As I write these words, the Muny has not released its attendance figures for the season just ended. But when they do, I would expect the statistics to confirm that Grease and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat were the top draws, followed by Les Mise´rables. The older shows Peter Pan, Oklahoma! and Hello, Dolly! will fill out the bottom slots, with The Pajama Game in the cellar. This, anyway, is the ranking I predicted before the summer ever began. Since the Muny sells titles and not productions, it only figures that the older the musical, the less cachet that title has. We've entered an era when a less-than-brilliant Show Boat will have a tough time luring new audiences.
It's easy to understand why an 11,000-seat theater has to keep a wary eye on the box office. (Consider: By adding a mere three performances to the one-week run of Les Mise´rables, the Muny was faced with the daunting prospect of selling more tickets in three nights than a mainstage Rep offering would have to sell in its entire four-week run.) So of course attendance must factor into play selection. In years to come, we might well look back on 2007 as a transitional summer, for it's possible that this summer the Muny staged its swan song productions of The Pajama Game, Peter Pan, Hello, Dolly! and Oklahoma!
The Pajama Game is the most easily dispatched, which, after all, had not been staged in Forest Park for 39 years. Only four years ago, Muny executive producer Paul Blake singled out The Pajama Game as the show "guaranteed to lose $100,000 or more" at the Muny. One can only assume that the show's recent New York revival with Harry Connick Jr. impelled a change of heart though one might also wonder why viewers would be drawn to a production sans Connick, or even the changes that helped to make the updated New York production so snappy. St. Louisans stayed away from The Pajama Game in droves.
Peter Pan typifies the Muny tradition of annual children's shows except that this summer it wasn't. Joseph was this season's kids' show. The tale about the boy who never grew up was fare for parents and grandparents who have indeed grown up. They're the ones who remember Mary Martin flying into their living rooms. If today's kids want to see someone fly, they'll watch Harry Potter. Just as Peter is fast losing his immediacy, I think we'll soon see Wicked replace The Wizard of Oz. And the new Disney extravaganzas are eager to fill any leftover kids' show slots.
But Oklahoma!? Surely it's heresy to suggest that this American classic is on the way out just as, in 1979, it would have been equally heretical to suggest that the Muny would cease staging musicals by Sigmund Romberg. In the early decades no season was complete without a Student Prince or a Desert Song or a New Moon. But as musical theater trends changed, the Muny changed with them. (Of more than 75 musicals that debuted in Forest Park between 1919 to 1929, only four survived into the 1970s.)
Of the four major Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, Carousel has been a Forest Park no-show for twenty seasons. South Pacific and The Sound of Music continue to make the cut, and one can assume they'll receive another staging or two before they're phased out to make way for eventually released titles like The Phantom of the Opera. But isn't this evolution to be expected? A frequent Muny complaint is that they repeat the same shows too often. (If the Rep mounted Death of a Salesman every five years, subscribers would scream bloody murder.) So surely none of these departing shows will be missed. Maybe we'd miss them a little bit more if they were all staged as well as last summer's Hello, Dolly! Fortunately, we don't have to worry about that happening.