Those Were the Days

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

Aug 30, 2006 at 4:00 am
This summer it was back to business-as-usual at the Muny. After a solid 2005 season in which six of the seven shows ranged from good to outstanding, with just one dud, this summer the season only had one outstanding show (season closer Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and six shows that ranged from good to dud. Perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that this summer was not business-as-usual, because the box office was down appreciably. Just for fun, let's tinker with some figures.

Attendance this summer totaled 420,467. This in contrast to 2005, which played to 456,033. So the Muny played to 35,566 fewer customers in 2006. Divide that figure by 53 performances (seven shows a week for seven weeks, plus an extra four performances of The Wizard of Oz), and on average this summer the Muny played to 672 fewer viewers per night — which doesn't sound like a major dent in an 11,000-seat theater.

But now multiply those 672 unsold seats times an arbitrary median ticket price of $36 per seat times 53 performances, and you arrive at a theoretical $1,282,176 in lost revenue, a tidy sum that helps to explain (and perhaps even justify) the Muny's conservative programming policy. Throughout most of his tenure, executive producer Paul Blake has rarely veered from staging the same old tried-and-true titles. The financial stakes are too high to produce a show simply because it might provide wonderful theater. Better to stick with the more commercial titles.

But what is commercial? Commercial is what people are willing to pay to see. It just might be that the pendulum is swinging away from Blake's "if-we-stage-it-they-will-come" policy; this summer there was a direct link between quality and attendance. Not only was the dance-happy Seven Brides, buoyed by a star performance from Kate Baldwin, the most satisfying evening of the summer; it also was the box-office hit of the summer, the only show to average more than 9,000 patrons per night. The Muny management would have us believe that there's no link between quality and box office; they say that advance group and single ticket sales made Seven Brides the audience favorite before the season even opened. But advance sales are only part of what goes into making a hit.

Yes, good reviews are nice, and advertising plays a small role, but primarily what makes a hit is word-of-mouth. If viewers are excited by a show, they'll talk it up. Fast. But for the first six weeks of this season, there wasn't much to talk about except for — and here's a surprise to everyone, including the Muny staff — the pop-rock musical Aida. In his pre-show chat prior to each performance of season closer Seven Brides, Blake was quick to take credit for Aida. "We felt we should do new shows," he said.

Excuse me? Let's review the last five seasons. Out of thirty-five productions, only six were new. Of those six, two were revues. The Muny-created Hooray for Hollywood was hardly something to shout about; Side by Side by Sondheim may have been new to Forest Park, but it was 26 years old by the time the Muny ever-so-timidly premiered it. The four more-conventional musicals included a misconceived production of The Fantasticks (which took 42 years to reach the Muny) and Blake's own adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany's (about which the less said the better).

That leaves two Disney productions: last year's Beauty and the Beast and Aida. Beauty and the Beast, a deserved success, is a well-crafted, affecting piece of stagecraft that fits neatly into the ongoing Muny tradition of presenting one show per summer geared to children. The Muny did well by it, with a stellar cast featuring several of the show's Broadway alums. But why did audiences embrace Aida?

Apart from the obvious reason — it was new to the Muny stage — surely part of its success can be credited to the scenic design. Aida was the sole production this summer to be staged essentially on a unit set. The show flowed; it had a different dynamic from the other six musicals, whose designs relied on those slow, scenery-hanging booms to open and close, open and close. In shows like Gypsy and Oliver!, seemingly every time an important song was about to be sung, like aggravating clockwork the booms would close, severing both performer and audience from the environment. By contrast Aida moved quickly, and the evening was over by ten o'clock. How refreshing was that? Last summer Jesus Christ Superstar also benefited from a unit set. It too sported a higher energy level than the other 2005 offerings.

When the Muny debuted in 1919, its operas and operettas were mostly one-set affairs that worked well on the cumbersome stage. If scenery changes were required, they occurred during the act breaks. But over the decades musicals have become ever more dependent on elaborate scenery and quick changes. It's long past time for the Muny to address the challenge of how to catch up with current technology in more creative ways than opening and closing a boom.

There's something else the Muny needs to address: the changing nature of the material. In his onstage remarks, Blake boasted that the Muny stages its own productions; gone are the days, he said, when the Muny was relegated to merely booking shows. But where is the shame in booking quality?

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."

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.