It's fun to be first. In recent years St. Louis has been among the first cities in the nation to host in-demand national companies of such blockbuster musicals as Wicked and The Producers. Now we're among the first to see Monty Python's Spamalot, which, more than two years into its Broadway run, remains one of the Big Apple's hottest tickets.
There's a reason we're getting the big shows early on, and that reason is Mike Isaacson. As both the vice president of programming for the Fox Theatre and the associate producer of Fox Theatricals, which invests in Broadway and touring shows, Isaacson serves double duty and it's paying off in a tangible way.
"Theater is a very small business," Isaacson says. "The New York producers are real aware of what's going on here in St. Louis and how healthy this audience is. It's the oldest cliché in the book, but I never have to worry about having my phone calls returned. That matters when you're booking a season."
Spamalot is a case in point. St. Louis is hosting the touring company largely because, on Isaacson's urging, Fox Theatricals invested in the original Broadway production. "I wasn't a Monty Python fan," he admits. "When I read the script, I didn't know what the hell this was. To me that always says one of two things: Either it's a total disaster or it's brilliant. But I also knew that this was Eric Idle and Mike Nichols. These are people who know how to create a show. And Casey Nicholaw was choreographing."
Nicholaw, he notes, was in the original cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie, the hit musical for which Fox Theatricals was a lead producer.
"I knew that Casey was ferociously talented. So my hunch was to say, 'This is a really smart group of artists.'"
And how similar was the production he saw at the Chicago tryout to the script he'd read?
"The first act was probably 60 percent the same, a completely different second act. To me the genius of Spamalot and I don't use that word lightly is two things. First, it's overtly subversive. The joke of the original Monty Python was that it constantly questioned the status quo; what this show does is to question the status quo of musical theater.
"Second, Mike Nichols and Eric Idle said to themselves, 'Let's forget that Rodgers and Hammerstein ever happened. Let's try to remember how people used to do musicals in the 1930s.' Spamalot is not about character. This show is about really great laughs. It's all about releasing the audience's joy."
For Isaacson, the audience is a critical part of the theater equation not just their credit cards, but the tangible contribution they make to the evening. It goes back to his experiences working as an usher at the Fox, long before he ever imagined he'd run the place.
"Theater came very late for me," he says. "You don't scratch the surface of anybody who loves the theater without finding an interesting family situation. Let's just say it all began when you needed a place to turn to, and that for me was not until junior high. Once I discovered the idea of Broadway, I was going to the library and listening to shows. But I was in Wisconsin, and New York might as well have been Oz. We lived in Chicago for a time, so the first touring musical I saw was The Wiz. But the one that rocked my world was A Chorus Line. That blew me away. That was life-changing."
He'd hoped to attend an East Coast university in order to be close to New York theater, but it didn't turn out that way.
"Saint Louis University, God love 'em, gave me an amazing scholarship for which I'll be forever grateful. So I came down here, had never even visited the place. I was an English major, but I had no clue what I wanted to do. I'm taking a tour of the campus and the tour guide says, 'By the way, the newly renovated Fox Theatre down the street is opening next week, and they're looking for ushers.' And I literally left the group, walked down Grand Boulevard, went to the stage door, found my way in, signed up and I was an usher."
That was 1984. Isaacson was eighteen. As it turned out, he saw a lot more theater for free at the Fox and probably learned a lot more than he would have as a paying customer in New York: "I think I saw Lena Horne four times. I saw six performances of Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller. It was fascinating to watch the conversation that show was having with the audience, and how much they loved it. The production was a celebration of the past, yet here were two performers who still knew how to deliver. They made the audience blissfully happy, and that was a powerful thing to see."
After graduation Isaacson briefly worked in public relations at McDonnell-Douglas, then returned to SLU to work on the in-house newspaper and alumni magazine. At that same time Jeff Fister bought the West End Word, and Isaacson volunteered to become their theater critic: "Jeff couldn't pay me anything, but I didn't care about that. I just wanted the tickets."
After two years as head of media at SLU, a chance conversation with college president Father Lawrence Biondi ("He has the smartest intuition of any human being I've ever met") led to Isaacson becoming Biondi's assistant. During that stint, with Fister's blessing, he left the West End Word and began writing reviews for Riverfront Times.
A decade later, what plays from his reviewing days stand out? "I remember A...My Name is Alice as pretty damn spiffy. It was Hope Wurdack's company. Some of the old Theatre Project Company Betrayal, I remember that quite vividly. Speed-the-Plow, that Agnes [Wilcox] did up in the office building on Brentwood. The Rep production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music was incredible; their Sweeney Todd was great."
The reviewing came to a halt in 1996 when Isaacson was hired to join the Fox Theatre staff. "They had just decided to take Jekyll & Hyde to Broadway," he recalls. "Fox Theatricals was a general partner. So I worked on that while learning the whole booking-contractual end of the business."
One of his first decisions was to recommend investing in Thoroughly Modern Millie. "My personal philosophy," Isaacson explains, "is, if everybody's going ying, go yang. That was a time when rock musicals like Rent were in vogue. I thought people would be ready for a change."
Millie won the Tony Award as Best Musical of 2002.
Currently Isaacson is shepherding a musical adaptation of the hit film Legally Blonde, which is scheduled to open on Broadway next April. Even more immediately, he's involved with the Grand Center cabaret series in the new Savoy Room atop the Sheldon concert hall. If this season's lineup of cabaret performers (Jessica Molaskey, Marin Mazzie) is more theater-oriented than in the past, that's because "the two worlds are really becoming one. Musical theater is now the preservation of the songbook, so for Broadway performers this is the next natural place for them to branch out."
Then there's Spencer Day. "Our hope is that within two or three years the Savoy Room will become known among the top artists as a place you've got to play," Isaacson says. "We want to have a slot in each series with someone who you may not know going in but in two years you'll be saying, 'I was there when....' Which to me harkens back to the whole Gaslight Square tradition."
Despite constant rumors that he's about to abandon ship and move to Manhattan, Isaacson insists he's not going anywhere. "I love this city," the Central West End resident says. "This is home to me. I truly feel that one of the reasons I've been able to function in New York is because I live in St. Louis. I bring a different perspective. To get me to leave here, you'd have to pry St. Louis out of my cold dead hands."