With the strains of "Put on a Happy Face" still echoing across Forest Park, the 22-year — I can't bring myself to flatter him by describing it as an era — administration of Muny executive producer Paul Blake has come to an end, aptly enough, with a production of Bye Bye Birdie that was staged by Blake in his typically desultory manner. Last week's performances were preceded by Blake's valedictory remarks to the audience. He told a preposterous story about how, in his first season as executive producer in 1990, by summer's end he was receiving a dozen letters a day from admiring patrons that all asked the same question: "Who are you?"
Who was Paul Blake? As a producer, he was capable — when he chose to be. Although he relied too heavily on his Rolodex to cast his cronies, Kate Baldwin, Ashley Brown, Tom Hewitt, Dee Hoty, Brian d'Arcy James, Beth Leavel and Lewis J. Stadlen are only a few of the Broadway-caliber actors Blake brought to St. Louis in recent years, sometimes before they had attained success in New York. But as a director Blake was mediocre. Those same actors would find themselves adrift in aimless productions; often they were miscast, their talents wasted.
Now we can turn our attention to Blake's successor, Mike Isaacson, who — in just about every way imaginable — is the anti-Paul Blake. Isaacson does not pretend to be a director, but his contagious enthusiasm for all things theatrical brings out the best in those with whom he works. He treats people with respect, doesn't talk down to his peers. He possesses an abiding curiosity and is eager to learn. Indeed, when Isaacson accepted the Muny job, it was with the proviso that before assuming control he be allowed to observe the operation for an entire season, which he has now done. One can only imagine the exhaustive to-do list that Isaacson has amassed during the past three months. To take charge of the Muny is akin to inheriting a 93-year-old house that, despite its charming façade, is crumbling inside. What needs repairing first? In a word, everything.
That, of course, cannot happen. Isaacson is savvy enough to know that you can't fix everything at the same time. But I would assume that among his priorities will be the need to get the Muny out of its current routine and restore a sense of event. Blake's policy was to promote show titles and nothing else. Sell Singin' in the Rain as a title rather than as a production. Don't let the audience know who's cast in the show; treat the actors as if they're in a witness-protection program. But as this past summer's low attendance figures for Singin' in the Rain suggest, the Muny has gone to that well too many times. We're in a cycle when people need exciting reasons to attend the Muny — and Isaacson is poised to create that excitement. As a Broadway producer, he has amassed an enviable track record; a lot of well-known performers owe him big-time. Now he needs to start cashing in those IOUs. Next summer, for instance, I would not be surprised to see Sutton Foster reprise her star-making turn in Thoroughly Modern Millie, a show Isaacson produced.
And when star-caliber talent shows up at the Muny, they must be presented as professionals. The scenery in recent years has been disgracefully amateurish. So too the costumes. That must change. These musicals are in dire need of cohesion.
On and on the to-do list grows.
Will there be missteps along the way? Of course. Isaacson might be the anti-Paul Blake, but he is not Merlin. He can't wave a wand and suddenly make everything good again. But nor will he blame his personal shortcomings on the operation itself, as Blake so often did. Blake's private mantra was the dismissive, "It's the Muny, darling," a demeaning brushoff intended to excuse all sins and deficiencies. In the pre-Blake years, the Muny had its own four-word mantra: "Alone in Its Greatness." Those days are a distant memory. But with energy, imagination, cooperation and a little bit of luck, Mike Isaacson, in tandem with revitalized Muny president and chief executive officer Denny Reagan, has the opportunity to restore a unique theater to its former greatness.