A Century at the Muny

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

Phillip Hamer/ The Muny
Phillip Hamer/ The Muny

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.

The Muny didn’t actually become its official name until 1980. The Municipal Theatre, as it was initially called, was constructed for the presentation of grand opera—the first performance was of Verdi’s Aida in June 1917—but quickly shifted to more popular fare. The first full season opened in 1919, with St. Louis Mayor Henry Kiel playing the role of King Richard in Reginald De Koven’s light comic opera Robin Hood. That 1919 season featured works by Gilbert and Sullivan and Victor Herbert, and operettas continued to be a staple until the 1940s Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution prompted a shift to Broadway musicals, which remain the Muny’s mainstay today.

This year, the Muny is celebrating its centennial with two company premieres—Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and  Jersey Boys—following a gala headlined by Chita Rivera and Tommy Tune. Looking back on that delightful evening last summer, and having had the chance to talk further with Isaacson and other members of the staff, I realize that The Unsinkable Molly Brown was in some ways an emblematic production for us to have seen, a wonderful blend of old and new. Directed and choreographed by Tony winner Kathleen Marshall, it had a large cast of some 20 Broadway veterans, a full orchestra, and an abundant array of scenery taking full advantage of the roughly 50-by-100-foot stage. The design team was also mainly New York–based, but sets, costumes, and lights were executed, as always, on site by union crews. (With rare exceptions, the Muny produces all its shows: seven each year, during an intense nine-week summer season.) The production also featured a new book by Dick Scanlan, who got permission from composer Meredith Willson’s estate to include some additional Willson songs in a less mythic and slightly grittier version. Isaacson’s seven seasons to date have included several other shows either “reimagined” or radically revised. For the centennial season, The Wiz will have a new book, and such audience favorites as Annie (seven previous productions), Gypsy (five), Meet Me in St. Louis (seven), and Singin’ in the Rain (five) “will have some surprises, some things we haven’t done before,” production manager Tracy Utzmyers says.

“If you’re around for 100 years, and there are certain shows that are part of the canon, your obligation is to approach them new,” Isaacson says. “The easiest thing to do with a classic is just slap it up there, add orchestra, and mix.” That’s what he saw at the Muny, he says bluntly, before joining in 2011. “Productions just sort of happened. There was not a great amount of thought put into them. It befuddled me and made me angry. The Muny is one of the world’s great theaters, and it was not living up to its grand traditions. I felt the theater and the audience deserved better.”

Isaacson, a longtime St. Louis resident and active Broadway producer (running the gamut from Legally Blonde to Fun Home), saw no reason why Muny productions couldn’t be as carefully thought out and meticulously crafted as the shows he presented in New York. He could do nothing about the realities of summer repertory—rehearsals for each show still begin just 11 days before opening night—but he brought in Utzmyers as the Muny’s first full-time production manager and began planning seasons much earlier. This year, that means not just seven ambitious shows and the gala, but also “a street-fair kind of birthday party,” she says, “where we invite everybody in St. Louis to come to the Muny for free, with backstage demonstrations, performances throughout the day, food trucks, camel rides, and hopefully a Ferris wheel.”

Like many people at the Muny, both the full-time staff of 30 and the 700 or so seasonal employees, Utzmyers started there early, as a 21-year-old summer intern in 2000. Director of operations Sean Smith had his first job as an usher 32 years ago; his father played in the orchestra for half a century. Marketing and communications director Kwofe Coleman also began as an usher in 1998. President and CEO Dennis Reagan started out as a 16-year-old trash picker 50 years ago—since that time, he has missed only one performance, for his brother’s wedding. The institution inspires that kind of affection and loyalty, and not just in the people who work there. Box office receipts account for an astonishing 85 percent of the Muny’s revenue, thanks to its 24,000 subscribers, many of them the children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren of other subscribers. “There are people who go to the Muny,” Reagan says, “who don’t go to a lot of other theater, because it’s about the tradition of coming to the Muny with your family. When you see the little girls wearing Little Mermaid costumes with their mothers and grandmothers, three generations walking through the gates, you know this is a special place.”

The Muny makes every effort to attract all St. Louisans. It sets aside nearly 1,500 free seats each night and provides thousands of additional free tickets to local social service organizations. Subscriptions range from $77—ridiculously cheap for seven full-scale musicals—to $700, which is still pretty reasonable for a seat in the first 12 rows. Like most urban theaters, it has an audience a good deal whiter than the city around it, but the Muny is working on that too. Casting is colorblind: African-American actor Ken Page (a Muny regular) recently played the father of a Caucasian Ariel in The Little Mermaid, and casts are routinely multiracial, whether the show is set in a modern metropolis or ancient Rome. “No matter what the program is, the people onstage represent a cross section of the people in our community,” says Coleman. He acknowledges that African Americans are “not always as represented in the musical theater as a genre,” but adds, “In our 100th year we’re looking ahead to what we will be in the next 100 years and thinking about how we can represent everyone in St. Louis.”

It almost feels as if everyone in St. Louis is at the Muny on a sold-out summer night, as you sit surrounded by several thousand people all looking at a stage that seems as big as the Midwest, with scenery to match. “The size and scope of our shows is one of the things that make us unique,” says Reagan. “When 42nd Street begins, and you see 150 tapping feet, or when there are literally 76 trombones onstage for The Music Man, that’s pretty impressive.” Mike Isaacson made it his mission to sharpen up the choreography for those tapping feet and make sure the trombone players had enough rehearsal time, simply because he wanted the Muny to fully justify the commitment of its audiences. “This place means something to people,” he says. “The only way I can describe it that’s closest is a sports team. It’s theirs, and they want it to succeed; it’s part of who they are and part of their families. I don’t think there’s another theater in the country that has that.”

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


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