Texas Travel

The Texas Outdoor Musical (A History)

By Peter Simek 5.22.19

It opens with a moment as big and as melodramatic as one would hope for from a musical that strives to reflect the spirit and story of Texas. A lone rider on a cliff overlooking the amphitheater at Palo Duro Canyon State Park brandishes a Texas flag. A horn sounds. The rider gallops off beneath the twilight sky. And the spectacle that is the Texas Outdoor Musical begins.

For more than 50 years, people from around the world have flocked to the country’s second-largest canyon to experience the pomp and pageantry of the Texas Outdoor Musical. It takes 60 singers, dancers, and musicians, more than a dozen horses, and plenty of flags to stage the production that retells the story of the founding of Texas and celebrates the spirit and passion of the Lone Star State.

Here’s where it all began.

A Dream for Texas

It began with Margaret Harper, a resident who was looking for a way to attract more tourists to Palo Duro Canyon and provide local jobs in the summer. After seeing an article about playwright Paul Green in Reader’s Digest, Harper had an idea: one that would accomplish her goals and also teach visitors something about the history of the Panhandle. She and her husband approached the playwright with a commission: Write an epic musical that celebrates the story of the canyon and the state.

Green, a native of North Carolina who had written an outdoor musical about his home state, traveled to Canyon to research the area and learn its history. There was concern that the area was too sparsely populated to support a musical of the scale and grandeur Green was known to produce. The solution was to make the musical a top attraction. They planned for the construction of an amphitheater in one of the prettiest corners of Palo Duro Canyon. The result was an acoustically tuned theatrical setting quite unlike any other in the world.

A Texas-Size Production

Green’s musical has become a quintessential Panhandle experience. With some help from students and faculty from West Texas State College (now West Texas A&M University), Green’s play debuted in 1966, telling the ultimately triumphal story of the hardship and struggles that faced Texas’ first Anglo settlers — with plenty of song and dance, a sprinkling of humor, and a fireworks finale.

The musical’s story begins in the 1880s, after U.S. troops have pushed the Comanche off the Panhandle and ranchers and farmers have moved in to settle. A young farmer returns to the region with dreams of helping to extend the railroad through the area. His efforts are resisted by a rancher — loosely based on Charles Goodnight — who is concerned the railroad will ruin the Panhandle for ranching.

Enter the rancher’s attractive niece, a bad drought, illness, and fire, and the uneasy peace of the fledgling community is threatened. Two and a half hours later, the musical’s protagonists have found love and hope on the frontier, withstood hardship, and forged a compromise.

The Texas Outdoor Musical (A History)
Courtesy of Jim Livingston and Texas Outdoor Musical

Going Off Book

In 2003, organizers of the outdoor musical attempted to update Paul Green’s story with a new script by Lynn Hart. Called “Texas Legacies,” the new story was an attempt to correct some of the historical inaccuracies of the original production. Audience members, some of whom make an annual pilgrimage to see the musical, were not pleased, and in 2006, Texas returned to its original script. The ordeal proved that saying of the Old West: When truth becomes legend, print the legend.

A Tourism Boon

Today, the show that was imagined as a way to draw more people to the Panhandle remains a top tourist draw in the region. The Texas Outdoor Musical drew its largest crowds back in the 1970s and 1980s, when as many as 100,000 people would head to Palo Duro Canyon each summer.

The show’s attendance has dropped by nearly half, yet it remains the most popular outdoor musical history drama in the country. According to a 2009 study, that tourism brings an estimated $17.5 million in related spending to the Panhandle. That kind of revenue helps justify the large $2.5 million budget that comes with putting on the show each year.

This Year’s Show

The Texas Outdoor Musical means more to the people who help stage it and who see it every year than simple economic impact. The controversy that surrounded the attempt to rewrite the beloved musical underscores the way in which the story has become essential to the local community and their sense of pride and identity. The show also helps give local residents valuable theater experience, and over the years, performers have gone on to star in Broadway productions. Cast and crew rehearse for up to 12 hours a day to prepare for the 65 performances each year. The result is a spectacle unlike any theater experience around.

How to Visit

The Texas Outdoor Musical is performed at the Pioneer Amphitheater — the stage since the show’s inaugural year. For more information, visit Texas-Show.com. 2020 shows are cancelled due to COVID-19, but check back in time for next year!

For more frontier history, follow the historic Texas forts trail.

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