Take Me Out to the Muny

How to make money and stultify people

The 86th Muny season, which drew to a close last week, once again confirmed that nothing fails like success. Doubtless in due course the theater will release boastful statistics purporting to prove that even more bodies attended this summer's productions -- and more money was raked in -- than last. The board of trustees will be gratified.

But beyond the dollar signs, it's worth noting that artistically, until the final week's high-voltage 42nd Street, the season was mostly an exercise in grand bland. If the other productions didn't offer many exhilarating highs, well, maybe there weren't all that many excruciating lows either. After a viewer sees too many of these treadmill musicals, his judgment loses its edge. Indeed, it may well be that the mass dulling of audience sensibilities is often more intriguing than what's happening onstage. It is fascinating to observe the extent to which executive producer Paul Blake has been able to marginalize St. Louis theatergoers.

There once was a time when Muny productions debuted the week after Memorial Day and closed on the Sunday night before Labor Day. Week in and week out, St. Louisans were exposed to beloved classics, new Broadway hits, New York near-misses that warranted seeing anyway, kid-oriented fantasias. A ten-show season allowed for lots of variety -- and the result was that for many decades St. Louisans were the most knowledgeable musical-theater audiences west of New York.

Jeremy Eaton

That no longer can be said. Although Blake is not responsible for reducing the length of the season -- that occurred long before he arrived -- his steady diet of tapioca productions has desensitized the taste buds.

It didn't start out this way. After a spasmodic '89 season that couldn't even muster seven shows and included a gaping four-week hole in the middle, in 1990 Blake arrived in St. Louis with a carpetbag full of new ideas and energy. In his first season, he assembled a blend of old (Brigadoon; No, No, Nanette) and new (Jesus Christ Superstar). He brought back popular Muny veterans like Gretchen Wyler and began to develop his own cadre of performers like Joel Higgins and Victoria Mallory. He mounted a talent-packed Bye Bye Birdie with Tommy Tune and Ann Reinking.

Blake built his innovative second season around the centennial of Cole Porter's birth. His highly praised revue It's Delightful, It's DeLovely, It's Cole Porter (Kaye Ballard, Phyllis Newman, Steve Ross, Gretchen Wyler) was followed by Kiss Me, Kate with Higgins and Mallory. Later in the summer Michael Feinstein starred as Hans Christian Anderson. The season finale, My Fair Lady, featured an esteemed triad of actors: John Neville, Christine Andreas and Clive Revill. And a much-needed new sound system finally got installed.

It's tough to sustain that hare's pace. As the years passed and the seasons began to blend one into the next, perhaps Blake's energy and imagination began to wane. Creative revues like the Cole Porter tribute gave way to tripe like Hooray for Hollywood. Blake also began to tire of having to cast -- and then replace -- aging teen idols. Perhaps the "names" weren't delivering the increased box office their salaries required. Or perhaps St. Louisans just didn't want to see Davy Jones in Oliver! Whatever the reasons, by 1996 the presence of actors in Forest Park had all but evaporated. And why not? If a title alone could sell tickets, Blake's casting options were wide open.

That's when something suspicious began to occur. Although we all know that the Muny is located in Forest Park, it's almost as if for several weeks each summer the amphitheater gets magically transported to Santa Mira, California, the isolated desert town that got overtaken by pod people from outer space in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Pod people lack brains, blood or even fingerprints. They feel no emotions -- no joy, no anger, no disappointment.

Surely pod people have begun to infiltrate Muny audiences. How else to explain the amiable response that has greeted so many recent productions? There used to be a time when a Show Boat without a Cap'n Andy, a South Pacific without an Emile de Becque, a Meet Me in St. Louis that changes the locale from Kensington Avenue to Dullsville, an Annie without an FDR or a Music Man without a music man would have angered, or at least irritated, discerning Munygoers; now those same audiences benignly smile and patiently wait for the shows to end so that they can rise to their collective feet in an obligatory, if unenthusiastic, standing ovation.

Not everyone in the audience is a pod person. (The woman who sits two rows in front of me most Monday nights is so flawlessly gorgeous, I suspect she's a Stepford wife.) But in recent seasons the numbers have been ever on the rise. No surprise there: In Body Snatchers the pods claimed their victims from among those who fell asleep -- and too many Muny productions definitely encourage the occasional snooze.

Of course, not even a pod person could fail to note that Breakfast at Tiffany's was below even the Muny's recent norm. Who had the bright idea of wedging yet another Paul Blake signature show into a summer schedule that couldn't find room for anything by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern or Cole Porter? Muny executives would have us believe that the audience itself is to blame. How so? Because last summer's Muny attendees apparently voted in large numbers for that title.

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