Muny Musings

The summer season in Forest Park had some highs, but let's keep them in perspective

The just-concluded 85th summer season at the Muny in Forest Park was fraught with incidental pleasures. The seven-week repertory boasted two productions (Crazy for You, Cinderella) that exploited the capacious venue to grand effect. While two out of seven doesn't sound like an astronomical ratio, when compared to some of the programming of the previous two summers, this season felt like a veritable triumph.

Yet where the venerable Muny is concerned, accolades need to be kept in historical perspective. In terms of citywide excitement, there was nothing on the order of 1958, when Bob Hope performed in Jerome Kern's Roberta to more than 12,000 people a night. But then, the current executive producer has made it clear that he does not want internationally renowned entertainers to appear on the Muny stage.

Nor was there the keen anticipation that electrified the area in 1968 when Hello, Dolly! shut down for a week on Broadway and the entire Pearl Bailey-led company took up residence in Forest Park. The Dolly! engagement was such a boost to civic pride that in ensuing years other Broadway musicals were brought to St. Louis. Alas, similar event programming is unlikely to reoccur, because nowadays the Muny is reluctant to book anything that might impinge on potential Fox Theatre offerings. A curious concern, when we're being told there's more than enough product available to keep both the Fox and Kiel Opera House active.

But Kiel is in the distant future, and Hope and Pearlie Mae are in the distant past. Right now, Muny patrons can savor the still-buoyant memories of four standout performances: Michel Bell, whose mellifluous rendition of "Ol' Man River" in Show Boat brought audiences cheering to their feet; Noah Racey and Paige Price, who sang, danced and clowned their way through the breezy Crazy for You; and Lauren Kennedy, who was a luminous Nellie Forbush in South Pacific.

Bell and Kennedy, who had honed their performances in previous productions (he on Broadway, she in London), are emblematic of the inconsistency that undermines too much of the current Muny casting. They both brought depth and resonance to their roles, but their co-stars did not. In South Pacific, the actor who played Emile de Becque had the phoniest French accent this side of Inspector Clouseau. And Bell found himself adrift on a Show Boat in which all four principal roles -- the entire Hawks family (Cap'n Andy, Parthy, Magnolia) and ne'er-do-well Gaylord Ravenal -- were ill-cast.

Casting seven musicals back-to-back is a big task, but it's executive producer Paul Blake's main task. And it was a much more arduous task in the pre-Blake years when the Muny used to produce ten and eleven shows each season. As summer theaters around the country shutter, the Muny has become a plum job for actors. There's no excuse for some of the lame performances to which St. Louisans were subjected. (The harridan who screeched her way through Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof and the sputtering father in Crazy for You both should have been hung by their thumbs and flogged with their own Equity cards.)

Too often, Muny staffers deride the theater as a mere "summer stock" operation; almost with a sense of inferiority, they contend that audiences shouldn't expect all that much from a ten-day rehearsal schedule. If that's true, then how did the Muny manage to mount so many memorable shows back when they operated on a seven-day schedule? Talented actors will tell you that time is not the issue; adrenaline alone will compensate for a shorter rehearsal schedule.

The operative word here is "talent." Blake should be encouraged to quit throwing contracts to his pals and to instead seek out the best possible performer for each and every role. St. Louis audiences deserve no less.

But before you can cast the shows, you need to choose them. One has to wonder about a selection process that for too long now has resulted in such an onslaught of safe, sanitary titles. Again, a little perspective is in order.

The Municipal Opera, as we know it today, was rooted in a 1917 outdoor production of Verdi's Aida. Two years later, when the Municipal Theatre Association was formed, an immediate decision had to be made: Would the fledgling theater produce pure opera or more mainstream operetta? That critical determination was left not to the staff, but rather to the people of St. Louis. A ballot with 29 titles was printed in the local newspapers. The top six vote-getters proved to be an eclectic blend of grand opera, light opera and operetta. Something for everyone.

As the years passed, the artistic reins were turned over to theater-savvy professionals who chose the repertoires. For decade upon decade, the seasons kept pace with changing theater trends. As Verdi gave way to Victor Herbert, so in time did Herbert give way to Rodgers and Hammerstein. But always there was a balance of old and new. In recent years, however, the repertory seems to be on a loop, with the same tried-and-true shows being repeated every four or five years. This past summer, five of the seven offerings were previously staged in 1995, '97 or '98. Don't be stunned if the 2004 season includes 42nd Street, Oklahoma!, Annie and Grease, which were last produced in 1996, '98 and '99.

It doesn't take excessive imagination to cull through previous season lists. But as justification for this lame approach, since '92 the theater once again has resorted to taking a vote -- though now nonbinding. During the final two weeks of the season, Munygoers are asked to choose their preferences from a highly dubious list. This year's preliminary list included 57 titles, more than twenty of which were shows that already have been produced since Blake took over in 1990. The culled-down list was reduced to 38. But far more intriguing than what's on these lists is what's not.

Once Upon a Mattress, for instance. For some inexplicable reason, this innocuous musical has never been produced in Forest Park. By contrast, it's no surprise that Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods was omitted from the list. The Muny is so determined to boycott this mature musical that it won't even allow its patrons to express a voting opinion.

When it comes to mature musicals, the current Muny administration has taken a firm stand: It's agin' 'em. Cabaret, Can-Can, Chicago, Follies, Gypsy, La Cage aux Folles, Pal Joey and Sweet Charity have all been successfully produced in the years prior to Blake's arrival. Yet not a one of these classic musicals made the list. Such exclusion could be merely capricious, or it could reflect the most insidious kind of censorship. One can't help but wonder: Are these shows being blackballed because of someone's social or cultural agenda?

Whatever the reason, the message is clear: Don't expect to see a show about strippers, adulterers or prostitutes (not even those with hearts of gold) -- unless, hypocritically, that show happens to be written by Blake himself.

For indeed, the most curious title on this year's list was Breakfast at Tiffany's. As all good readers know, this is the title of the Truman Capote novella about Holly Golightly, a high-class call girl. Such an unseemly story hardly seems to fit the family-friendly Muny formula -- until one learns that, in the grand tradition of Three Coins in the Fountain, White Christmas and Roman Holiday, this is yet another stage opus cobbled together by Blake himself. This one will feature songs by Johnny Mercer.

Mercer's memorable lyrics deserve to be heard on the Muny stage. How about a reworking of St. Louis Woman from 1946? Nope, it didn't make the list. Or how about Li'l Abner, the first comic strip-inspired musical, from 1956? Nope, didn't make it. If you want to hear Johnny Mercer, you're stuck with Paul Blake. Of course, being executive producer of a major venue like the Muny should have its perks. But elbowing your way onto a list that excludes major talents like Kander and Ebb should not be one of them. We demand a recount.

Obviously, as the theater in Forest Park strives to reach a mass audience of up to 11,000 people a night, it cannot be all things to all people. But with the repertory reduced to just seven titles, it's more important than ever that each and every offering be of the highest quality. We can only hope that when next season's schedule is announced, it will reflect the fact that the Muny is, as its abbreviated name clearly indicates, a municipal operation and not a vanity theater.

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