Muny managers boost 'cool factor' as they celebrate 95 years
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: As the Muny turns 95, it’s never been cooler. Literally.
Monday’s "Spamalot" opening debuts a new fan system designed to provide a more comfortable experience with no accompanying noise. Efforts are also underway to make the overall St. Louis institution cooler, as in more hip. As part of that, this season offers three more Muny premieres in addition to "Spamalot."
Steering the Muny into the future is the job of Mike Isaacson, 48, who’s in his second year as executive producer, and longtime president and CEO Denny Reagan. Reagan, 60, has had his hands on the wheel of the Muny for most of his 45 years there.
In the 1970s, Reagan became a driver to the stars, following his Muny initiation on the clean-up crew. He remembers chauffeuring Sonny and Cher in the Rolls Royce that was specified in their contract. He also recalls his neighbors' excitement as he drove the luxury vehicle back to his house for the night.
Reagan’s story is not one about a star-struck kid. He’d never even been to a Muny show before working there. But Isaacson, whose first Muny experience was seeing "A Chorus Line" at 18, had long been hooked on the wonders` of musical theater.
This year’s Muny magic will include Mary Poppins actually flying over the audience, a feat whose secrets Isaacson preferred not to reveal. “You’ve got to come and see it,” Isaacson said. Is there any danger involved? “I hope not,” he laughed.
In separate conversations with the Beacon, Isaacson and Reagan talked about The Muny's flight path into the future, and explored some of its past.
St. Louis Beacon: Under what circumstances did you first experience The Muny?
Denny Reagan: I just wanted some money. I was a south side kid and my friend who was working there asked, “Do you want a job?” and I said, “Sure.” I love musical theater, but I never performed it. I never studied it. I never directed it. I just fell in love with the Muny. I like what the Muny does for St. Louis.
Mike Isaacson: My first week here for college, I came down to the Muny. [Becoming executive producer] would never would have even entered the realm of possibly occurring to me, which is why it’s so moving to me some days when I’m here.
What changes have come about in the last year (Isaacson’s first year)?
Reagan: When Mike and I talk about shows, there’s a much more contemporary view on it than there was in the past. We’re doing things this year like “West Side Story” and “South Pacific,” which are great classics.
But “Mary Poppins” is a new show to musical theater and so are “Shrek,” “Spamalot” and “Nunsense.” I see Mike making a shift but still holding onto the tradition of the Muny.
Isaacson: All the top-selling shows both this year and last are the new shows. With my predecessor, you generally saw a five-year cycle of repeats, and that’s not the tack I’m taking. From a production and creation standpoint, it’s a lot more work but this is what we have to do and what we need to do.
What about efforts to increase diversity in future seasons with any specific shows?
Reagan: Mike had “Dreamgirls” last year. If you take a look as his casting, there is a certain number of principals who are African American in a lot of the shows this year. We’ve talked about a few other shows ... a little bit about “The Wiz,” it’s playing at the Black Rep right now ... “Porgy and Bess” -- there’s a new version of it on Broadway.
Isaacson: I’m open to everything in the repertory. You look at a season and what shows you want to do and how does it fit in. But it’s like the [Mary Poppins flying] tricks -- I’m not telling you.
Have you learned from each other?
Reagan: I’m sure I have. He’s a really smart guy who produces a really good show. I mean, come on, the guy’s won four Tony Awards. That’s good stuff.
Isaacson: He would make this joke, it’s a line he used all the time: “I don’t know a lot about theater, but I know everything about the Muny.”
In the roots of the place, both physical and metaphorical, is a civic idea, an idea of community, of gathering, of "We are a better place, city, area by having an institution where we can all come together in the summer and celebrate these works and the life of being in St. Louis." That is something he understands better than everybody, and he’s taught me that.
What about the future -- might the executive producer become president and CEO one day?
Reagan: This is Mike’s second year. We’ll just see how everything goes. We certainly have to think about succession, but this is kind of a two-person team here, and you’ve got Mike doing the artistic thing and I’m taking care of the administrative things. So, let’s let him get his feet wet and we’ll start making decisions.
I ran four miles on Saturday, so I’m still OK. I’m still having a lot of fun doing this, I really am.
Isaacson: I can’t begin to contemplate that. It’s like you saying, “Twenty years ago, would you have considered being executive producer?” My passion is musical theater and I’ve been so fortunate in my life and career.
With the Broadway producing I get to be a part of creating new musicals. And to be able to create for this audience, in this manner, is an incredible sort of musical playpen. To direct where it’s going and how we want to excite and engage everybody, that’s quite enough -- I’m good.
"Monty Python's Spamalot" June 17-23
"Shrek The Musical" June 24-30
"Nunsense Muny Style!" July 1-7
"South Pacific" July 8-14
"Les Miserables" July 15-21
"Mary Poppins" July 25-Aug. 2