Seasons of the Muny
Although not stage actors, Kwofe Coleman and Emily Parker have all the charisma of leading stars. They were kind enough to meet me to talk about the Muny’s 100th Anniversary Season this year, and after one conversation, I felt like I had been given a full backstage tour. Kwofe is the Director of Marketing and Communications, while Emily is Assistant Director of Marketing. When I ask them about their roles with the Muny, their responses are immediately personal. Neither focus on what they do professionally as employees of the Muny. Instead, they talk about all the theatre does, and how fortunate they are to be part of the team that makes that magic.
We all have our own Muny memories, they explain. In celebration of the 100th Anniversary Season, you are invited to share your own “My Muny Story” on their website. The response has already been overwhelming, and it is a heartwarming affirmation for Emily. “It’s easy to make the magic when you realize how important it is for so many people!” Their excitement is contagious. The three of us go down a rabbit hole of musical memories and stories, and at every turn, they surprise me with fascinating things I never knew about the Muny.
For example, native St. Louisans may know the Muny holds 11,000 seats. Did you know that a typical Broadway Theatre seats only 1,100 – ten times smaller! In addition to the sheer size of the Muny, let’s not forget that it is an outdoor theatre. While a roof is half-jokingly suggested by every audience member that’s seen a show on an inclement day, the Outdoor Theatre has its own irreplaceable character. There’s a special connection between audience and actors when they’re in the same space, vulnerable to the same elements and under the same stars. Recalling some of the “My Muny” stories they’ve read, Kwofe and Emily laugh that some of the most telling are the memories of rainy nights when all 11,000 audience members are crowded under the eaves mingling until the show could begin again. Furthermore, these audiences are from all over the world. The Muny regularly attracts worldwide travelers, producers, performers, and audience members.
One of the most startling things I learned is about the shows’ rehearsal schedules. In a full season, there are seven separate shows, each with their own performance run. Packing all that into a single summer is tight, and even more so when we realize the cast only has eleven days of rehearsal together. Of those, only the last three are on the physical Muny stage, and only the last two are with the orchestra. Consider that miniscule time frame next time you watch how coordinated and sophisticated the shows are! It’s important to note that the Muny doesn’t choose simple shows, either. It will come as no surprise, then, when I say that the process of choosing shows is also elaborate.
More interesting than the final word in this case is who has the first say. On the last performance of every season, the Muny distributes surveys to all audience members (feedback is also taken online), enabling them to create their “dream season” from a pre-curated selection of possibilities. Muny staff review these for months, compiling audiences’ preferences, and even cross-referencing with past years’ survey results. While decisions cannot be made from these results alone, asking the audience makes the process truly democratic. Once trends and popular requests have been reviewed, the logistic steps begin.
Schedules are checked, budgets are reviewed, contracts are drafted, and all the unglamorous factual possibilities are called into play. Because they have good relationships with licensing agencies, the Muny can arrange shows that may not be successful or possible in other venues. At the same time logistics are being arranged, the less tangible artistic directions are also arranged.
While teams on the staff determine what’s available, they also have to determine what “goes together”. If you imagine picking the art on the walls of your home, the pieces coordinate overall, even though they are meant for different rooms. Each season features at least one Premiere, a family favorite, and a carefully curated balance of nostalgic and continuing classics. Kwofe describes the social responsibility of the Muny to provide the audience with “a look back, a look forward, and a look to the family” with cultural awareness and sensitivity. They must constantly evolve with the community.
After teams have edited the choices even more, the choice “goes to the room”, as Kwofe says in a tone of reverence. He is one of three people in the final room, although only as a lackey, he insists. The other two are President and CEO Denny Reagan, who has been with the Muny 50 years this summer, and Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, who has been with the Muny 7 years this summer. They have the unenviably difficult task of considering the community’s needs, cultural trends, and performance possibilities and making them work within the practical parameters the production side demands. Once that balance has been struck in “the room”, the final selections are considered and approved by the Repertory Committee of the Board of Directors.
The thoughtfulness and diplomacy with which the Muny team chooses shows is an example of the attitude with which they treat the whole artistic process.
This year’s 100th Anniversary marks a rare accomplishment and can be attributed to a number of things. Subscribing ticket holders financially sustain the Muny, but it is the loyalty of St. Louisans that is the true magic behind their sustainability. Theatre mogul Lee Shubert one said in regards to the Muny “It must be a community affair backed by city pride, and St. Louis has supplied that backing to an unheard of extent”. And how could we not, given the quality of life the Muny provides? Dennis Brown has written a wonderfully historical “Muny Saga” that takes a look at each of the ten decades of the Muny. It will leave you with fascinating stories and no doubt as to how the Muny has become so loved by its audiences.
The memories of the past will remind you to look forward to this season. I had to ask my new friends what they are most looking forward to. This season, the Muny will feature Annie, Gypsy, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Jersey Boys, Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Wiz. Kwofe is looking forward to Jersey Boys and The Wiz, as they reinforce the Muny’s mission of enriching the community with exceptional performances, and these will surely bring in some new faces.
Emily is excited about the season’s openers and closers. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway is a spectacular start to the season. As dynamic as it will be to start the season with this performance, it is equally appropriate to end the Muny’s 100th Season with Meet Me in St. Louis. After all, the season’s tag line is the last line of the performance, and seems a natural end to this article as well. When you’re buying your tickets for the summer, I know you, too, will feel as lucky as I do to be “Right here in Saint Louis”.