Texas has a state bird, a state flower and even a state insect. What most Texans don’t know, however, is that the state also has an official play – marking its 50th anniversary this year. And though millions around the world have seen the musical, many Texans have yet to experience it.
It happens six nights a week for three months every summer. Crowds gather at an outdoor amphitheatre at Palo Duro Canyon State Park outside of Amarillo as they have for the past 50 years. They come to see a musical they won’t see anywhere else.
It’s called ‘Texas.’ It’s kind of like the more famous ‘Oklahoma,’ except it’s about, well, Texas.
“It’s a fictional story but it’s about real history and it’s basically a snapshot in time in the 1890s of the Texas Panhandle,” says Kris Miller, who has been around the musical since it began. “I’ve been close to the show for almost 50 years because I saw it the first year that it opened in 1966. My parents took me down to see it and I didn’t want to go see a play but after it was over I wanted to be part of that.”
Miller was 12 years old that summer. He went on to become a dancer in the show, and later one of its stars. Eventually, he became its executive director. Brandon Dawson has a similar story.
“I’m actually from Amarillo so ‘Texas’ has always been kind of right down the road there in the canyon and I saw the show for the first time – I didn’t even see the show until I was about 14 years old – and then after that it’s always been something that interested me,” Dawson says.
He started as a technician for the show; these days he plays its lead character, Calvin Armstrong. But he says there’s another element of the play – its setting – that has a more prominent role than any star.
“Some people say that Calvin is the lead but I think the canyon is the lead in this show,” Dawson says. “We use it for everything. We act on the rocks, we interact with the foliage and stuff like that. We use the canyon for a lot and it gives us a beautiful backdrop.”
At the beginning of every show, a cowboy runs the rim of the canyon waving a Texas flag, and as the sun sets, images are projected on the rock wall to help tell the show’s story. Those special effects are just some of the updates to the 50-year-old musical. It’s also seen a few updates to its accuracy.
“The way the Comanche Indians were portrayed was a little off from what the truth was,” Miller says. “We now actually have the great great grandson of Quanah Parker in the show playing Quanah Parker.”
And since much of the play is focused on the drought of the 1890s, this year’s rainy weather also means actors are doing a little ad-libbing.
“You know, we’ve danced and played in the rain and the audience sits there in their ponchos and, fortunately, my character, Tucker Yelldell, gets away will a little bit of artistic license and I may say, ‘it’s dry, dry, well, it’s usually pretty dry…’ or I’ll do something and the audience laughs. They get a kick out of some of the little changes,” Miller says.
There are about 60 actors and dancers on stage every night along with Miller and Dawson – many are from Texas – but about half are from other parts of the country or the world.
“We actually have a young lady from China this year and two young men from Brazil – so we’re international,” Miller says.
And while millions of people from all over the world have attended the play over its 50 years in some ways, it’s still relatively unknown – even in the state.
“We still find people. I find people in Amarillo… most of them have heard of it, at least in this area, they’ve heard of it,” Miller says. “But it amazes me the people that I’ll run into and they’ll say, ‘you know, I’ve been wanting to come see that show and I just haven’t had time’ and I remind them that we play 65 nights during the summer and surely they can find one of those nights and find some time.”
Dawson, the show’s star, promises that the official play of Texas offers something for everyone.
“It has hardship, it has struggle, it has love, it has friendships,” he says. “It’s about good people that are struggling to make their lives better and I think it’s just a show that can appeal to a very wide audience.”
The 50th Season of ‘Texas’ runs through August 15th.