As a newcomer to the area, I was curious to see what I would learn, if anything, about St. Louis from the Muny's production of Meet Me in St. Louis. Based on Sally Benson's turn-of-the-century reminiscences, the musical concerns the Smith family, four daughters and a son who come to terms with a variety of life and romance issues. The two eldest daughters, Rose and Esther, are heck-bent on finding and keeping suitors, which means they occasionally resort to tactics that stretch the boundaries of what's acceptable for young women of their era. As proto-feminist product, St. Louis is full of strong female characters, including maid Katie (Georgia Engel), confined to a credible brogue and the appalling "A Touch of the Irish" (which recommends keeping your man in line with a touch of the shillelagh).
Most people are familiar with the MGM musical, which contained a stellar performance by Judy Garland in Gibson Girl get-up and a torchy version of "The Trolley Song." The Muny staged this cheerful, bumptious showstopper with a full-scale replica open-air streetcar. Such dazzling props and the gusto of the company distract attention from the thinness of the story, the odd fit of intimate family drama on a colossal stage and the preposterousness of other lyrics.
The real tension of St. Louis is father Lon's decision to relocate the family to New York. "St. Louis is all right," he sings. "Let's go to a city with style and grace." The family is appalled, especially because the World's Fair is imminent. "Just when St. Louis is becoming the center of the entire universe," wails Esther. For the neolithic tribes of Magdalenian-era Southern France, the animal-bedecked caves of Lascaux suggest a brighter past could the present ever be this good? Here in St. Louis, a city dominated by the ornate architecture of the Centennial era, the audience (12,000 strong for a musical comedy!) laughed warmly, and then got in their cars to drive home. Out of the city.