Even before the lights come up next week on the Muny Opera's 85th consecutive season, the summer's fortunes can be predicted. Judging from advance mail-order ticket requests, and not surprisingly, the annual children's show, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, will draw the largest crowds. The next best-attended will be the season opener, Fiddler on the Roof, followed by the season closer, Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific.
These venerable musicals are selling briskly, despite that fact that ticket buyers do not know -- or apparently care -- who will be appearing as Tevye (it's Bruce Adler) or Nellie Forbush (haven't a clue). Hey, if you're sitting far enough back in an 11,000-seat theater, what difference does it make?
The uncurious mindset of Muny audiences is a coup for executive producer Paul Blake, who has taken President Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" approach to gays in the military and applied it to Muny casting. A gregarious self-promoter, Blake is ever willing to risk spraining his arm if he can pat himself on the back -- until he is asked about casting. Then mum's the word.
During a recent phone conversation from his home in Santa Barbara, California, Blake has a laundry list of excuses for why, two weeks before the season begins, he can only name five contracted performers. That very morning, an actress dropped out in favor of a national tour. And only an hour or so earlier, another was forced to withdraw as a result of a personal problem. These defections don't faze Blake. His dime-a-dozen approach to casting is foolproof: The less well-known an actor is, the more easily replaceable he or she becomes.
In a patently foolish statement, he boasts, "We hire actors who are so unknown, their agents call me to ask that their clients not be given billing." (And if you believe that, I have a birdcage in Forest Park I'll sell you for a song.) Obviously any agent caught making such a seditious request would be fired immediately. As Muny alumnus and Academy Award winner Jose Ferrer succinctly put it, "No actor aspires to anonymity" -- which helps explain why so many of those actors bail out of summer in St. Louis.
But as long as the Muny continues to draw big crowds, who is to fault Blake's I've Got a Secret approach? No one wants to return to the misbegotten 1960s and '70s, when the Muny felt obligated to cast "star" names and audiences were subjected to such travesties as the Hudson Brothers (remember them?) in On the Town and that great stage actor Arthur Godfrey as Cap'n Andy in Show Boat. The irony here is that Blake does indeed (eventually) cast actors with legitimate theater credits. How can it hurt for a potential ticket buyer to know those actors' names, regardless of how famous they may or may not be?
"In the past two years," Blake continues, "we've had three actors at the Muny who are now appearing on Broadway. There's no point in my telling you who they are, because you've never heard of them." Well, excuse me for being so stupid. But is it just possible that two of those actors are Jeff McCarthy, who's been starring in Urinetown, and Catherine Brunell, who has been understudying the title role in Thoroughly Modern Millie? Before finding success in New York hits, both had the misfortune of appearing two summers ago in the best-forgotten Roman Holiday, one of those witless musicals that Blake cobbles from classic movies and then forces the Muny to produce.
The fact that the impending Muny season comprises seven bona fide shows -- no Roman Holiday, no cheesy revue like last summer's lamentable Hooray for Hollywood -- is reason enough to hope that this summer will provide consistent quality entertainment. From now until mid-August, the sultry skies over Forest Park will be a-lilt with the melodies of Jerry Bock, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Stephen Schwartz and Stephen Sondheim, quality composers all. As for quality performers, keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best. But don't be so brazen as to ask.