Houstonian Jim Vukovich conducts TUTS’s ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.’
by Donalevan Maines
Horny, shirtless football players and lusty whores in lingerie compete for attention with the conductor when Jim Vukovich takes the baton at Theatre Under the Stars’s annual free musical in Hermann Park at Miller Outdoor Theater.
“I’m a little bit of a ham,” says the buff, out Houstonian.
Vukovich is both the musical director and conductor of the nine-piece onstage band in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
“I love that feeling of looking out into the audience and seeing all the people on the hill,” says Vukovich, who previously conducted two productions of Beehive, ten years apart, at Miller Outdoor Theatre.
“This time, I think the band will be dressed in Western attire—jeans, boots, and probably cowboy hats,” he says. “I’m hoping TUTS will go all out. I like to do ‘all out.’”
However, too much attire and the audience might miss Vukovich’s muscles and tattoos. “I’ve worked out my whole life,” he says. “I started getting tattoos before they became popular. In my early 20s, they started calling me and I had to get more and more and more. I’m not covered head to toe, exactly. They are strategically placed so you can’t see them if I’m wearing a tuxedo. I can go to society functions and nobody can see them.”
Vukovich was born in Chicago and grew up in the suburb of Waukegan, Illinois, which native son Jack Benny put on the map in exchanges on The Jack Benny Program and What’s My Line? in the 1950s. In fact, Vukovich was attending Jack Benny Junior High School when he was 13 and his parents decided to send him to a boarding school for kids who were talented in the fine arts. “I was kicked out [of the boarding school] in my sophomore year,” he says. “For bad behavior. I was kind of a brat.”
The solution to his insubordination was to send him to live with his sister in Houston, where he was accepted at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) and graduated in 1979.
Vukovich’s parents were clued in to his musical talents at a young age. “When I was a little kid, we had a piano in our living room, and I would come home from Sunday School and plunk out all the songs from Sunday School by ear,” he explains. “When I was four years old, I started studying piano. In the third grade, I added the trumpet as well.”
At HSPVA, Vukovich gave up the trumpet and focused on the piano, which is the bread-and-butter instrument of a professional music director.
Next, he moved to Los Angeles and spent several decades living between L.A. and New York City, where his Broadway credits include Hairspray (winner of the 2003 Tony Award for Best Musical, as well as Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad), The Wedding Singer (nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical in 2006), and the short-lived Hot Feet, which featured the music of Earth, Wind & Fire.
Three years ago, Houston Community College (HCC) lured Vukovich back to Houston by offering him the position of head of musical theater at its Northwest College in the Memorial/Spring Branch area. “I live way out here in the suburbs,” he says.
“I came back kicking and screaming,” he explains. “I had lived for so long in Southern California, and I didn’t want to leave. But the longer I’m here, the more it grows on me, and that’s cool. The people make me glad I’m here.”
At HCC, Vukovich teaches Musical Theater I (“the basics,” he says) and Musical Theater II (“We get deeper into the texts and the history of shows”).
Each spring, he directs a musical, including this year’s Grease. Vukovich was music director and conductor for all of the homegrown shows during the inaugural year of a series called TUTS Underground. They included Lizzie, Murder Ballad, and Hands on a Hardbody. “I can’t say enough about the cast of Hardbody. They created some magic up there,” he says.
Its run ended on June 22, just five days before rehearsals began for Whorehouse. “I’m there from day one,” he says, ex-plaining the rehearsal process for the musical, which opened on Broadway on June 19, 1978, and ran for 1,584 performances. “The first couple of days, it’s just the cast and myself. I teach harmonies and solos. Then the choreographer comes in and stages musical numbers, including the chorus.”
The choreographer for this production is Shay Rodgers, who is the granddaughter of Marvin Zindler, the muckraking reporter from Channel 13’s “Eyeeeewitness News!” who is lampooned in the show as Melvin P. Thorpe when he blows the whistle on the Chicken Ranch near La Grange. Zindler’s exposé of that brothel forced Gov. Dolph Briscoe to shut down the illegal operation in 1973.
Rodgers and Yukovich “have talked at great lengths about that,” says the conductor. “I know she’s very proud of her grandfather. He was a celebrity icon. She speaks of him very fondly.”
Out actor Michael Tapley reprises his scenery-chewing performance as Melvin P. Thorpe from two summers ago at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Whorehouse marked the first Broadway directing and choreography credits for Tommy Tune, the out Houston native who’s won nine Tony Awards.
With a book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson and music and lyrics by Carol Hall, the show helped usher in the Big Apple’s fascination with Texas in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Vukovich remembers its huge local success at the old Tower Theater on Westheimer, catty-cornered from the gay landmark Mary’s, where the show’s billboard found a home on the bar’s patio. However, he first saw the story performed in the 1982 movie that starred Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds.
A few months ago, while also preparing for Hands on a Hardbody, Vukovich researched the show’s origins and began studying its score. “I really, really love the music,” he says. “It’s really, really, really good.”
Among its treasury of songs is “A Lil’ Bitty Pissant Country Place,” “The Sidestep” (sung by the governor and company), “Good Old Girl,” and “Hard Candy Christmas.”
“For gay men in particular,” says Vukovich, “there’s a lot of eye candy when the Aggie football team performs in the locker room. I’m going to particularly enjoy it myself. But the gay community is always such a great supporter of the arts. I know they’ll have a great time at this.”
What:The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
When: July 15–20, 8:15 p.m.
Where: Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive
Tickets/Details: tuts.com or 713.558.2651.
Donalevan Maines also writes about Cocaine and Ethel Merman in this issue of OutSmart.