Muny Magic: A new artistic director sets about reinventing Forest Park's unique theatrical treasure

Muny Magic: A new artistic director sets about reinventing Forest Park's unique theatrical treasure
Jennifer Silverberg
Artistic director Mike Isaacson.

FRIDAY, JUNE 15, is a typical day at the . As he has on nearly five thousand other mornings like this one, Muny technical director George Spies arrives at 6:10 a.m. Spies has been a Muny fixture since 1964, when he signed on as a carpenter. He has been the backstage boss, responsible for the sets, props, lighting and sound, since '85. The legendary Forest Park theater doesn't function without him. This morning, as Spies (pronounced spees) sits in his cluttered cubbyhole of an office behind the stage, he focuses on what still needs to be done to pull Thoroughly Modern Millie into shape for Monday night's 2012 season opening. Today should be a matter of tying up loose ends. "But the new regime keeps throwing curves," he says, "so we have to get used to the curves. There are always curves in theater. But we still have to figure this new guy out. It'll take all season."

Spies is not complaining. He loves his job. Although he hasn't seen an entire Muny production from out front since 1969, he is (like nearly everyone else who works here) devoted to the place. When Spies says, "I've never had a summer vacation in my life," you can hear the pride in his voice.

Wardrobe head Peter Messineo arrives at 6:45 a.m. Messineo, a Muny icon, has been around even longer than Spies. He started in the singing chorus in 1949. His first show was the celebrated Sigmund Romberg operetta The New Moon, which vanished from the Muny repertoire after 1967. "Things have drastically altered since I started here," he says. "In 1949, if a show had four sets, that was a lot. Today's musicals have fourteen scenes — in the first act." (That's no exaggeration: Millie's Act One has twelve.)

For more than half a century, Messineo has been working with costumes. At yesterday's Millie run-through, he learned that the singers in the Act Two opener, "Forget About the Boy," require right-hand pockets on their dresses. At 7 a.m. seven seamstresses begin to add the pockets. "They'll be done by the end of the day," Messineo predicts. "We're all professionals here. We know our jobs. With the new management, this year things are a little different, which is very good. Change comes with time."

Fridays also are given over to costume fittings. At 10 a.m., even as former American Idol contestant Justin Guarini tries on his clothes for the season's second production, Chicago, scenic artist Andy Cross is on a ladder, touching up one of the Millie sets. On Monday night this penthouse will be occupied by Leslie Uggams, but right now Cross is the sole tenant.

Cross has been working at the Muny since 1982, when he sold ice cream up by the free seats. (Those 1,500 freebies in the top nine rows of the 11,000-seat amphitheater are a part of the fiber of St. Louis.) In '83 Cross joined the paint shop and hasn't missed a summer since. He too is happy in his work. "There's no time to fuss around," he says. "You have to paint fast and from your gut. You have to be bold. No matter what happens, this set is going to be seen onstage for seven nights, then they're going to throw it out. So we can't stress over every detail. We have to stress over getting it finished."

As Cross continues to paint, Sue Greenberg hunts down bicycles. Like Cross, Greenberg started at the Muny 30 summers ago. She was an assistant stage manager. Since 1992 she has been company manager, attending to the actors' needs. She arranges their housing and transportation (and she coaxes late-sleeping actors into accepting early flights). This morning several chorus members have decided they want to ride to Forest Park on bicycles. Such requests don't faze Greenberg. "I love working with the actors," she says. "For the most part, performers who come to the Muny really want to be here, and they're happy. So it's infectious."

The Muny strives to be an extended family. Fathers and sons work side by side; coworkers meet and marry. Last weekend sound designer David Shapiro flew home to Los Angeles to attend his daughter's swim meet. Now he and fellow designer Jason Krueger are testing all 72 microphones in the orchestra pit. This is Shapiro's eighteenth Muny season. "You can feel a nervous excitement," he says. "People are trying new things. We're going through a learning curve."

One subject is on everyone's mind: the future. Now in its 94th consecutive season, the Muny knows the ins and outs of staging musicals — to the tune of 800-plus productions of more than 350 different shows since its 1919 debut — but the venerable al fresco venue is not so well rehearsed in coping with change. Mike Isaacson, "the new guy" who took over the artistic reins as executive producer this season, is only the fourth production head in 70 years, so a period of adjustment is to be expected.

MUNY PRESIDENT AND chief executive officer Dennis M. Reagan enters his office at 9 a.m. He makes himself a cup of coffee and checks his computer for overnight e-mails. Every e-mail that necessitates a response will get one before the day is out, but there's nothing urgent this morning, so Reagan strolls through his domain. As of June 15 the Muny has 238 employees on staff, and the 59-year-old Reagan knows most of them by name. He negotiates with nine different unions yet manages to remain the most popular person on the lot. "I think of Denny as the mayor of the Muny," Isaacson says. "A mayor gives people comfort and inspiration. That's what Denny does. He is a reassuring presence."

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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.


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.