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Celebrating 100 years of meeting at The Muny in Forest Park

By: Jessica Meszaros


Ruth Urban with Tom Ewell and Ethel Levey in The Muny’s 1941 world premiere of “New Orleans.” [Photo courtesy of The Muny]

The Broadway musical “RENT” made it musically known that a year can be measured in 525,600 minutes in the song “Seasons of Love.” To figure out how many seasons of entertainment The Muny has brought to St. Louis audiences, multiply that by 100.

“The fact is no other city in the country or the world has a Muny,” declared Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson.

Isaacson will help ring in the institution’s 100th birthday this season, along with Muny staff and patrons, some of which have held seats for generations.

“For a lot of people, it’s tradition,” Kwofe Coleman, director of marketing and communications, said of families passing season tickets down from one generation to the next.

Coleman has worked at The Muny for 20 seasons, starting at age 16 as an usher.

“What’s unique about The Muny is that there are multiple generations represented in the audience. If you look at our most coveted seats, those are maybe six or seven generations of families that have held those seats,” Coleman said. “It’s a source of pride for people in St. Louis, and I think it should be.”

In honor of The Muny’s 100th birthday, the theater is holding a variety of celebrations – including a gala, a special show, a free birthday party and a museum exhibit – that allow the people of St. Louis to look back at The Muny’s achievements while also looking forward into its future.

“You can’t celebrate The Muny without celebrating St. Louis,” Isaacson said. “A theater is ultimately made up of its audience and its people, so we need to celebrate that idea.”

The Muny’s 2017 production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” [Photo courtesy of The Muny]

Producing excellence

About 100 years ago, rain put a damper on the 1919 premiere of “Robin Hood” in the middle of Forest Park. Today, that same stage has gone on to become the largest outdoor theater experience in the United States.

Originally known as the open-air St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre, The Muny has made a name for itself across the country by producing a wide array of musical theater. In addition to creating many shows from the ground up, The Muny has served as the location for many world premieres. Numbered among those premieres are productions like “New Orleans” in 1941, Michael Todd’s “Around the World in 80 Days” in 1962 and the stage adaptation of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 2004.

“When you look at the history of The Muny throughout its 100 years, what was on the stage was sort of, in a broad sense, related to the time and of the people in the seats,” Isaacson said. “We started with opera and plays. Then, it was operettas, and now it’s really moved into musical theater for really the last 60 years.”

From Shakespearean productions to Disney, The Muny always has been distinctly local while giving residents diverse theatrical productions and maintaining a distinct standard of quality.

“Our shows are uniquely created here by people that live here and for people who live here,” Coleman said. “We produce shows as opposed to presenting shows. We’re building the show from the ground up. Basically what we get, when we license a show or we get the rights, is a script, a score and permission.”

The Muny’s dedication to quality not only makes the theater a destination for audiences, but also a hub for multiple generations of aspiring actors and performers. According to Mark Krupinski, choreographer for The Muny Kids and The Muny Teens, the longstanding success isn’t based just in the diversity of the productions, but also in attracting aspiring actors and performers and by providing an authentic, fast-paced experience.

“Nothing can really teach you like doing a show can,” said Krupinski, who performed with The Muny for 23 years and in over 100 productions. “With all the years of performing, how I looked at it was, ‘this is what you really need to know.’ Down there, there are only 10 or so days for rehearsal, and then you’re on to the next show. More than anything, The Muny got me out of my comfort zone – constantly. I tell kids all the time, it’s like college. Even though I learned other things at college and went to Webster University to dance, The Muny taught me the technique of how to dance.”

Krupinski’s memories are echoed by scores of local performers along with producers and directors across the nation’s theatrical community, who got their start on The Muny’s stage.

“The Muny is a beloved, historical and integral piece of the fabric of St. Louis,” Michael Hamilton, artistic director with STAGES St. Louis, said. “Through its wide appeal to generation after generation, The Muny has solidified its place in the national annals of notable theater venues. As a young actor who performed on The Muny stage, my memories run deep, and the experience certainly helped shape my love for theater and for my future career as the artistic director and one of the founders of STAGES St. Louis.”

According to STAGES Executive Producer Jack Lane, The Muny is part of the expanding St. Louis theater scene that has propelled the city to Broadway-level quality.

“As a producer both here and in New York, I’ve been fortunate to work with many theatrical artists who have roots at The Muny,” Lane said. “In fact, Mike Isaacson and I worked together on Tony-award winners “Fun Home” and “The Humans” on Broadway. This city has produced more spectacular theater artists than I can count. The Muny has certainly been a wonderful springboard in that regard, so much so that professionals from around the country consider performing with The Muny a huge feather in their professional caps. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

Celebrating in grand style

Multiple celebrations are planned for the St. Louis community, including the already sold-out Centennial Gala on May 18. That same evening, a special one-night show titled “An Evening with the Stars” will be co-hosted by Tony and Grammy Award-winning artist Heather Headley and Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe Award-nominated artist Matthew Morrison. Tickets will be available to non-subscribers beginning May 7.

“On that night, we’re also going to make an announcement that will be historic,” Isaacson said. “We’re not just celebrating our history, we’re going to step into the next 100 years. That’s all I can say.”

On May 20, The Muny will kick off its 100th Birthday Bash with a family-friendly event on the theater’s historic campus. Amenities will include food trucks, live entertainment, interactive behind-the-scenes demonstrations and themed kids’ activities.

In addition, the Muny Memories exhibit at The Missouri History Museum will provide an in-depth exploration of over 100 years of audition materials, backstage secrets and more. The exhibit opens June 9.

“We just want for the people who have supported us for 100 years to be able to come back and have a piece of the magic,” Coleman said. “And there will be cake, too, of course!”

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