A Theatre Production From Start To Finish: Mike Isaacson Of The Muny In St. Louis

Cover image: Aida

The legendary Missouri-born Margaret “Molly” Brown was catapulted into high society at the turn of the 19th century, when her husband James Joseph Brown, a mining engineer, rapidly accumulated wealth and success. Brown later acquired her popular nickname, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” after surviving the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, in which over 1,000 passengers died. Her story became the inspiration for a popular musical, aptly titled “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” originally written in 1960 by Meredith Wilson, serving as an iconic show for the generation. An updated version of the show written by Dick Scanlan will be performed at St. Louis’ premier outdoor theatre, The Muny, this summer.

This production features Tony Award-nominee Beth Malone, three-time Tony Award-nominee Marc Kudisch and Justin Guarini, runner up on the first season of “American Idol” who has since transitioned into musical theatre. The Muny is well-known for its multi-piece performances featuring extraordinary singing, dancing and acting, all produced in-house and often featuring almost 100 performers. But what isn’t so clear is how a production becomes a piece of art. How does a production transform into the immaculate finished product we see?

We sat down with Mike Isaacson, artistic director of The Muny, to find out.

Tell me a bit about this production of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
A challenge we often have with classic musicals is that as time goes on, the music remains beautiful and satisfying to an audience, but the stories start to feel a little creaky. Stephen Sondheim has talked about how musicals are oftentimes written for their era. Molly’s story, in particular, carries a great deal of resonance to a lot of people. Dick Scanlan, who wrote “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Motown,” took a crack at updating the script and evolving Molly’s story, which he worked on with director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall. They did their first production about three years ago in Denver, where Molly spent part of her life. I went out to see it, and was astonished in two ways: one, how exciting the new story was, and two, the beauty of how the relationship between Molly and her husband was portrayed.

What was particularly resonant about the new script?
Dick (Scanlan) really found the love story between Molly and her husband, and takes it quite seriously and beautifully. They were these two hicks who suddenly found themselves in the world of money, to which he reacts one way and she reacts another. Because of their different beliefs, they separate but never really fall out of love. It’s really beautiful. Molly was a huge defender of immigrants, for example, which wasn’t well-received amidst Denver’s wealth. She took a frequently unpopular position that if you’ve been given a lot, you literally need to share the wealth. What an amazing time to be talking about that.

muny mama mia

Mama Mia!

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Tell me about a few of the cast members.
We have Beth Malone starring as Molly Brown, who played the title role of Alison Bechdel in “Fun Home Off Broadway” and then on Broadway, for which she earned a Tony Award nomination. She played Alison in this incredibly reserved, quiet and introspective way, very nuanced and gentle. You see her in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” and there’s just nothing more different than “Fun Home.” It’s a spectacular performance. Dick kept working on the script, and I thought, “Why don’t we take a crack at it this at The Muny?” Kathleen Marshall also came out here in the summer to work on it, which was really exciting.

For Justin (Guarini) has performed multiple times at The Muny. He was here in 2012, and also last year for Mama Mia. What’s great is that these incredibly talented performers want to work at The Muny. Once we announce the shows, I begin hearing from people. Megan Dominick, our casting director, works very closely with the directors, choreographers and music directors. We also call people and ask if they’re interested. It’s a very long, intense process. A lot of it is scheduling, too. If someone books a film or a TV series, and they’re not able to come.

What do you look for in planning and selecting shows to produce at The Muny?
We do seven shows in a season. I really look for a great sense of variety and adventure in each show. Each show should be very different from the one before. You look for stories that will engage people. Theatre is a metaphor for so much. You want something that—I don’t fully know how to describe this—but you want something where you, as an audience member, think, “I know why they wanted to tell this story. It’s an ephemeral kind of human connection.”

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What exactly does your role as artistic director entail?
In the most specific sense, I’m responsible for everything that’s on the stage. How that plays out is a multitude of things. What we do is very intense. We produce on a massive scale, so it’s ridiculous to think I can control every decision. Instead, I hire the talent who then make those decisions. Each show has a specific creative team of about 10-15 people, which can include a lighting designer, costume designer, set designer, video wall designer, sound designer, etc. That team works to create their vision on our stage. Once I’ve selected them and made sure we’re on the same page of what we’re creating, my job is really getting out of their way, for the most part—because they’re more talented than I am. It’s a little facetious, but true. And then along the way making sure they have everything they need, and that everyone’s talking and there’s communication. We don’t do any tours. We create all of our productions right here, which takes an enormous amount of staff and artistic talent.

Once shows are selected, how do you begin working on them?
We spend at least a year on each show. Once I know what the season will be, I begin reaching out to directors and choreographers to see if they’re interested. Then, together, we see who the supporting artistic team will be. Once those teams are set, we begin really talking about what the show is, how we can do it in The Muny in a way no one else can. We ask, “Why is this wonderful? Why does it matter?” You have to examine it, and really look at it. Then everyone scatters for a while. Everyone does their sketches that contribute to how it will look and feel, talking to the director and also possibly talking to me. Then we do our casting process. In a year, we’ll see 4,000 performers for what ends up being about 250 for the shows. We also reach out to top Broadway talent.

We also have these enormous video-conference calls, sometimes up to 20 people on a call where everyone’s watching a video of the set model and we’re talking through the show. Everyone looks at it from their departmental view. The goal we aim for is that by the time everyone arrives, they really know what they’re doing, and there aren’t any questions. Musicals are all about the team, and the communion of the different art forms. You want to create the space for invention and creativity, and if everyone’s calm, you can do that.

muny crowd

How did you become involved in musical theatre at this capacity?
Compared to most, I came to it fairly late. I developed an interest for it in junior high and spent a lot of time in libraries, where I began listening to cast albums and reading scripts. My interest was always in journalism—I’d read theatre reviews from all over the country. It never occurred to me that you could do this, what I do now, for a living.

I came to St. Louis in 1982 to attend Saint Louis University (SLU), where I was an English major. I began working at McDonnell Douglas, now Boeing, right out of college. During that time, I was still reading everything about theatre as a hobby, and I started freelancing as a theatre critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Riverfront Times. After McDonnell Douglas, I worked at SLU in publications, then PR, and then as assistant to the university president for six years.

Life working at the university was great, but I had an intuitive sense that I was in the wrong place. I was in my early 30s, and I had lunch with a higher-up at the Fox Theatre, also here in St. Louis. They had formed the Fox theatrical division and began producing shows. When I explained I was frustrated with where I was, he said, “Why don’t you do something you’ve always dreamed of doing?” He ended up hiring me. That was in 1996.

How did you hone your craft and develop a leadership style?
There’s interesting research about people who became accomplished in their fields. One, they tend to be self-taught. But there are a lot of people who are smart and self-taught, [and] they never get opportunity. So, two, there has to be a moment that you happen to be in the right place at the time. Isn’t life just about all the people that you meet along the way? I just kept meeting extraordinary people who were generous. It’s all who you’re working with, and how they shepherd and mentor you.

I learned, because I worked for a lot of really interesting people as I was developing in my career. And if you pay attention, you can learn what to do and what not to do. You can absorb all of that. You can be a sponge. I found the people I admired and respected the most, and I studied them: how they managed people, why and how they were successful or unsuccessful. Your 20s and 30s are always about learning. You’ve got to pay attention to those people who you admire.

I believe fear is pointless and can be a real inhibitor to creativity and great work. Everyone understands what we’re doing together and what those parameters are. You have to dare to dream first, and pare it back if you need to. During the season, this job feels more like coaching than anything.

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