News Column

Muny's Mike Isaacson learns his lessons

June 15, 2013

YellowBrix

June 15--Last summer Mike Isaacson stepped into a new position, executive producer at the 95-year-old Muny in Forest Park. He had all the "job training" you could ask for: executive producer at Fox Theatricals, a career as a Tony-winning Broadway producer, even a season devoted to watching his predecessor, Paul Blake, at work.

Still, the Muny is a theater like no other. With an open-air setting that looks gorgeous yet is vulnerable to the weather, and with more than 10,000 seats to fill during a season of seven shows, it poses unique challenges.

Only the third executive producer in Muny history, Isaacson arrived with lots of questions. Now, as his second season opens on Monday night with "Spamalot," he says last summer taught him plenty.

Five important things

Isaacson learned in his first season at the Muny

1. The Muny season takes a calendar year to prepare for.

The Muny doesn't present tour shows; it produces each show itself, with just 11 days from the start of rehearsals to opening night. "It takes 10 months to do eight weeks," said Isaacson, 48, in his sunny office at the Muny this month. It looks like a rec room unaccountably equipped with a wall of theater-history books. "When you have that brutal 11-day time frame, you have to know what you are doing.

"We had to change the whole rhythm. Now we start in October, when all the designers come in with their ideas. If you start early, you can try something that's not in your wheelhouse."

2. The Muny craves big ideas.

Last year, the Muny introduced a huge LED screen to create a variety of lighting effects. This year it has installed large modern fans, so quiet that they can run while shows are being performed. (The old fans were too noisy for that.)

Time will tell, but Isaacson feels confident that even on very hot nights, members of the audience will enjoy a refreshing breeze.

"The fans are a big, crazy idea, which is what the Muny itself is," Isaacson said. "When ideas like that work, they give people a sense of pride and of a future."

3. Don't underestimate the Muny audience.

The longtime rap on the Muny was that it had stultified, serving up old favorites for an undemanding, provincial crowd. Don't believe it, Isaacson says with a laugh.

"All the best-sellers last year were the new shows (to the Muny): 'Aladdin,' 'Dreamgirls,' 'Chicago,'?" he said. (In fact, "Chicago" played the Muny in 1977, long before the revival that made the show a hit at last.) "Really, the line-up is the least-hard part of this job.

"You have to have a sense of variety -- different flavors and textures, like a feast. You want to do at least one new show, two classics and a children's show. The hardest (slots) to decide on are the last two.

"But whatever you do, the audience is always ahead of you. Let's be clear: This is the most democratic theater in the nation, and everybody comes.

"During 'The King and I' last summer, I was in the audience when I noticed two couples sitting next to each other. One couple was in their 70s. They were holding hands, loving the show. The other couple was in their 20s, pierced and tattooed -- holding hands and loving it, too."

4. The Muny needs to groom artists.

At the Muny, "you have big stars and veteran members of the chorus and college kids and teens all working together," he said. The Muny has always been a good place for young performers to polish their skills and their resumes, but Isaacson thinks the mix is healthy for everyone.

"Plus, it's harder and harder for directors and choreographers to learn their craft. I want this to be a place for that. Marc (Bruni, who directed last summer's production of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and will direct "West Side Story" in August) is opening his first Broadway show, and that's thrilling.

"The nicest thing anyone can say is, 'I want to come back,' and a lot of people said that."

Three of them were the stars and director of last season's sumptuous closing production, "The King and I." "The three of them cornered me and said, 'Working here is so wonderful, it gave us an idea. Next season, let's do "South Pacific."?' Well, when that kind of talent has an idea, you listen."

Sadly, Kevin Gray, who played the King, died of a heart attack a few months later. But leading lady Laura Michelle Kelly and director Rob Ruggiero will be on hand to bring their idea to life. It's just the kind of dream Isaacson wants to nurture.

5. For all its peculiarities, it's still a theater.

The Muny may be big, but it doesn't call for outsize gestures, odd stage-blocking or other unusual considerations. "That feels false," Isaacson said. "Fundamentally it's a theater, and good theater is what the audience wants."

"I don't think this is a place you can understand in just one year -- I had to reconcile myself to that," he said. "But what's really exciting is what makes this place so special -- and we have it right here, right now.

"You have that stage with the trees and no roof, in the park, with that scope of the audience. It allows you to create moments of poetry you can't create anywhere else.

"Last summer, a breeze blew up one night during the dance on the ledge in 'Thoroughly Modern Millie.' It rippled through Millie's skirt -- and the audience gasped. That's real beauty, and that's what I want. I always want that moment when the audience says, 'Only at the Muny.'?"

The Muny 2013 Season in Forest Park

"Monty Python's Spamalot" --Monday-June 23

"Shrek the Musical" --June 24-30

"Nunsense -- Muny Style!" --July 1-7

"South Pacific" --July 8-14

"Les Miserables" --July 15-21

"Mary Poppins" --July 25-Aug 2

"West Side Story" --Aug. 5-11

Tickets are $12-$80, plus the free seats. All shows start 8:15 p.m. at the Muny in Forest Park. For more information, call 314-534-1111 or visit muny.org.

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(c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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