Reagan's story is pure Horatio Alger. He started at the Muny in 1968 while still in high school (Bishop DuBourg), collecting post-performance trash as a "picker." Two summers later he was running the picking crew. Then he moved into the office as a gofer, willing to do the most menial chores. If a closet needed cleaning, he cleaned it. If marketing director Jerry Berger needed to get a story to the newspapers, Reagan drove it downtown. He learned how to manage the payroll, worked evenings as a dresser and as stage doorman. One Christmas Day when the security guard didn't show up, Reagan sacrificed his family holiday to sit alone in the shack and "watch the Muny."

In January 1975, after he graduated from UMSL, Reagan bid a reluctant farewell to his first employer and took a position as a purchasing agent for a manufacturing company. But eighteen months later the Muny lured him back, and he leapt at the opportunity. "I missed it," he says. "You were doing something incredibly unique." In 1977 he was promoted to assistant general manager: "That was the job I aspired to my entire life. I used to think that if I could achieve that, I would have arrived." He was 25. Before his 40th birthday he would be named president and CEO.

Today Reagan oversees a $12 million annual budget. Production costs for each of the seven summer musicals average about 10 percent of the total budget. Yet two of the three variables that have the most impact on the Muny's economic success are beyond Reagan's reach.

At work in the Muny’s costume shop.
Jennifer Silverberg
At work in the Muny’s costume shop.
A rehearsal for All That Jazz.
Jennifer Silverberg
A rehearsal for All That Jazz.

He cannot control rain, and he cannot control heat.

"This place rises and falls on the weather," Reagan concedes. "Especially extreme heat. I'm told that in terms of overnight temperatures, 2010 and 2011 were the fourth- and fifth-hottest summers on record. They were miserable." But in the adventuresome spirit of the new regime, Reagan is exploring ways to air-condition the outdoor amphitheater. "We're conducting a study right now," he says, "to see how we can increase airflow in the theater. Although we don't yet know where this study is going to take us, outdoor air conditioning is very much on our minds."

But the third variable — the quality of the onstage product — is indirectly under Reagan's control. As head honcho he does the hiring and firing. When Reagan took charge at the Muny in September 1991, executive producer Paul Blake had been mounting the musicals for two seasons. Blake's decision that the Muny should return to its roots and produce its own musicals (rather than depend on the vagaries of touring shows) helped the institution through a lean phase. But as the decades passed, those locally produced musicals began to settle into a sameness. It occurred to Reagan that the person who might be best positioned to succeed Blake was living and working right here in St. Louis: Fox Theatricals producer (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Legally Blonde, Red) Mike Isaacson.

Even as Blake's swan-song season unfolded last summer, Isaacson was literally waiting in the wings. At Reagan's behest, the incoming executive producer spent the first summer of his four-year contract onsite, acquainting himself with the theater's operations. The 2011 season ended August 14. Isaacson took charge the next day.

Isaacson, who once described his personal philosophy as, "If everybody's going yin, go yang," has gone yang at the Muny. He is the anti-Paul Blake. His management style is team-oriented, and he aims for total transparency. Not coincidentally, upon moving in, Isaacson had a new office door installed — a glass one.

At the same time, his own enthusiasm can be Isaacson's greatest flaw. Reagan has had to adjust to working with an unceasing dynamo. "Defining our relationship is an ongoing process," the CEO says. "Mike has a real passion for the Muny. He understands what this institution means to St. Louis. I love his desire to make these shows Muny shows. That means camels on the stage in Aladdin. But his energy level has been a surprise. Sometimes it frustrates me, because my approach to problem solving is more laid-back: Everything is not a crisis. But after any initial frustration, then I too get energized by Mike's constant 'OK, let's go! Let's go!'"

It seems ever more apparent that despite enormous past individual achievements, each man's reputation now depends on the other's success. If all goes well, Isaacson will be remembered as the producer who elevated the Muny's stature to new artistic heights, Reagan as the visionary who hired Mike Isaacson.


FORTY-SEVEN-YEAR-OLD Mike Isaacson arrives at 9:15 a.m. Opening night is exactly 83 hours away, and he exudes confidence. "If I look happy this morning," he says, "it's because last night for the first time we saw the Millie sets under the lights, and they look spectacular."

In recent years the Muny has not been known for its knockout sets. Isaacson explains that during his time last summer as a backstage observer, he concluded that the problem did not lie with scenic designers Michael Anania and Steve Gilliam; rather, they were not being shown off to best advantage. "It became my task to unlock their creativity to a greater degree," he explains. "In their contextual defense, I think that in previous years the designers did not get into the game of production until two or three months before the season opened. But I hired this summer's directors last October. These Millie sets are the result of eight months of constant conversations. Eight months of communication and planning and dreaming and people saying, 'Great, if you do this, then I can do that,' and just hustle. Also, these sets look as good as they do because of Tracy [Utzmyers, the production manager]. Until this season there had never been a production supervisor in the history of the Muny. But she coordinates everything and understands production vocabulary in a way that I do not. She is indispensable."

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2 comments
Egolterman
Egolterman

MUNY 'magic' closes on August 12th earliest of any outdoor theater on earth and the Fox, golly, opens Lion K three nights latter. Golly, could that be collusion and restraint of trade? Kansas City Starlight operates thru September with concerts ending October First with Florence and the Machine. Starlight is also presenting shows during the winter in Kauffman Center for Performing Arts, benefiting both. Reopening season of Kiel Opera House should have included a MUNY winter season. So goes...St. Louis, right into the muddy and hot mississippi.

Egolterman
Egolterman

Thank you for your 'day in the life of'' Mike & the MUNY veterans. My MUNY opens in May, runs through Labor Day, and weekends in Sept. Draws 1 million. Concerts as well as 'book' shows and re-establishes itself as the best in the Country. I restore express bus sevrice from the County, send Mike back to his grand avenue 'keepers' and Denny Reagan with him; and and fight off their 'friends' in the Park who are squeezing MUNY to death. I would provide the U.S. attorney with all the information he needs to end the restraint of trade of MUNY. Would do this for the region. MUNY is a regional asset.

 
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