The Muny’s Making Monday Nights Even More Magical for the Second Half of Its Virtual 2020 Season
For 101 years, a new set of songs filled the stage each Monday night during The Muny’s summertime season. The rhythm of these opening nights became familiar to generations of St. Louisans.
And then came 2020. This year most of us barely know what day of the week it is—and The Muny’s stage in Forest Park is dark and quiet at 8:15 p.m.
But the nonprofit musical theater company continues to project the energy and excitement its fans know and love, now online instead of on stage. For the past five weeks, it’s been offering reprises of past concerts in the virtual program Muny Magic in Your Home.
Starting Monday, July 20, The Muny launches the second half of its online season: “The Muny 2020 Summer Variety Hour Live!” These live-streamed, free programs feature historic footage from past summer shows, news songs and dances from Muny artists across the country, live vocal performances, famous duets from real-life romantic duos, a game show, behind-the-scenes stories, cast reunion sing-alongs and much more.
“It reflects the robustness of The Muny experience as a whole,” says Mike Isaacson, the theater company’s artistic director and executive producer. “You can’t do The Muny small. That’s not what it is. That’s why we wanted the idea of a variety show, so we could do a lot of different things.”
Working with past performers and directors from across the country, along with archival videos from the shows themselves, Isaacson and The Muny’s team have pulled together a remarkable collection of musical entertainment that Isaacson says will have the feel of a fun, crazy, ‘70s-era variety show.
Image from “The Little Mermaid,” courtesy of The Muny staff photographer.
Each piece of the production took extensive legwork on the part of The Muny’s staff, starting with the video clips of past musicals like Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” “Oklahoma!,” “South Pacific,” “Jersey Boys,” “Spamalot,” Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “All Shook Up,” “The Wiz,” “Newsies,” “The Music Man,” “Annie,” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Paint Your Wagon.”
“These scenes from past Muny productions have never been allowed to be shared publicly,” Isaacson explains. They were filmed for historical documentation and education—for example, to communicate to incoming directors how the stage works, which is very hard to do without visuals. Isaacson reached out to the companies that own the rights to the shows and requested special permission to air portions of the videos during this very unusual pandemic-ravaged season.
Image from “All Shook Up,” courtesy of The Muny staff photographer.
Because the videos are shot with a single camera that doesn’t zoom or pan, “it will have a little of a home movie feel,” Isaacson says. “It’s kind of charming. You still get the excitement and the talent, but it’s sort of raw.”
Not that the rest of the show will be pristinely polished—after all, this is the year of seeing TV celebrities working from their homes just like the rest of us. But The Muny’s staff has a lineup of top-tier performers planned for the five variety shows, including both filmed and live song and dance routines, and this is a unique opportunity to see them showcased in a less-formal setting.
Isaacson knew that Broadway has been shut down and touring shows are grounded, making this a really hard time financially for the entire industry. Thanks to the continued support of the season sponsor World Wide Technology as well as the show sponsors, The Muny has been able to compensate all of the performers.
When he started reaching out to Muny alumni about the variety show, Isaacson was met with tremendous enthusiasm. “People were like, ‘What can we do to help?’” he says. “It’s a treasured institution of this country.” Isaacson is especially excited about the opportunity to work with couples who are quarantined together—which will help re-create a little of the drama and chemistry of onstage interactions between the lead characters.
Image from “Cinderella,” courtesy of The Muny staff photographer.
“We have so many couples who either met at The Muny or were couples coming in,” he says. “It adds an element of connection to the Zoom format.” Matt Kunkel—who has served as an assistant director on more than 20 Muny productions and was to have directed “The Sound of Music” this season—handled these segments, working closely with the couples on every aspect, including which room in their homes would be the best setting to film the songs.
Each segment had a sub-producer, from the live song performances to the choreographed dance numbers filmed right here in St. Louis (socially distanced, with the dancers in masks). “We were thrilled to discover that so many of our alums were back home in St. Louis,” Isaacson says.
One of those is Richard Riaz Yoder, a dancer and choreographer who will have his own segment in one of the shows. Another is Lara Teeter, a Tony-nominated veteran song and dance man who has directed and/or performed on Broadway, in national tours and at theaters across the country. He’s also a professor of theater and head of the Musical Theater Program at the Webster Conservatory. For “The Muny 2020 Summer Variety Hour Live!,” Teeter will perform a tribute to all The Muny’s song and dance men.
Image from “The Wiz,” courtesy of The Muny staff photographer.
Audience members who have a favorite number will need to tune in to The Muny’s announcement each Friday for details of the upcoming Monday show. Each show will only air live once, with a captioned, audio-described rebroadcast the following Thursday evening.
“It was really important to preserve the element of ‘live,’ because that is an essential element of theater. What you are seeing and experiencing is only happening right now,” Isaacson says. “My hope is that as people gather around their screens, it’s a way to reflect on 11,000 people being together in Forest Park.
“Fundamentally,” he continues, “it’s not in confluence with the live experience. It’s the difference not between apples and oranges, but apples and car tires.” That’s not to say it won’t be emotional for longtime fans. As Isaacson watched the old videos to choose songs for the variety shows, he admits, “I got teary more than a few times knowing what we’re missing.”
One of the biggest challenges in creating the series was the technology of a live-stream format as opposed to a live broadcast. Isaacson says mastering the computers, cameras, sound, video, graphics and other moving parts has been complicated. Because of that complexity, he laughingly promised at least a few “what’s happening?” moments.
But he doesn’t expect those potential glitches to detract from the beauty of the memories. “The core of it is the incredibly talented people creating pieces for us and sharing them with The Muny audience,” he says. “I hope it brings joy and pleasure as a reminder of this incredible place that we’re all a part of.”
The livestreams of “The Muny 2020 Summer Variety Hour Live!” will be offered for free on The Muny’s YouTube channel at 8:15 p.m. each Monday from July 20-Aug. 17. Each week’s show will be rebroadcast Thursdays at 8:15 p.m. at the same link. The 2020 virtual season’s presenting sponsor is World Wide Technology.
Above: The cast of “The Music Man.” Featured image: The cast of “South Pacific.” All images courtesy of The Muny staff photographer.