult.”
His father lives in upstate New York, where Robinson completed her surgical training.
In 2013, before marriage equality came to Texas, the young actor’s moms were married at his father’s home, with his stepmother’s father officiating and Louis wearing a kilt.
“I used to work at the Texas Renaissance Festival, so I had the kilt, plus I’m quite a bit Scottish, and thought it’d be a fun thing to wear to a wedding,” says Louis.
Robinson allows that she devoted “a fair amount of time” to worrying that Louis would be gay and have to face intolerance or even physical abuse, while Allison says, “I assumed he would be heterosexual. That’s what the numbers are.”
Instead, says Louis, “I am pansexual. I probably started wondering in middle school. About my junior year of high school, doing research on the Internet, I found a label that best expresses me.”
Veteran Broadway star Tommy Tune made his musical-theater debut as a junior at Houston’s Lamar High School, portraying Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun. In his 1997 memoir, Footnotes, Tune described himself in terms that we might think of as “pansexual” today: “As I see it, we’re all dealt a hand in this life, and I got some unusual cards. I’m not a good bluffer; I play the cards I’m dealt. The ‘traditional sex’ card is a great card. I didn’t get it. Deal me another. Oh, that, too. Let’s play. Some people consider such a hand of cards an unfair handicap. It’s not, really. There’s pain involved, but then [with] every play of the cards the game changes anyway. Moment to moment. I just want to live in my time.”
In addition to the aforementioned musicals, other shows from the fall of 2016 that are entries in this year’s Tommy Tune Awards include: Moby Dick: The Musical at Cypress Falls High School, School of Rock (Kerr), Little Shop of Horrors (Goose Creek Memorial), Shrek the Musical (Northland Christian), The Wizard of Oz (Ridge Point), The Wiz (Westfield), Hello, Dolly! (Cypress Ranch), Bonnie and Clyde (Kingwood), The Addams Family (Travis), The Boy Friend at The John Cooper School, and Oliver! at St. Thomas’ Episcopal School.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.