Five-hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes and $1.37 million: such were the themes for Theater Under the Stars's 50th anniversary season gala last Saturday night, a record-breaking fundraiser for the local performing arts community. The belle of the ball was Idina Menzel, the multi-hyphenate talent best known either as Maureen from Rent or Elsa from Frozen, depending on who you ask (and how old they are).
More than 600 well-heeled patrons of the arts turned out for the grand occasion, which saw the Post Oak Hotel ballroom transformed into a glittering, celestial wonderland thanks to event designer Taylor DeMartino of Blooming Gallery. Guests dined on heirloom tomato salad, filet mignon with truffle potato puree, and strawberry and pistachio panna cotta on elegant tablescapes bedecked with lush roses and softly burning candles beneath the Post Oak's signature chandeliers and, fittingly, a swirling star light show on the ceiling.
KTRK ABC-13 anchor Samica Knight emceed the evening, which began with a tribute from gala co-chairs Leticia and Steve Trauber and Cheryl and Louis Raspino to past chairs and presidents of the TUTS board since 1968. Artistic director Dan Knetchges and executive director Hillary Hart spoke next about TUTS's impact, but the audience didn't have to take their word for it—a live performance of Rent's "Seasons of Love" followed, and local performers Christina Wells, Courtney Markowitz, and Marco Camacho with students from the Humphreys School for Musical Theatre and The River Performing and Visual Arts Center brought the crowd to its feet (and more than a few audience members to tears).
That wasn't the last time the room would hear from those performers: Menzel would bring several back on stage to join her in impromptu choruses over the course of her spirited, intimate performance that spanned her iconic repertoire over nearly an hour.
Had she ended the night two songs in, her crowd would've still gone wild. It was then, for "Take Me or Leave Me"—Maureen's shining moment in Rent, a playful duet with the character's girlfriend, Joanne—that Menzel surprised everyone by asking for audience participation, making it clear from the get-go that this whole thing would be an immersive experience. A smattering of hands shot up around the ballroom, and Menzel made her way over to three different participants, mic in-hand.
They all, it turned out, could seriously sing. (What else would you expect from a TUTS gala?) Lainey Balagia, Michelle Lowther, and Christina Wells needed no lyrical prompting or vocal coaching for Joanne's verse.
"Well, I might as well just go home at this point," Menzel said. "Nobody told me I was going to be surrounded by so much talent this evening. I'm done; I'm out of here. Goodnight, Houston."
Thankfully, she stayed, progressing through Wicked's "The Wizard and I," her version of Barbra Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and an emotional arrangement of The Beatles' "Dear Prudence" and Frozen's "Do You Want to Build a Snowman" she dedicated to her sister.
More emotional yet was Menzel's prelude to "No Day But Today," a particularly affecting ballad from Rent that serves as a melodic, carpe diem synopsis for the entire rock opera. The late composer Jonathan Larson, then 35, "had a community like this one that really supported him" when he wrote the musical that made her a star. "He hired a bunch of us kids he believed in," Menzel said. "On the night of our first dress rehearsal, in front of a live audience, he passed away. So, needless to say, it's always been a complicated, bittersweet memory for me."
Still, she'll sing the song whenever she's on a stage, she said, "to thank him for changing the trajectory of my life." But it was more profound to perform it for an audience like this one, "people who really understand the theater," she added. "When I'm surrounded by a group of such magnanimous people who understand the importance of giving back and how the arts gives us such an opportunity to express ourselves, well, then it's like the song takes on even more meaning."
Lest the mood turn too melancholy, Menzel roused the crowd once more for her final performance—none other than the Academy Award-winning "Let It Go," perhaps universally acknowledged (at least among parents) as the most pleasant earworm of all time. Though it's been done time and again since Menzel debuted it in 2013's Frozen, Saturday's live version might be the most heart-warming of all: Menzel called back TUTS student performers from earlier in the evening, including those from Humphreys and The River, which serves young performers with disabilities. All were visibly ecstatic to perform with Menzel, who made sure each got at least one solo.
All told, the delightful and record-breaking evening raised nearly $1.4 million, including $90,000 in the "paddles up" portion of the program alone. Guests bid on auction items like trips to the Tony Awards, Cabo, and South Africa; a Houston Rockets suite; and designer purses.
Before the Georgia Bridgwater Orchestra kicked off the official after-party, Mayor Sylvester Turner led the crowd in a champagne toast to the work TUTS has done over the last half-century. "May the best of its past be overshadowed by its future," he said.
All night long, the spirit of community was palpable in the ballroom, perhaps best displayed during one of the impromptu dialogues between Menzel and her enraptured crowd.
"You have something to be so proud of," she said. "I know that I wouldn't be here if I didn't have something like this organization in my life. It's not an organization—what would you call it? A theater company?"
The crowd yelled something back, not immediately distinguishable from the back of the room. But from Menzel's spot at center-stage, it was crystal clear.
"Community," she echoed. "Okay, dammit!"