Two weeks ago the New York Times reported on the challenges faced by the historic Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, as that Cape Cod summer theater strives to survive in changing times. "How do you reinvent yourself, which every organization has to do on a regular basis?" artistic director Evans Haile asked. "It's very easy to take a [theater] like this for granted, because we've been here for 82 years."
Surely the Muny, which last week completed its ninetieth season, also is challenged by the delicate balancing act that wants to build on its illustrious past while at the same time navigating the shoals of the dicey competitive present. But this summer's anniversary revue 90 Years of Muny Magic, which longtime executive producer Paul Blake both wrote and directed, made a clear, if disturbing, statement: There is no past to build on, because the Muny has no past.
You might have thought that this revue would have had a mandate to tell the Muny's fascinating story. It did not. Blake instead focused almost solely on music. His assemblage of theater songs, none of which were exclusively identified with the Muny, was arbitrary. With some judicious trimming, 90 Years of Muny Magic might have been renamed 21 Years of Stages Magic, because a dozen of the represented shows (Good News, Anything Goes, Carousel, etc.) also have been produced at Stages St. Louis. Blake's revue did not deign to tell the audience how these disparate numbers were integral to the Muny's heritage. Instead the narrators would instruct the audience to watch for the counterpoint between musical lines. This birthday party had all the sentimental gaiety of a master class.
But the ascetic revue crystallized Blake's philosophy: The performer is expendable, the show is all. His approach to running the Muny can be summed up in the title of a story Time magazine published in 1948: "St. Louis Habit." As the Muny was marking its thirtieth anniversary, Time stated that the outdoor theater "has become a family habit for St. Louisans — from grandma to the kids." Sixty years later, rather than feel any need to reinvent the place, Blake relies on grandmas (My Fair Lady, My One and Only) and kids (High School Musical) to keep the operation afloat.
Although he has held his job for nineteen seasons, one senses (from Muny Magic, anyway) that Blake has not the remotest appreciation for the Muny's importance to the cultural history of this city. In writing last month about the current acclaimed Lincoln Center production of South Pacific, New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who from 1980 to 1993 was the Times' reviewer (and the most influential theater critic in the nation), revealed that he had never before seen this classic musical. His explanation for such a glaring omission? Simple: South Pacific has never before received a Broadway revival. Rich should have visited St. Louis. Over the past half-century, South Pacific has been staged nine times in Forest Park. The Muny has served as the great common denominator for generation upon generation of St. Louis theatergoers.
What a saga 90 Years of Muny Magic might have told, if its author had cared to tell it. And what a cast of characters. People like Milton Shubert, nephew of Broadway producer J.J. Shubert, who in 1930 transformed what had begun as a grandiose community theater into a professional operation, while at the same time providing summer work for Shubert contract players (up-and-comers like Cary Grant and Allan Jones). It was the brash Milton who, in the early days of the Depression, took a flyer and invested a whopping $10,000 in the largest revolving stage in America. (That revolving stage could have been very helpful last week in Fiddler on the Roof.)
People like Richard Rodgers, who first visited the Muny in 1938 for the world premiere of a new musical cowritten by composer Jerome Kern and the lyricist who a decade later would collaborate with Rodgers on South Pacific: Oscar Hammerstein II. Although that premiere musical, Gentlemen Unafraid (whose cast included 24-year-old comedian Richard [Red] Skelton), did not proceed to New York, Hammerstein was so impressed by the Muny operation that he got his son a job here as an assistant stage manager.
People like chorine Virginia Mayo, a local St. Louis girl who used the Muny as the first step on the long road to stardom. (When Mayo died three years ago, her family asked that bequests be made in her name to the Muny. Such fidelity was not enough to get her mentioned in Muny Magic.) And people like producer David Merrick, the former St. Louisan who in 1968 suspended the run of his Broadway hit Hello, Dolly! and sent it to Forest Park for a week, thus initiating an exciting new (if short-lived) tradition.
During the more recent Blake years, the story has still been about people. That story is mostly an ongoing chronicle about the diminution of the performers — a point that was visualized by the cover of this summer's playbill. The cover was filled with hundreds of production photos — all so tiny as to make every single actor nigh unrecognizable.
This calculated diminishing of the creative artists even extends to the press releases. Anonymity is the name of the game at the Muny, so for starters, the releases exclude the names of directors, musical directors and choreographers (listing instead the names of corporate sponsors). The releases almost always are limited to naming only two actors. So, for instance, the press release for My One and Only announced the casting of lead players Dirk Lumbard and Meredith Patterson but ignored mention of pivotal featured players like Eugene Fleming, Jeff McCarthy, Ken Page and Julyana Soelistyo. In four decades of dealing with press releases, these are the most unhelpful I have ever seen. And don't even think about seeking accurate information on the Muny's website. There, the cast list for My One and Only excluded Patterson, who played the female lead.
Yet the narcissistic Blake always finds time to mention himself. Last week he appeared onstage prior to Fiddler to read notes that purportedly were written by adoring Munygoers (whose names remain as elusive as those of the actors). One of these notes read, "Paul Blake deserves a statue in Forest Park." There's nothing original about that idea. Four years ago I wrote that Blake should have his own bobblehead doll, which could be construed as a kind of miniature statue. But imagine for a moment — I know it's a stretch — that someone other than Blake himself actually wrote that preposterous note. What kind of person would have the gall to stand on the Muny stage and read it aloud? The blood chills.
Earlier this summer Blake told a television interviewer that the Muny produces musicals for which the audience already has expectations. "And then," he said, "we exceed those expectations." Anyone who has seen too many Blake-written and directed shows knows how perversely accurate that statement is. 90 Years of Muny Magic was more transparent than most Blake productions, for it revealed the extent to which he banks on the hope that the "St. Louis habit" for summer theater will just keep lazing along.
But here's the (quite literal) rub: Operating from the assumption that city playgoers will continue to take this aging fixture for granted, Blake has nearly succeeded in erasing the great blackboard of Muny history — a heritage that is as rich as that of any theater in the United States. What remains of this once-renowned institution is mostly faceless and nameless and all too sadly bereft of pride.