Arts - Summer 2018

A Century at the Muny

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The open-air St. Louis theater, set to undergo a renovation this fall, is a beloved summertime institution

Phillip Hamer/ The Muny

By Wendy Smith

June 4, 2018


 

Late last July, I accompanied my husband, Joe, on a trip to St. Louis to visit the Muny, an 11,000-seat, open-air theater built in 1917 in the city’s Forest Park. Missouri in the middle of a sweltering summer would not normally be my preferred destination for a weekend getaway, but I was intrigued by Joe’s enthusiasm for the Muny, which had hired his company to consult on a project to upgrade its stage, facilities, and equipment. Joe and I both love theaters as physical spaces as well as performance venues, and he relishes any opportunity to modernize historic theaters while maintaining their distinctive look and feel. He hadn’t been this effusive about a job since he worked on the restoration of Radio City Music Hall, and I decided I wanted to see the Muny for myself.

Everywhere I went in St. Louis, any mention of my husband’s work brought the invariable response: “Oh, I love the Muny! I’ve been going there since I was a kid.” It’s rare to find a theater so deeply embedded in a community, and not just a relatively small community of habitual theater-goers, but a broad swath of the St. Louis population. You see them picnicking before performances or sampling the various pre-show entertainments, all cannily scheduled so that 11,000 people aren’t trying to park their cars during the same 15 minutes. On the evening we went, gray-haired couples sat next to tattooed and pierced millennials, and family groups spanned several generations.

“I always tell my visiting friends, ‘Welcome to America,’ ” Muny artistic director and executive producer Mike Isaacson told me as we chatted before the show, with patrons ambling past us to their seats. The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a musical about a survivor of the Titanic, was playing that night, and before it began, the entire audience rose to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as spotlights lit American flags flanking the huge stage, with a canopy of trees as a backdrop. Then everyone settled in to watch the show, undeterred by the steamy temperatures and ominous sky. Shortly into the second act, it began to rain lightly, with lightning visible and thunder audible in the distance. The actors kept going; the audience matter-of-factly pulled on rain gear. We made it all the way to the sinking of the Titanic, but the rain grew heavier, the thunder louder, and the lightning closer, until management reluctantly stopped the performance for safety reasons. Once the crew had cleared the stage equipment, however, stars Beth Malone and Marc Kudisch returned under an umbrella to give us an impromptu summary of the show’s remaining 10 minutes. It was funny and charming, one of those “only at the Muny” moments that come up whenever people talk about it.

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Wendy Smith is a contributing editor of the Scholar and the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940.


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