The Muny Positions Itself For the Future

 In Culture

As the Muny nears its 100-year anniversary, the venerable St. Louis institution is taking steps to ensure that its second hundred years are as vital as its first. With around 400,000 attendees last year (100,000 of them getting in free), the organization is something of a beast.

Recently announced, Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, has been engaged to lead the Muny in a strategic planning study to help guide them into the future. But the Muny is already taking steps in the right direction. Since Mike Isaacson took the helm, their choice of shows has begun to feature a different kind of fare that attracts new audiences, without abandoning the tried and true classics that longtime Muny audiences demand.

"Billy Elliot" at the Muny Courtesy of the Muny

“Billy Elliot” at the Muny
Courtesy of the Muny

In “Billy Elliot”—the show that opened the Muny season about a boy who wants to be a dancer set against a backdrop of a blue-collar, hard-luck, rough and tumble mining town—boys are taught masculinity by strapping boxing gloves on them. That Billy wants to learn to dance instead doesn’t sit well with his father or brother, who equate dancing with poofery. If that’s not enough, the show also introduces the theme of cross-dressing, not by Billy, but by his friend. This is not your father’s Muny.

Moreover, the show is story-driven; not dance-driven. Missing are the big, flashy production numbers, though there is some fine dancing, including a beautiful pas de deux with Billy and his older self as well as some charming work by Muny kids. The show is accurately described as heartwarming, but most heartwarming of all was how audiences embraced the show. Perhaps Muny attendees are not as conservative as previous management thought. Isaacson has more faith in St. Louisans than that, confident that a show such as “Billy Elliot” will not offend and simultaneously help to build the Muny audience of the future. Shows like “Billy Elliot” and the upcoming “Addams Family” draw people in who might never have attended a show at the Muny before, and from that, new family traditions are born.

Porgy and Bess Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

“Porgy and Bess”
Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

For those who prefer the tried and true classics and family entertainment, the Muny continues to offer plenty, with “Aladdin” already under the the theater’s dance belt; the remainder of the summer will feature “Grease,” “Hello Dolly,” and “Seussical,” not to mention “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” which opens tonight and is is the first touring show the Muny has brought to St. Louis in decades. It may not be daring, but it indicates a flexibility in Isaacson’s mindset. Productions of “Porgy and Bess” do not come along every day, and Isaacson has called it an opportunity too good to pass up.

This direction bodes very well for St. Louis. The Muny is the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor theater, is internationally recognized and it has the unique ability to bring the best of the best performers to town just to experience its unique grandness. It doesn’t hurt that more than 10,000 people show up every night to revel in the Muny experience. The Muny’s future health is important to all of us, and it looks as though that health will extend well into the future.

For tickets or information, visit the Muny website.

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

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