by Donalevan Maines • Photos by Mark Hiebert
Every year I look forward to theater critic Everett Evans going to New York to review the latest Broadway shows in the Houston Chronicle. It’s usually right before the Tony Awards (airing at 7–10 p.m., Sunday, June 7, on CBS), the one night of the year that national media are focused on live theater.
Around this time, articles about Broadway begin popping up everywhere, but I’m more interested in what Evans has to say, mainly because he earns my respect covering Houston theater all year long, and his reports put new favorites such as Billy Elliot and God of Carnage in historical context of prior competitions and shows that have played in Houston.
What’s playing in New York, and especially the shows that get national exposure on the Tonys, predict what plays, musicals, and revivals we’ll be seeing here, says Evans.
“You can’t really overestimate the power of the Tonys,” he explains, “not only on what musicals will be in the Broadway Series on [national] tour, but also on what you will see at midsize theater companies throughout the country.
“No matter what quibbles and complaints one might have about who wins, the Tonys make it possible for theater buffs, whether in Houston or Peoria, to familiarize themselves with smaller shows on Broadway, too,” Evans explains. “For example, The Light in the Piazza and Grey Gardens [now playing at Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston] didn’t win best musical, but they got very strong play on the Tonys.”
This year, Evans is delaying his annual trek to New York until after the Tonys, but his coverage of Broadway’s biggest night should be just as fetching, informed by keeping his ear to the ground regarding which shows have enjoyed critical and popular reception in New York.
“I simply haven’t been able to fit it in around my schedule of things I need to be here to cover,” he says, explaining that opera and reviewing the Houston Symphony have been added to his beat as arts writer at the Chronicle. “The Houston scene of course is a higher priority. And it’s a matter of being able to be in New York long enough—nine to 10 days—to attend as many shows as I’d want to see to make the trip worthwhile.”
Regarding this year’s Broadway season, he says, “I keep track of the content and I keep pretty close tabs on what has been a very mixed reception to this season’s slate of nominees.
“Half of them are revivals, so a show like August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone that I’ve seen before, is to be expected, especially with Bartlett Sher directing. So even from a distance, I have a pretty clear idea of who I will be most likely to be rooting for.”
Evans has also noticed “a huge surge of limited-run” productions, including the late Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, which was directed by former Alley Theatre associate director Michael Wilson, with another former Houstonian, painter Jeff Cowie, making his Broadway debut as a set designer.
Evans is thrilled that Dividing the Estate is up for best play, but fears that its former frontrunner status faces strong competition from momentum of the still-running hit comedy God of Carnage, starring best-actor nominees Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) and best-actress contenders Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis.
“The Tonys are very practical, and they are less likely to vote for a play that won’t benefit at the box office by winning,” Evans explains.
However, he allows, “I have to admit I am rooting for Dividing the Estate to win for best play. It would be nice to see a superb writer like Horton Foote, who’s had such a long and distinguished career and given us so many wonderful works—but who really has not been much produced on Broadway—finally get a well-deserved Tony Award to go along with the Pulitzer and two Oscars he’s already earned.”
A consolation prize might come in the form of a best featured-actress win by Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter, who won rave reviews as Mary Jo in Dividing the Estate. Evans says, “I’d like to see Hallie win also, and she has a good chance, I think, representing the entire [13-member] cast.
“I was hoping that Michael Wilson would be up for best director,” he adds. “There are eight slots for plays and revivals, but they only nominate four directors, so not all of them could get in. The same thing with set design.”
Evans says, “The first Tony broadcast I saw was the very first time the Tonys were broadcast on network TV, on ABC, I guess.” It was Sunday, March 26, 1967. Evans was in elementary school, and Barbra Streisand was Broadway’s brightest new star.
“I can tell you what the nominees were for best musical and what number they performed on the Tonys,” says Evans. They were Cabaret, which won, with Joel Grey leading the company in “Wilkommen”; The Apple Tree (“Movie Star” and “Gorgeous” performed by Barbara Harris and future Tony winner Larry Blyden, a lawyer’s son from Houston); I Do! I Do! with the Tony show’s hosts, Mary Martin and Robert Preston, who won for best actor in a musical, singing “Nobody’s Perfect”; and Walking Happy, featuring Norman Wisdom and company performing their show’s title tune.
A native Houstonian, Evans attended Strake Jesuit College Preparatory School before going to Blyden’s alma mater, the University of Houston, where he excelled in drama, art, and music appreciation classes, and he wrote for the Daily Cougar school newspaper, on his way to earning a degree in journalism.
In November 1978, Evans started at the Chronicle on the fine arts staff led by legendary editor Ann Holmes, who was impressed with Evans’ well-rounded cultural interests. Evans also showed her his Daily Cougar reviews of Broadway shows he’d seen on a two-week jaunt to New York, among them A Chorus Line, Chicago, and Pacific Overtures.
“She was my mentor,” Evans says.
And what a mentor to have! When Holmes died on March 6, Evans was assigned her obituary. He wrote that “as fine arts editor and chief arts critic of the Houston Chronicle for 40 years [she] helped shape the taste of the city’s audiences and nurtured key cultural institutions through their formative years.”
Evans adds, “She knew the city and she knew the players. She felt that new groups might need a little more nourishing as they took their first steps, but 10 or 12 years down the line you have to be more demanding.”
“Her legacy is the Houston arts scene that we see today,” agrees Rebecca Greene Udden, executive artistic director at Main Street Theater. She also finds that Evans is “indispensable” in taking up Holmes’ mantle: “Everett loves the theater, and he understands what he can do to strengthen the theater community. He got that from Ann Holmes. When something is good, everybody knows about it, because Everett uses the power of the Chronicle to bring the arts to the attention of Houston in a good way.
“He has seen so much theater, and he reads about it, and he makes so many wonderful connections to other productions, here and on Broadway.”
Evans is a treasure whether he’s nurturing a young company, pointing out how a production could be better, or boldly challenging the biggest player in town to astonish him.
“His reviews are not about him. They’re always about the arts,” explains Udden. “He’s not of the John Simon school of criticism where you think of something witty, and write that at the expense of the artist.
“Everett is positive,” she says. “He’s really a smart guy, and Houston is lucky to have him, period.”
‘Yep, I’m . . . Everett Evans’
“Nobody ever asked…”
All work and no play? Not a chance. When OutSmart interviewed Everett Evans about his longstanding post as Houston’s top theater critic, we couldn’t resist asking a few Love Connection questions, too, the kind you would ask on a first date with a prominent (and handsome) man of letters. To our surprise, the native Houstonian replied with this tantalizing peek into his life outside the newsroom at the Houston Chronicle . (Second date, anyone?) — D.M.
On the Personal Front
Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be very much of that. Beyond all the time I spend covering shows and arts events for the Chronicle , in my own spare time my interests still often lead to that area. A great recreational night at home for me often involves listening to several cast albums of shows or several symphonic recordings (I especially love Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Brahms and Mozart). I used to read a lot more literature – I especially love 19th-century English novels by Dickens, Austen, and Thackeray. Among my all-time favorite reading experiences, many are Dickens — David Copperfield in high school, but as an adult I got around to two of my favorites of his, Dombey and Son and Little Dorrit . Both fantastic. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and George Gissing’s New Grub Street are two more all-time favorite novels.
I like to exercise and to walk/run (alternating a couple of blocks at a time) when I can fit the latter into my daily workout regimen.
How About Travel?
Trips are often to New York or London or Chicago to see theater, even when it’s just on my own and I’m not covering it for the paper (sometimes such limited runs, or seeing things just as they close, it would not be practical to run stuff on them).
But when not, some of my favorite vacations are going to national or state parks and hiking. The Grand Canyon is probably my favorite spot in the United States, next to Broadway. In Texas, Lost Maples and Pedernales Falls State Park are favorite places to spend an afternoon hiking.
I had been in the same apartment in Montrose since college, but last year was persuaded it was time to buy my first house [in Oak Forest]. As you may have guessed, figures, paperwork, mortgages and money stuff, and dealing with all that, are not my bag, so I had kept putting it off. Well, I finally bought one. As of last year I went from a monthly rent in the $600-700 range to a housenote in the $1,400-1,500 range (and it just went up almost another hundred because of an increase in insurance). So I have to economize and don’t eat out as much as I used to. And with my first house, it’s tough to keep up with all the new responsibilities, so I’m kept pretty busy. I mow my own lawn, too! (Once every month or so. It gets so tall it almost kills the mower, I have to kind of leverage it up at some points to get through it!)
Oh, and no one else lives there currently. No pets or plants. Can’t handle the responsibility. (Laughs)
Growing Up Gay
Growing up, I always knew I was gay, and so many of my heroes were gay creative and theater people, so I had no problem with it. However, I was very sheltered and lived kind of isolated in terms of location. Grew up in southwest Houston, within the city limits, but really in the middle of nowhere, since it was a few acres of undeveloped property. I really didn’t get any sense of adult independence till I was in college. I worked my way through college while still living at home, but was just beginning to find myself then, beginning to date, etc. Believe it or not, since I know other kids were active in their late teens, I was a virgin till 22 — had my first experience at 22 in my last year of college. But no complaints! As I said, I don’t know if I’m officially out, since I’ve never like made an announcement about it. (Was I supposed to? I didn’t think anyone cared.) (Laughs) But I’ve never hid anything about my lifestyle. And especially being a theater critic, who in my field is going to make an issue of one’s orientation?!
My mother and father are both deceased (Dad when I was in college; Mother died 13 years ago). I never confronted them on my personal life, but feel they must have been aware. I have four siblings, including one who still lives in Houston, two live far away, but my youngest sister Elizabeth lives with her husband and son and daughter in Piermont, N.Y., and we get together when I’m in the area and sometimes see a Broadway show together or take a road trip. I guess of all, even though she lives away and we don’t see each other often, Elizabeth is the sibling I feel close to.
I’m working on the first volume of my memoirs — Prelude to Greatness: The Early Years. (Laughs) Not really! Obviously, I get pretty silly sometimes — maybe that’s my main hobby. Oh, other recreationals. See, I go to other things. I like to hang out the museums, especially the Menil, and to meditate at the Rothko Chapel. And I have tons of DVDs and videos of the great old classic films of yesteryear. My other big passion. Any ’30s or early ’40s screwball comedies or Hitchcock suspensers I adore. Also musicals, of course. Nothing like sitting down with a bottle of wine and the wide screen DVD of Flower Drum Song . . .
Well, first of all, that might involve talking about someone who may not be as eager to have his personal life disclosed.
But more crucially: let’s leave some “mystique” for now, just to be theatrical!
Donalevan Maines also writes about the Tony Awards and James Knapp, 2009 male grand marshal, for this issue of OutSmart magazine.