Theatre Professor Harry Parker ‘80 shows off show tunes
by Kathryn Hopper
Curtain Up! Sundays 9 a.m. KTCU radio 88.7 FM
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Topics: School of Fine Arts
by Kathryn Hopper
On Sunday mornings, KTCU listeners can hear classic songs from Oklahoma as well as new tunes from Memphis, the 2010 Tony award winner for Best Musical.
That’s because Harry Parker ’80, chair of the theatre department, has taken his passion for musical theater to the airwaves with his Curtain Up radio show that airs 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. each Sunday.
The program, which launched in January 2008, spotlights tunes from classic shows as well as songs from newer, cutting-edge productions such as Next to Normal, a 2009 rock musical about a family’s struggles with depression and bi-polar disorder.
“One of my areas of emphasis as an academic is musical theater history,” Parker says. “So I have both a professional and personal interest, and passion for musical theater.”
For each program he picks 12 to 15 songs, then records introductions with background and perspective on the selections. Producer Jordan Marett, an FTDM (film, television, digital media) major from Austin, then mixes the show and records it on a compact disc for airing.
Parker mines his massive collection of old LPs as well as 500-plus CDs to find songs to feature on the program, which has a different theme each week. Some examine the career of a specific Broadway star, such as Robert Preston of Music Man fame, or a composer, such as Cole Porter. Other programs revolve around a specific Broadway season, such as 1961-62, which spawned the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
“The goal is to have as much variety as the theme will allow,” Parker says. “One of my mantras is to do a couple of very recognizable tunes and a couple that are probably not going to be recognizable so there’s a chance to discover something new.”
Parker said one listener contacted him after he played a song from Wish You Were Here, an obscure musical from the mid ’50s set at a summer camp. It featured a large swimming pool on stage.
“It was an excuse to put a lot of young women in bathing suits at the time,” Parker says of the musical. “It’s a show almost everyone had forgotten, but I heard from a lady who said she remembered seeing the show and couldn’t believe I was playing a song from it. She said, ‘For folks my age, it’s like a trip down memory lane.’ ”
Parker’s love of musical theater dates to his high school days in Oklahoma, when he noticed the number of attractive girls in musical theater productions — including his future wife, Karen Turley Parker ’80.
Parker followed his passion for theater after graduating from TCU, going on to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate in theater and film from the University of Kansas. He later spent 11 years as the director of theatre at Emporia State University in Kansas and for seven summers he served as assistant artistic director at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma.
Parker has directed more than 80 professional, community and academic theatre productions across the country, including a musical version of Little Women and the original musical review We Need a Little Christmas. For the last two years he’s served as managing director of the Trinity Shakespeare Festival and this year he’ll be directing Oklahoma and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opening Sept. 28.
Parker says Curtain Up works in sync with his dual duties as director and teacher. He also teaches a class on the history of musical theater, which this spring drew 15 students.
“It all fits together,” he says. “The radio show whets my appetite. Some of the things I’m the most interested in, being an academic, are the most obscure shows. They may not be the best shows to stage, but they could be great to discuss in class.”
Parker said more students now are interested in studying and performing in musical theater, in part thanks to the popularity of the Emmy-nominated television show Glee, and the hit movie High School Musical.
“They are bringing a new generation of young people to musical theater,” he says. “We now have twice as many students auditioning for our musical theater emphasis as we do for our acting emphasis. That wasn’t the case a couple of years ago.”
Parker says the musical theater class follows the evolution of the genre and shows its surprising power and depth as an artistic form, something he also works to accomplish in his weekly radio show.
“Musicals started as a lowest common denominator, cheap entertainment for the masses,” he says. “While it can still be commercial, it’s evolved into a very serious art form. The Pulitzer this year for theater went to a musical, Next to Normal, a fantastic musical about mental illness.
“Producers have proved time and time again this is not light entertainment,. A lot of musicals have been among the most interesting theater work done in the 20th century,” he says. “A genre that can go from clowning burlesque to a show like Sweeney Todd or Next to Normal, I find that pretty fascinating.”
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