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

Artistic director Mike Isaacson.

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."

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.

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."

Isaacson is interrupted by a long-distance phone call from Gary Griffin, who will direct Aladdin. Griffin, who directed the Broadway version of The Color Purple and a brilliantly innovative West Side Story at Stratford, Ontario, is preparing to make his Muny debut. "I was talking to Michael [Anania] and Tracy," Isaacson tells Griffin. "We want to dial down on solving the problem of the Genie's entrance. We don't want to do something conventional. We want to find Muny ways to break the rules. How about if we flip this problem to Muny magic and have the Genie enter through the audience by coming down one of the side ramps on a motorcycle?" A moment later: "So we have your blessing, Gary? Great!"

He rushes out of his office to share the conversation with Anania. At moments like this, Isaacson seems so charged with kinetic electricity that his hair appears to stand on end. You risk getting a shock if you touch him. When he returns to his office, he says, "The fundamental challenge of creating a show — and it doesn't make any difference whether it's on Broadway or at the Muny — is communication. Are we all creating the same show together? The Muny lot is a very confined space, but I've learned that information can fall between the cracks here, too. You cannot take anything for granted. That's why, after I got the OK from Gary, I had to go tell Michael immediately that we're clear on those Aladdin changes.

"Aladdin is especially important, because that's our 'moral covenant show.' The Muny family musical is a generations-old tradition for St. Louis. It's a massive civic cultural ritual. I'll tell you the truth: Last summer when the Muny staged The Little Mermaid, that was the only time I got scared about having taken this job. I remember asking myself, 'What have I gotten into?' Every night at Aladdin there will be 3,000 people in the audience who have never been to the theater before in their lives. We owe it to those youngsters to make their first theatergoing experience memorable. To his credit, Paul did a brilliant job with The Little Mermaid. He isolated the heart of that show. We want to do the same with Aladdin."

AT 3 P.M. the various crews finish for the day. All twenty pockets have been sewn onto the Millie dresses. Progress has been made on construction of the Chicago set. With the cessation of the morning's constant hammering and sawing, a deceptive quiet settles over the back lot.

At four o'clock the snack bar closes. Alternately known as the Canteen, the Cantina and the Backstage Deli, this is where Muny employees have always congregated to hang out. On Fridays it's an especially congenial location, because it is here that Sue Greenberg dispenses paychecks. Today the canteen has sold 55 Gatorades, 29 orders of French fries, 20 "Egg McMunys," 15 cups of lemonade, 14 cheeseburgers and 14 "Denny's Salads." (So far, no "Mike's Muffuletta.")

As the afternoon seems to be winding down, Isaacson receives an unwelcome phone call from a New York agent whose client is withdrawing from the role of Judah in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, owing to a conflict with a TV gig. This is a blow; the role was being re-orchestrated to fit a particular style of voice. Isaacson shares his dismay with the agent, but there's no time to brood. As soon as the call is over, Isaacson starts looking for a replacement.

"We've had more than our share of casting dropouts," he confides. "Back in January and February, they freaked me out, because although you may have a list of five candidates for a role, you can only go to one actor at a time. While you wait for a response from your first choice, you're monitoring the other four. How much time do you give somebody before you cut bait? The slowness of the process drove me crazy. Now I'm more comfortable with it."

As Isaacson strides across the back lot, he bumps into Justin Guarini, who is in rehearsal for Chicago and in July will perform the title role in Joseph. "You know that American Idol world better than I do," Isaacson says. "Who has the chops to sing this role?" Guarini recommends Anwar Robinson, who finished seventh in season four of American Idol and then toured with Rent.

At 6 p.m. rehearsals end for both Chicago and Millie. Isaacson attends daily post-rehearsal production meetings for both shows. At both meetings, all the participants stand; the energy level is too high for anyone to sit. At 6:30 Isaacson returns to his office with Michael Horsley. A nineteen-summer Muny vet, Horsley is the musical director for Millie and, serendipitously, Joseph. Isaacson and Horsley begin surfing the Internet for video of their potential Judah. "Casting by YouTube," Isaacson quips. "We'd be lost without it."

By 6:45 Isaacson's assistant, David Salmo (who will be a senior at Webster University this fall), has located a phone number for Anwar Robinson's agent. Isaacson places a call, gets an answering machine. "This is Mike Isaacson at the Muny," he says. (Not "the Muny in St. Louis." He assumes people in show business recognize the name.) He makes his pitch, then heads over to the Emerson Studio (above the Canteen) for yet another rehearsal.

Salmo follows behind. "To have been chosen for this job," he says, "I'm one of the luckiest people in the world. We can feel that we're all part of something fresh. My family has been coming to the Muny for generations. This summer is not going to be your mama's Muny."

The 7 p.m. rehearsal is for supernumeraries (here they're named the Merry Muny Manhattanites) — 25 walk-ons, young and old, who will augment the Millie cast in the opening scene. At seven on the dot, he welcomes the group: "I'm Mike Isaacson, the new guy in town." The rehearsal adjourns outdoors to the West Platform.

Isaacson is scheduled to meet friends for dinner at 7:30. But at the appointed time, he's still here, watching resident choreographer Michael Baxter put the newcomers through their paces. After less than 30 minutes, Baxter knows them all by their first name. Isaacson admiringly watches the young Webster University grad. "The Muny hasn't had a resident choreographer in decades," he says. "But I felt that we had to have one. Michael is here on a pilot program. Denny [Reagan] helped us find a donor to fund it. I hope we can keep it going."

When the rehearsal ends at 8:20 p.m., Isaacson returns to his office and scans his daily "to do" list to see what didn't get done. (Not much.)

It has been a day marked by satisfaction and setback. "Every time I produce a show on Broadway, the experience is different," he says. "It's different here too, and I'm still learning that. I'm learning how to sense when the artists need you and when they don't, when to ask a question and when to shut up. I know that ultimately any decision is my call. But before I make that call, I want to make sure that everybody who should be heard has been heard. I'm of the mindset that if there's a problem, let's all get in the room, and the best idea wins."

Part of what attracted Isaacson to the job was the challenge of learning new skills. "You're taking all those muscles you haven't developed, and guess what? You have to develop them," he explains as he prepares to call it a day. "So you're confronting things that aren't naturally easy to you. In the past I've been very entrepreneurial. I operate from the assumption that if I've hired you and we're working together, I trust you. What I've realized at the Muny is that I need to articulate that assumption more."

At 8:32 p.m. Isaacson leaves the Muny. He is almost the last to go. As he passes through the stage gate, he pauses to gaze back through the fading twilight at the empty back lot. "I want everyone out here to know how important they are to the process," he says. "It's hard to put on a musical. But we're creating something together, and that can be inspirational. Some people may not get me at first, but when they see the things we've all talked about finally happening on the Muny stage, I think the people around here are going to say, 'I get it now. This guy's OK.'"

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