The phrase “Muny magic” sounds a little Disney-cute, slogan-y and alliterative and over the top. No matter how crazy you are about this venerable institution, it’s hard not to roll your eyes.
Until you hear Broadway actors and directors say the same thing.
“People will tell you the Muny’s massive, and there are trees growing up through the stage,” says Tony-nominated actor Rob McClure, “but nothing can really prepare you for the first time you walk out on that stage. You can feel the history.”
“This is the largest, oldest outdoor musical theater in the country,” says Denny Reagan, Muny president and CEO since 1991, “and one of the few that remain.” More than an entertainment venue, it reaches deep into the community. Between free seats and charity, it gives away more seats each week than many Broadway theaters sell.
Artistic director Mike Isaacson remembers the first time the magnitude of the Muny’s role in St. Louis sank in: “We had back-to-back productions of Les Mis and South Pacific, and they approached a level of artistry that took everybody by surprise. The craft was so exceptional, it morphed into art. I was literally accosted by audience members, and that was the moment when I really understood how much this audience cares about this theater. They want us to win. They’re saying, ‘Not only is this wonderful, but this is St. Louis.’ It’s part of the quirkiness of who we are, part of the ritual of our lives.” Setting a high bar for the Muny is, he says, a metaphor for the city itself: “It shows us what we can accomplish here.”
Into the Woods
The first hint of Muny magic was its sylvan setting. In 1916, classical actress Margaret Anglin—pronounced a dramatic genius by no less than Sarah Bernhardt—picked a wooded glen in Forest Park as the perfect setting for As You Like It, with the pungent River des Peres standing in for the Avon. The next year, St. Louis opera producer Guy Golterman decided to stage Verdi’s Aida in the same spot. Teams of horses graded the hillside, creating such an obviously perfect outdoor theater that St. Louisans resolved to make it permanent.
And so, on June 16, 1919, as the Germans were deciding whether to accept the Treaty of Versailles, Robin Hood opened the first season. Four years later, President Warren G. Harding brought his wife to the Muny and pronounced it delightful. He said he wished other American cities had such wholesome outdoor entertainment and, when an aide tried to whisk them away at intermission, held up a hand: “Mrs. Harding does not want to go yet.”
Luckily, it didn’t rain that night. According to The New York Times, on the municipal theater’s grand opening, “the stream which flows between the dressing rooms and the stage was flooded and it inundated the place.” As soon as the River des Peres overflow was mopped up, “the rains returned, and downpours stopped performance after performance.”
Weather was going to be a problem—so the founders made it a trademark. When Naughty Marietta was rained out in 1923 and again in 1924, Mayor Henry Kiel insisted on trying again in 1925: “We’re going to keep doing it until we get it dry!” The Times had to explain to its sheltered New York readers how half of the Muny’s musicians “drop their instruments, open their umbrellas and guard their tootling fellow against the rain.”
That was the year the River des Peres went into conduits “so that the actors can take off their rubber boots.”
That was also the year the Muny lured Milton Shubert, nephew of Broadway brothers Lee and J.J. Shubert. Milton lit the stage brightly, replaced folding seats with opera chairs, and added a 49-foot turntable, hailed as the largest revolving stage in the world. A Times critic wrote, “This will cut down the time of major scene changes from eighteen minutes, which is a melancholy interval, to one minute, which is paradise.”
Alas, Milton spent too much money and lost his paradise. His Uncle J.J. took his place, proved easier to work with, spent just as much money, and “gave the Muny access to first-run shows and New York costumes and props,” says director of archives Laura Peters. “Everything went up a few notches.”
The next bit of Muny magic was the founders’ resolve. Early on, when the season was halfway over and they were facing a $30,000 deficit, the founders sold tickets themselves—and even Kiel walked the streets taking orders.
In that first decade, lights were hung in trees and “dimmed” by putting the electrical current through barrels of saltwater. Five bullhorns were strung across the top of the stage for sound amplification. Sets were changed behind a “curtain of light”— a poetic way of saying that giant floodlights essentially blinded the audience to what was happening on the dark stage behind them.
The Shuberts spiffed up the place, though, and the light opera fare began to gain gravitas. In the late 1930s, thanks to a boost from the Public Works Administration, a pergola of Indiana limestone was built around the theater, and two futuristic towers went up to flank the stage. The place was taking shape.
It was assuming a role in civic life, too. When World War II started, the Muny began opening every performance with “The Star Spangled Banner.” Instead of any 25th-anniversary hoopla, it became a center for war bond drives.
The Muny would continue to acknowledge the real-life struggles and triumphs and societal shifts that surrounded it. In 1969, as Apollo 11 set down, Mame star Sheila Smith improvised new lyrics, replacing “The man in the moon is a miss” with “The man ON the moon is a MAN!”
After Michael Brown was shot, protesters marched at the Muny during another Aida (this one Elton John’s). Actor Ken Page, a St. Louisan who’s been acting at the Muny longer than anyone, broke character: “When we say we all live ‘Elaborate Lives’ [a song in the show], we’re not talking about the price of your shoes or the tag in the back of your clothes,” he told the audience. “We’re talking about the idea of how we live life on this planet and how we must respect each other.”
Stars Are Born
By midcentury, Rodgers and Hamm- erstein had launched a golden age for American musical theater, and the silvery new medium of television was influencing the Muny’s casting strategy. Big stars began to descend, sprinkling a little of their magic.
Archie Leach, of course, had already come and gone. He was pronounced “a delight to feminine eyes” in 1931, and he was in seven Muny shows that summer. Now he was Cary Grant, and his old pal Mary Wickes still had his trunk stored in her family’s St. Louis home. Betty Grable, Irene Dunne, and Vincent Price had also moved on. It was Bob Hope’s turn—and Rock Hudson’s, Liza Minnelli’s, Sonny and Cher’s, Lauren Bacall’s, Pearl Bailey’s, Carol Burnett’s, Yul Brynner’s, Barbara Eden’s, Madeline Kahn’s, Stacy Keach’s, Gene Kelly’s, Angela Lansbury’s, Bernadette Peters’…
Jerry Berger, who did publicity for the Muny before his years as a gossip columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, remembers Leonard Bernstein arriving in a black cape, carrying a sling. “This is for attending parties and refusing to play the piano,” Bernstein said with a wink.
Berger also remembers Burt Reynolds sneaking to the Muny “to visit his paramour, Dinah Shore.” And choreo- grapher Bob Fosse romancing Ann Reinking. And Rudolf Nureyev falling in love with designer Michael Edlin. There have always been “showmances,” most lasting as long as a match struck in a gale.
Backstage melodrama was tolerated; attitude was not. Wardrobe director Peter Messineo remembers a music director announcing, “I’ve got news for all of you: There’s no stars out here. The only stars are the ones in the sky.”
Messineo didn’t put up with any costume drama, either: “If they’re not nice to the dressers? They’ll do it once and not again. These are our people. You are good to them, or I will pull them off the show and you will dress yourself.”
Today’s stars come from Broadway, Isaacson’s home away from home in his years as a producer for Fox Theatricals. His magnetism pulls talent, McClure says: “You watch [Isaacson] announce the season—that’s not normal. A person who guides you through their decision-making as an artist—that’s not how the typical producer speaks. People who are great at this art form respond to that passion, and they want to be part of it.”
As a result, “the Muny’s become a kind of playground for New York theater people,” says Page. “The business part of it is minimal, and by the time the reviews come out, it’s halfway through the week. But all these amazing talented people get to come here and do the best of what they do, paid well, in the middle of a park, in the middle of the summer. We call it Camp Muny.”
The nickname’s apt; Muny antics have always resembled summer camp. In 1930, W.C. Fields was cast in Show Boat for an exorbitant sum, but he never learned his lines, just hid his assistant in the bushes to prompt him—so the stage crew kidnapped the assistant.
Over the years, singers have swallowed bugs mid-aria, sets have melted, and wardrobes have malfunctioned. Reagan, who started working at the Muny at 16, was a dresser for a while, and he remembers hurriedly patting “Texas dirt” makeup “anywhere that was white” when the star of Desert Song split his breeches dismounting from his horse.
When McClure played Gomez in the 2014 production of The Addams Family, “a huge group of people let out this gigantic scream. We kept going. Another scream, from another part of the audience. A raccoon was running through the aisles, eating people’s popcorn.”
Another raccoon ran relays on the light bridge, and a possum once took the stage. All manner of critters have made the nightly stage manager’s report. But company manager Sue Greenberg’s favorite line is still “‘Alex Puette got hit by a duck.’ He’d come out of his dressing room, and a duck was flying by, and it hit him in the face.” The duck had to be shooed out of the no-fly zone. “And of course the next night’s report read, ‘Alex Puette did not get hit by a duck.’”
Singin’ in the Rain
In 1954, the temperature during three of seven performances of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes reached 115 degrees. The fact that the audience stayed wasn’t magic; it was miracle. Soon after, the Muny board asked architect Buckminster Fuller what it would cost to dome the theater.
So stars suffered through “sweat tech” rehearsals and sang in ice vests designed by Messineo, and the company manager roved rehearsals to press cups of Gatorade into dancers’ sweaty hands.
Isaacson joined the Muny seven years ago, and he says “that first summer was like drinking from six firehoses. It was the hottest summer in the history of St. Louis. I opened with [Thoroughly Modern] Millie, and we joked that at the curtain call, we should just bring out the kitchen sink, because I threw everything at that show. Used the turntable in a way it hadn’t been used in a long time, brought in a car, had a Tony winner in the cast. I just wanted a new energy.”
From the 2014 Hello, Dolly! McClure remembers one particular moment: “Beth Leavel is about to descend the huge staircase, and we’re onstage in these little closed-off dinner booths, peeking through the curtain to watch the scene. They start: ‘Well, hel-lo, Dolly!’—and it starts to rain—and the conductor realizes that Beth is not going to stop, so he keeps going. There’s this mutual understanding that if we can get through this number, we can send the audience home happy. The sky opens, it’s pouring, and the waiters start that great penguin walk, and the audience lets out the biggest round of applause I’ve ever heard, because they were thinking the same thing. I’ve never seen so many people so happy to get rained on!”
Production manager Tracy Utzmyers oversees all the stuff of theatrics—lights, sound, sets, props, costumes, wigs (which must be acrylic to withstand the humidity). You’d think she of all people would yearn for shelter, but she infinitely prefers the open air and trees, and her spine still tingles at that magical twilight moment, “that transition from dusk to darkness, when the whole audience is caught up in the story.”
Besides, the unpredictability adds drama. When director/choreographer Denis Jones did Spamalot, the entire tech period was pretty well rained out, “and the rain didn’t stop until the half-hour call [before the show started], which was thoughtful, I guess, on the part of the rain, but we had never actually run the show. There were huge set pieces moving around the stage, and we were seeing it happen for the first time in front of 11,000 people.”
Once the rain moved through, it left record heat and a steam bath of humidity, he adds, “and I had an ensemble of guys tap dancing in head-to-toe chain mail.” When Jones came back last year to do A Chorus Line, he was braced.
The weather was clear and in the sixties every night.
The sheer size of the Muny catches the talent off guard. During the 1958 Show Boat, actor Andy Devine complained in his inimitably creaky voice that he’d gotten lost twice backstage: “I’ve made Westerns in smaller valleys than this theater!” At a recent tech rehearsal, a star was late coming back onstage, and her mic was turned on. Everybody in the theater could hear her saying, “This place is like Disneyland! I don’t know where I am!”
In 1996, Page played the king and voiced the cow in “a Sleeping Beauty that was sort of an odd show, very fragmented. Georgia Engel played Madame Sophie, and one night she was changing—the dressing rooms are, like, a mile from the stage—and she missed her cue. The prince, Lewis Cleale, winds up standing onstage with the cow, saying, ‘Well, Wendell, I wonder where Madame Sophie is?’”
Page gives his throaty trademark Oogie-Boogie laugh (from The Nightmare Before Christmas). “He starts calling, ‘Madame Sophie! Madame Sophie!’ and finally he yells, ‘Anybody!’ So Marcia Lewis bursts open a shuttered window above him, which scares him, and starts singing a song from another part of the show, and then she says, ‘That’s all I’ve got,’ and closes the shutters. So the prince says, ‘Wendell, I think we should go now,’ and I say, ‘Yes. Mr. Conductor, if you please?’ Every conductor knows what that means: Start playing!
“Cleale gets in the wings and he’s, like, ‘What the f—k is going on?’ We find Georgia crying in her dressing room.” Page shifts into a surprisingly apt rendition of her sweet, squeaky little voice—“I was trying to get to the stage, and they wouldn’t zip me up!” Another Oogie-Boogie laugh rumbles. “Every time I see Cleale in New York, he says, ‘Well, Wendell, I think we should go now.’”
It’s not just the dressing rooms; even the Muny stage is huge. So huge, notes Utzmyers, that the natural temptation is to go broad. There was a time when props were jumbo, exclamations yelled. But these days, conversations take place in normal tones onstage, and instead of somebody powdering her nose with a Frisbee-sized compact or carrying luggage big enough to hold a Bengal tiger, lighting and bright colors are used to draw the audience’s eye.
“People can tell even from far away if something is ringing true to them,” McClure says. “Honesty travels. Rather than having us shout at them to fill that space, the Muny manages to get 11,000 people to lean in.”
The paradox is that a sense of intimacy comes with the size. “The hair stands up on the back of your neck when that orchestra starts to play,” McClure says. “It’s the sheer mass of the place, the number of people around you having the same experience. Then, when the show starts, that massiveness falls away, because the audience isn’t sitting there with their arms crossed; they’re with you.
“When you give a punchline and 11,000 people guffaw? That’s magic.”
Wizards of Oz
Each Muny show gets about 11 days of prep, one tech rehearsal with sound and lights, and one full-orchestra rehearsal without. That’s it.
Granted, “there’s something about hearing an orchestra belt out a Broadway show for no one, in a park, at 3 in the morning,” notes McClure. But the Muny schedule is grueling, slick with sweat and adrenaline.
“It can panic you beyond repair,” says Page. “If you arrive at the designer run and you still don’t know your lines…” Young actors show up casual, but by Thursday it dawns on them that there’s no turning around and very little time left. When Page sees that wild look enter somebody’s eyes, he goes over to offer a little reassurance: “It always comes together in the end.” Then he grins. “But I wouldn’t waste any more time, if I were you.”
Strangely, the speed “gives actors a certain amount of freedom,” says Jones. “There’s something about the particular adrenaline rush that brings out a very energized, truthful, and almost spontaneous performance.”
On Broadway, “you go through many drafts,” notes Isaacson. “At the Muny, your first draft, other than rehearsals, is onstage. Our artists can give 100 percent, and they want to, because this thing they love is going away in a few days.”
The crews and directors go all out, too. They bring in a balloon to lift Phileas Fogg over the stage in Around the World in 80 Days (1962). They fly in the Royal Ballet of London (1967). They cast a 6,100-pound elephant (1982) and make water out of human bodies and glide The Little Mermaid’s villainous Ursula across the stage with hunched-over dancers as her living, moving tentacles (just last year). And they pray and cross their fingers.
“I always get nervous when we do flight,” remarks Utzmyers, “but we have never had a snafu.” She stops dead. “Oh my God, I can’t believe I said that out loud.”
Meet Them in St. Louis
Every spring, the Muny swells from its family of 24 employees (five of whom have worked there since they were 16) to a staff of more than 900. The air vibrates with the rasp of saws and the clang of hammers. And there’s a fizzy rush of young energy the old-timers don’t even try to contain.
Actors must be met at the airport, housed, transported, oriented, and kept calm so they can concentrate. Sue Greenberg, 36 years at the Muny and company manager for two-thirds of that time, calmly solves every personal catastrophe. “Sue will fix it,” actors assure one another when somebody forgets sheet music, twists an ankle, needs a babysitter.
“One person came with her bird,” Greenberg recalls suddenly. “I never knew why. Actresses whisper that they’re pregnant, but they don’t want to tell the choreographer, because they want to do all the dances.”
Messineo, who retired in 2012 after 63 years at the Muny, used to start at 7 a.m. and work through to 11 p.m., seven days a week, with a midnight dress rehearsal on Saturday. As a kid—son of a shoemaker who loved opera—he used to walk to Forest Park with his brother and sister and a shoebox of sandwiches to plunder in the free seats. Messineo made his debut as a lyric baritone in 1949—“It’s a sensation you will never receive anyplace else, singing on that stage”—but later shifted to the costume department.
That meant measuring almost every inch of a dancer’s body. Testing costumes to see whether they were danceable. Mending hems caught by stiletto heels. “In the old days, I’d have a set of Lycra dance pants made—white, black, and gray—and use them constantly. I’d also get suits, including tails and a tux, for the men, and the girls would have cocktail dresses, day dresses, formals, and, if the show called for one, a bathing suit. That was summer theater.”
Today? The Muny’s an outdoor, Midwestern, supersized, sped-up Broadway. Each show has a different cast, and each act might have nine costume changes. They have to be choreographed as carefully as the dances, with dressers waiting at designated spots backstage, clothes stacked in order beside them.
The glamour’s still there, but it takes wild new shapes in every show.
Remember how W.C. Fields refused to learn his lines? Instead, he ad-libbed freely, making remarks that were risqué enough for board censure.
“Nobody, but nobody, tells W.C. Fields what to say,” he retorted, “especially after he has said it.”
He’d tilted the beam, thrown the Muny off its precarious balance between family-friendly and, well, everything else. In 1977, Joe Pollack wrote a scathing review in the Post, criticizing the Muny for laundering the language of Chicago. “Anyone who expects a show—even a musical—that deals with hoods and hookers in the Chicago of the 1930s to sound like a rectory tea is bound to be mistaken,” he wrote, adding that to “soften” the script “by suggestive snickers and anatomical gestures and mumbling only makes the actors look foolish and the performance less effective.”
When Chicago returned, four years later, the Muny did no bleeping or softening. It simply warned that the show was “recommended for mature audiences.” A letter dripped sarcasm all over the Post’s mail basket: “No longer will it be necessary for St. Louisans to hang their heads in shame for trying to maintain such an outmoded concept as a standard of decency.”
Messineo won’t say so outright, but you can tell he’d love to go back to the light operettas and classics of his early days: “Broadway, the costuming is different. It’s bawdy,” he says. “You can’t do a great waltz in scanty things.” But, he finishes bravely, “The show itself demands what the costuming is.”
Asked about risk-taking, Reagan says, “We did A Chorus Line! And Chicago!” Ten years ago, the Muny began putting moral guidelines online for every show. In Jesus Christ Superstar, for example, there’s violence (dramatizes Jesus’ crucifixion; Judas hangs himself), profanity (the word “damned” is used), and sexual references (“Two songs imply that Mary Magdalene is a prostitute”).
You can’t match every audience member’s sensibilities with every show. The hope is that somewhere in every season’s mix, there’s a fit for all generations—and nothing’s salacious just for shock value—and nobody’s too painfully offended. But it’s always a balancing act, because sensibilities change fast.
In 1931, for example, the risky show was Show Boat. The Muny was one of the first regional theaters to do it—and never stopped. Show Boat has been staged at the Muny every decade since, with more productions than any other show. “Sure, we’re a river town,” says Isaacson, “and it’s big, lush spectacle. But Show Boat told a dramatic story rather than a musical comedy story. It was dark and challenging, and the fact that it was so popular is a credit to the Muny audience.”
Another artistic risk was Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Previous artistic directors had ventured only so far as Gypsy, which launched Stephen Sondheim as a lyricist, because they were afraid that the mature shows weren’t accessible enough.
“His lyrics are so complex, and so emotionally complex,” explains Page. “Everybody knew to leave each other alone. This was not a show to joke around backstage. You’d see people mouthing, and you knew they were going over their lyrics… That was the most potent achievement, Sondheim at the Muny.”
Crazy for You
In his role as The Setter for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, McClure will utter the first, apt word of the 100th season: “Welcome!” The invitation that’s drawn St. Louisans to the park decade after decade for an evening’s escape.
“A lot’s changed in this world since the Muny’s first summer in 1919,” concedes Reagan, “but we’re still that place where you can lose your problems for a few hours and pick them up again—maybe a little lighter—on the other side of the curtain call.”
The tech has come a long way since those barrels of saltwater used to dim the lights. The LED wall, for example, gets smoother and more artful every year. “When the lighting department programs a cue to go from daytime to dusk, the video department has to do the same thing,” explains Utzmyers. “In Music Man, there was this moment when the lighting, the video, and the sky were all making the same exact color.” In 42nd Street’s “We’re in the Money” number, the women tap-danced on an enormous dime the size of the turntable. “We filmed it from overhead during rehearsal,” says Jones, who directed the show, “and then we synced that up on the LED screen.”
The audience went crazy. But some changes don’t even register. Did you realize that instead of putting lights on a blue “cyc wall” (the curved cyclorama wall at the back of the set, used to suggest infinite space), the Muny now uses a black wall and lights the trees instead? Did you catch the moment in The Little Mermaid when the turntable spun while the boom was closed, so it looked like the scenery was coming through the wall?
Sometimes the art’s seamless, a sleight of hand that plucks away the audience’s disbelief. Backstage, nobody needs more acknowledgement than that. And for Reagan, the feedback is the 85 percent of the 27,000 season ticket holders who renew every year, and the civic support from World Wide Technology and other St. Louis corporations that’s as staunch as it was 100 years ago.
The Muny’s not just about pleasure, though. It’s also a hothouse where talent can bloom. The roll of Muny Kids whose lives have been transformed by taking part in these shows unfurls like a long red carpet.
Page’s first trip to the Muny was his first experience of theater. He used to go home and re-create the sets, imagining them alive and moving. Later, he landed parts on that stage, and his life changed: He’d finally found a place where he belonged.
“People don’t understand what it’s like to be the outcast, the kid who got bullied, and then go to a place where all of a sudden, you’re with your own,” he says softly. “It bonds you in a way nothing else does. You bare yourself in a way most people never do—you have to, to create something real and believable—and it leaves you vulnerable, and they protect you. I’ve watched someone do a scene, and it got to them, and they just fell apart, and everyone in the room understood and let them know: ‘It’s OK. We’ve got you.’ And I see that nowhere else.”
Isaacson considers nurturing talent part of the Muny’s job. “One of the hardest parts of life in the theater is that there are just not many places you can get the experience—and only a handful that are working at our level. And the business is very tribal: Who have you worked with? Who do you know?”
This season, there are Muny grads in Frozen, Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, Hello, Dolly!… And every spring, that jangled energy of auditions—a mix of angst, raw hope, and elation—fills the Muny.
Meanwhile, the rest of the community gives whatever support it can. Stallone’s Formal Wear lends tuxes. Back in the day, fur companies would lend furs for the entire season—after sewing in cheap linings to absorb the sweat. Local high schools have lent their football teams. The Saint Louis Science Center helps with tech projects.
And St. Louisans fill the seats.
“The Muny’s about memories,” says Reagan. “It’s your dad carrying you to the car and putting you in the back of the station wagon asleep at the end of the show. It’s a first date, and then a date night with your wife, and then the kids dressing up as characters in the show.”
“When you see a classic show at the Muny,” Isaacson adds, “you not only remember who you were the last time you saw it but also who you were with and who they were then. It adds an extra power to the experience, and that’s an undertow I can play with.”
It’s also why he went through hell to obtain the permissions to re-create Jerome Robbins’ Broadway as this season’s opener. “Our grandparents and great-grandparents sat in these seats and saw these shows,” he says. “It’s like finding the Horcrux of the Muny.”