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The First Lady of Houston Musical Theater

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Sylvia Froman receives this year’s Kim Hupp Award
by Donalevan Maines

An award-winning Madame: Sylvia Froman plays the canny Madame Armfeldt in Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," on March 29 at the University of St. Thomas.
An award-winning Madame: Sylvia Froman plays the canny Madame Armfeldt in Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” on March 29 at The Cullen Hall the University of St. Thomas.

Sylvia Froman, winner of this year’s Kim Hupp Award, will — appropriately — receive the honor for outstanding contributions to Houston musical theater at an evening of “A Little Sondheim Music” at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 29.

A favorite son of Houston’s LGBT community, Hupp died December 14, 2002. “Kim Hupp was the most fantastic pianist in the world,” says Froman. “He could make a piano sound like a symphony orchestra.”

Hupp was BCCM’s first musical director, when Paul Hope directed a who’s who of Houston actors—including Froman—in Sondheim’s Follies at Ovations in 2000; the Houston Chronicle suggested they remount it so that more people could see it, and BCCM was born.

Froman returned to BCCM to play the canny Madame Armfeldt in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. The March 29 audience will get to hear Froman reprise the character’s signature song “Liaisons,” with lines such as “Too many people muddle sex with mere desire.”

Froman says it was her friend Hope who coaxed her out of retirement as a chanteuse when he paired her with Marge Carroll in a revue at Ovations. “We sang ‘Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,’ and Marge brought the house down,” says Froman. “I had to follow her and bow—I felt like an idiot—because it was Marge who blew people away. But I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to sing again!’

“The best friends I’ve ever had were gay people,” says Froman. “They knew about pain. Maybe that’s one of the things so wonderful about gay people: they knew about psychological pain. They weren’t going to pull themselves away from you: when you wanted to cry, they would cry with you, and when you wanted to laugh, they would laugh with you. That’s so true. Wow,” she says.

“Theater is family,” she adds, explaining that years can go by, but when you see an old stage buddy, you pick up where you left off. “You walk up to them and immediately you get a hug,” she says. “They ask you how you’re doing, and they really want to know how you are doing, and you want to know how they’re doing. There is no holding back.”

In many other walks of life, says Froman, “You say, ‘Oh, I’m doing just fine,’ and that’s it.”

Looking forward to the Kim Hupp ceremony, Froman recently sat down for about seven hours and wrote about her life and how the events seem to fall into “chapters” (“boring chapters, exciting chapters, terrible chapters, and magnificent, wonderful chapters”).

“Singing has been my entire life for the most part, beginning when I started singing coloratura scales in my aunt’s bathtub at the age of five,” she wrote. “People would walk by and listen—I was famous even then!

“I came from a musical family; my mother played for a dance studio when she was younger and continued as a wonderful jazz-type pianist until arthritis got her hands; and my father was a tenor soloist with a beautiful voice.

“I was a Louisiana girl—Lake Charles—but moved to Houston when I was 12 or 13 and became a ‘converted Texan.’ I attended San Jacinto High School and was so fortunate that it had a strong music program headed by Rosamund Glosup. I was chosen to attend the Texas All State Choir for three years in a row. In my senior year I was voted Most Talented, which was an incredible honor for me.

Sylvia Froman in "Show Boat."
Sylvia Froman in “Show Boat” circa the late 1950s.

“After San Jacinto, I studied at the Houston Conservatory of Music for a while and then my life began,” she continued. “I auditioned for the chorus in Plain and Fancy at Theatre, Inc. and got it! Then came Damn Yankees, then understudied Magnolia in Show Boat and actually got to perform same and was even reviewed by Hubert Roussel and Maxine Mesinger, very favorably, wow!

“An interesting note—we worked for absolutely nothing and these were huge choruses,” she added. “Johnnie George was an absolute genius and ruled with an iron hand. We lived in fear if we were caught talking, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or moved when we shouldn’t have—what a training ground for discipline in your life. We would think that maybe she would kick us out of the show and, mind you, we were working for nothing, and rehearsals were grueling. Almost every day you would come from your job to the theater, and most of the time rehearse until midnight and even up until two or three in the morning, then home to bed and up in the morning to go to your job! I could write forever about Theatre, Inc—you made lifelong friends—the chorus was your family. Stars that came out of Theatre, Inc were, of course, Tommy Tune, Patrick Swayze, Jaclyn Smith, Georgia Creighton, and so many more that I can’t recall.”

Recalling how she met her late husband, Jay Froman, she wrote, “I was having a great deal of trouble with my voice, and one day I saw Jay Froman at Theatre, Inc., and I went up to him and asked if he could take me on as a student, and he asked, ‘Why would you ask me?’ I told him that I didn’t have anyone else to ask, and he burst out laughing and said yes. Jay took my nice, rather small voice, and made it into an operatic soprano voice. He worked me to the point of tears, and I really didn’t think I could do it, and he said ‘yes you can’—and I did!

“Then the ‘Exciting Chapter’ began,” wrote Froman. “Maestro Walter Herbert began using me, and we became great friends. I did the Opera in the Schools production of The Ballad of Baby Doe, then on to the Summer Opera Series in the Round starring in L’Huere Espagnol, then to Wortham Theater at the University of Houston as Gianetta in The Elixer of Love, then on to the big stage downtown at Jones Hall in Carmen as Fresquita, a marvelous role.

“I always tell the story that when we were rehearsing a choral part, Maestro kept doing it over and over and over, and I had a high C in it. Finally, I timidly (if you can imagine me timid) held up my hand and asked if I might lay out—I was exhausted. I had done about six high Cs in a row. The chorus died laughing and the tenor, Placido Domingo, spoke up saying that he was enjoying it, because it was the biggest ‘C’ he had ever heard!

“Then I went on to do Tebaldo, the page, in Don Carlo, and the wife in Madame Butterfly. Though some were small roles, as a local soprano I was extremely fortunate to do any of these because most everyone was brought in from New York. It was such a joy and not hard work either. I think the most exciting and incredible time in my entire career was being cast as Tosca in the opera Tosca for Beaumont Civic Opera. Talk about hard work, having to do three back-to-back performances. At the end of the opera, there is a giant cannon boom (that woke my daughter Stephanie), and then when she saw me jump off the parapet to commit suicide, she screamed ‘Mommie, Mommie.’ Thank goodness the entire audience didn’t hear her, just those around her, and they were laughing when I died!

Sylvia Froman in "Mame" at Casa Manana in Fort Worth in the summer of 1972. "That was the hardest show I ever did in my life because it was in the round!," Froman says. "You had to race up the aisle, change at the top of aisle or in the rotunda with a screen, and literally turn around and go right back down (hoping everything was in place.....and this went on for at least 10 costume changes or more.)"
Sylvia Froman in “Mame” at Casa Manana in Fort Worth in the summer of 1972. “That was the hardest show I ever did in my life because it was in the round!,” Froman says. “You had to race up the aisle, change at the top of aisle or in the rotunda with a screen, and literally turn around and go right back down (hoping everything was in place…..and this went on for at least 10 costume changes or more.)”

“Jay Froman made, literally made, my voice, took my heart and soul, and we were married,” the honoree continued. “We had two children, and I had another son from a previous marriage. Jay taught voice, and the children would sneak into the studio and sit under the piano and listen to the students. My youngest son particularly liked one of our tenors. It was hilarious. We put together a singing group and first played at The Galleria in Market Square, then moved across the street to Les Quartre Saison that we called an opera bar, though we also did musical comedy numbers, and it was great fun.” (Froman often refers to Les Quartre Saison as “Four Seasons,” its English translation.)

“When we began, it was fashionable to come from the opera to Les Quartre, because you would never know who you would hear that might be from the opera,” she explained. “Sherrill Milnes, the marvelous baritone, came over to sing and drink. During another opera, Placido Domingo and Raina Kabaivanska came over to get a drink and ended up singing a duet with Jay accompanying.

“Despairing chapters seem always to be around the corner, and this one certainly was,” Froman wrote. “After seven years of marriage, Jay died of a heart attack.”

Froman tells OutSmart that her gay friends helped her endure the sadness of Jay’s death. “They were my friends and they were there for me and they helped,” she says.

In particular, she recalls, the late John Burke would go fishing every week and bring her what he caught. “I didn’t know how I was going to feed myself and three children,” she says, “and I remember going to the freezer and there was the fish. I said, ‘We’re going to have fish tonight!’ and everybody cheered.”

“There is always recovery, and I recovered in a big way,” Froman wrote. “Frank Young of Theater Under the Stars called and asked me if I would do Cleo in The Most Happy Fella in the park at Miller Outdoor Theater. Now all the actual singing that I had done for many years was opera, certainly not belting roles, and this was a big belting role with ‘Big D’ as one of the big numbers.

“I would be working with Kevin Cooney and also Cliff Thompson whom I had met many years before. He was doing the ‘most happy fella’ role, and I was thrilled to see him again. ‘Thrilled’ is not exactly the right word, but I remembered that he was married and thought, ‘Oh, no.’ Later, someone told me that he was in the process of a divorce and, gentleman that he was, he asked me out on the day the divorce was final. We were married five months later.”

During the time that Froman was married to Thompson (before he died from brain cancer), she did only one show, but it was playing Mama Rose in Gypsy.

“What a wonderful and happy life Cliff and I had,” wrote Froman. “In order of importance in his life was God, golf, and me. I had to learn to play golf so I could see him.”

Froman added, “There are so many shows that I have done since then, it would take another half page,” but those that are most important in her mind are Cakewalk at Theater LaB, My Fair Lady for Theatre Under the Stars, The Spitfire Grill at Stages Repertory Theatre, 70 Girls 70 and Follies for BCCM, and James Joyce’s The Dead and The Women (as Countess De Lage) at Main Street Theater.

In 2011, Froman appeared in the Richard Linklater movie Bernie, which starred Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey. Based on events surrounding a 1996 murder, Black played a closeted gay man who was beloved in the East Texas town of Carthage. Froman portrayed one of the townspeople who narrated the unfolding story. McConaughey was the district attorney.

In a Bible-study scene that Froman filmed with MacLaine, Froman’s character told the other women that she knows Jesus turned water into wine but that it wasn’t “liquor-store wine” because it didn’t have time to ferment.

Froman also contributed the voice-over for the next scene and appeared in a yellow jacket adorned with a large black flower when her character gave a testimonial on behalf of the murderer.

Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth co-wrote the script, based on a 5,564-word article that Hollandsworth wrote for the January 1988 issue of Texas Monthly. Its title, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in East Texas,” was a play on John Berendt’s 1994 nonfiction book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, about a closeted gay man who was tried three times for a killing in Savannah, Georgia.

In February, Froman filmed a commercial in Houston. She recently worked in Austin on a 3D movie for producer/director Robert Rodriguez.

BCCM will present the 2014 Kim Hupp Award to Froman as part of its fundraising event, “A Little Sondheim Music,” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 29, at the Cullen Performance Hall of The University of St. Thomas, 4001 Mt. Vernon.

The musical evening will feature performances of Stephen Sondheim songs by Zachary Bryant, Susan Draper, Jennifer Gilbert, Dylan Godwin, Joe Kirkendall, Beth Lazarou, David Matranga, and Susan Shofner.

The award was established by BCCM in 2004.

“No one deserves this award more than Sylvia,” says Sharon Williams, BCCM president. “Sylvia Froman is, without doubt, the first lady of Houston theater, both on stage and as one of this city’s premiere publicists.”

Paul Hope, the group’s artistic director, says, “Sylvia was one of the founders of BCCM and is still a board member. That made us a bit hesitant to present her with the Hupp Award, but the truth is she exemplifies everything we want the award to represent. So the first time she missed a board meeting, we voted to honor her.”

Tickets to “A Little Sondheim Music” are $50 (performance only) and $100 (includes a post-performance reception honoring Froman and the show’s performers). Tickets are available by phone at 713/465-6484 or online at www.bayoucityconcertmusicals.org. Tickets are available for advance sale only. No tickets will be sold at the door.

For more information, contact Sharon Williams at 713/791-9447 or by e-mail at [email protected]

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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