St. Louis has had a rough week for public perception, what with Stan Kroenke’s 29-page letter bashing the city as home to the St. Louis Rams. In another competitive realm however, those arguments aren’t remotely valid.
“It is so funny listening to people bash St. Louis right now, one person in particularly with a bad toupee, and here is this remarkable story of this organization that is producing on Broadway for 20 years, major works, making national and international impact based on offices in Grand Blvd,” said Mike Isaacson, a producer with St. Louis-based Fox Theatricals, now 20 years old, and also the artistic director and executive producer of The Muny.
In 2015, a socially and musically groundbreaking musical produced by the company, went on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Also groundbreaking? That it was an all-female creative writing team that took home best book and best score.
That musical was called “Fun Home.” It was based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel by the same name which explores her identity as a lesbian growing up with the closeted identity of her father as a gay man (you may recognize her name from the ‘Bechdel Test,’ which is used as an indicator of gender bias in film).
“It is Alison’s unique journey about her upbringing, sexuality and her relationship with her father,” said Kristin Caskey, another producer with Fox Theatricals who worked on ‘Fun Home.’ “And, at the same time, it is an incredibly universal story about seeing your parents through grown-up eyes, the relationship we have as children to our parents — those elements of our relationship where we can find peace and those that need more examination. We feel as groundbreaking as it is, one of the reasons why it has found such a large audience and why the response has been so huge is that it is reality and people who say ‘yes, that is my family’ in some ways.”
Needless to say, despite its ability for universal connection, this musical broke many boundaries on Broadway: a Broadway musical had never seen a lesbian protagonist before this.
A who’s who of St. Louis’ artistic elite were involved in the production of the musical — from Fox Theatricals’ owners Mary Strauss, Julie Baudendistel-Noonan and Lisa Baudendistel-Suntrup to Jack Lane, of STAGES, and Terry Schnuck. Isaacson said that everybody was behind the musical, pushing for it, even though the subject matter was out-of-the-ordinary for a Broadway musical.
“Everybody knew the risk involved,” said Isaacson. “But when you tell a great story, people respond. There was greatness and the writing and the direction was a level that everyone opens up their humanity to it.
“Lisa has this great joke, she says ‘We all go see “Hamlet,” none of us are princes of Denmark, yet we are all moved.’ That’s what’s happening with the show.”
The day of the Tony Awards, none of the production team knew that “Fun Home” would win as big as it did.
“It was thrilling to be there, overwhelming,” Isaacson said. “As the evening progressed, very early on, there was this energy in the hall, you felt it, and we looked at each other and we were like ‘oh.’ All the predictions were that a different show was going to win. You sort of sit down and have to be ready for anything. As it went on, and you felt the energy in the hall, I was protecting myself. I was ready that we were going to lose. To me, the evening was opening up to the possibility that we might win. When [lead actor Michael] Cerveris won, we looked at each other and went ‘this is real.’ It is a blur, we were holding our hands very tightly — it was blurry and surreal.”
Issacson said that the most beautiful part of winning was that it inspired other colleagues in the business, people around the country, that it is possible to achieve success with out-of-the-box subject matter.
“You have ‘Oklahoma!’ which is a truly brave, groundbreaking musical,” Issacson said. “What you realize is that we kind of haven’t had one of those in a while. For a lot of our colleagues and writers in musical theatre, it kind-of meant something that ‘look, this show happened, it is on Broadway, audiences are coming.’ It reminded us of one really exciting aspect of what we do. That remains lovely and something we’re very proud of.”
After winning the Tony Awards, the production team also got to meet Michelle Obama and at White House function celebrating Broadway and promoting what arts education means in public schools.
“That was one of those moments where I felt I was a 15-year-old meeting one of my idols,” Caskey said.
Later this year, “Fun Home” will also head to the Grammys, where the soundtrack is nominated for best theatre album. The group is looking toward the fall of 2016, when the musical starts a national tour, hopefully stopping in St. Louis for the ’16-’17 season. Neither Isaacson nor Caskey could confirm nor deny if the musical will come to St. Louis
“It has just energized us to continue doing what we’re doing,” said Caskey of the musical’s success. “We feel great support from the owners of The Fox in championing great work. We’ll continue to produce and develop work for Broadway with the ultimate goal to bring ‘Fun Home’ to the Fox Theatre down the road.”
“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer, and Kelly Moffitt. The show is sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.