Those Were the Days

The Muny would do well to take a page out of its old book.

How many people, like popular conductor John McDaniel, remember that vibrant era when Broadway stars used to re-create their performances in St. Louis? McDaniel recently recalled growing up in St. Louis: "I spent a lot of summers going to the Muny Opera. I saw the most amazing performances — Zero Mostel in Fiddler and Angela Lansbury in Mame." Amazing performances are few and far between nowadays, as is the kind of excitement that ensued when shows like Promises, Promises and Follies would shut down on Broadway for a week to play here. You knew something special was afoot when you saw Muny newspaper ads like this one in 1971 for Lauren Bacall in Applause: "Direct From Current Smash Palace Theater Run — Returning to Broadway after Forest Park engagement!"

When Pearl Bailey brought Hello, Dolly! from Broadway to St. Louis in 1968, not only were all tickets sold well in advance, but people waited in line for hours to get into the free seats. (By contrast, when I saw Aida from the free seats in July, there were only seven of us in the entire side section. Aida may have been popular with subscribers eager for new material, but so far as the city-at-large was concerned, the Muny couldn't even give the seats away.)

The era of Broadway bookings drew to a lamentable close with the sassy Chicago in 1977. It wasn't enough that ads ran the disclaimer: Due to the subject matter, this musical is recommended for mature audiences only. In addition, one cast member stood on the side of the stage like a classroom monitor. Every time a so-called "dirty word" was uttered, the monitor was required to "bleep" it. Meant to be an amusing form of censorship, it was instead an embarrassment. Here we are nearly 30 years later, yet the Muny continues to exist in a Puritanical time warp. This summer they cut the word "ass" from Oliver! What happens next summer if subscribers, hungry for new musicals, voted for The Full Monty on their surveys? It'll screw up the rhyme scheme something awful if Blake retools Monty's song "Big-Ass Rock" into "Big-Idiot Rock."

Dan Zettwoch

Only time will tell if Blake's avowal of wanting to do new shows was mere lip service; it may well be that, despite declining audiences, he'll stay the course and continue to recycle the same old shows with his same old friends. But if he does, he might find himself on a collision course with the future. Once he's held out the carrot of something fresh, it could be tough to return to the same old spin-cycle regimen of been-there, done-that, let's do it again.

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