One he would not trade. Hughes notes that there are times when it can feel a bit like camp – it is outdoors and subject to every element, members of the staff are a close circle of workers and performers, and all contribute to the community, he said.
“Many of us have known each other for years,” he said. “We all work together – and I mean everyone. Not just the performers and musicians, but the ushers and back stage crew – every one of us wants to put on a good show every night we can.”
Rob Hughes Jr., Ph.D. (left with saxophone) prepares to play as a member of the orchestra in the Muny’s production of “Hairspray.”
Throughout its 98-year history, Forest Park’s premier theater has been run by leaders determined to make events out of its performances. In recent years, this desire to push the envelope has become palpable.
“I have loved the Muny since my first show, ‘Funny Girl,’ in 1997,” said Hughes. “Beginning with that season, I thought that we did better shows every year.”
Hughes attributes the ongoing successes to Isaacson, who has won his share of Tony Awards as a Broadway producer.
“Mike has continued that trend of bigger and better, but the changes are faster and more spectacular,” Hughes said. “He has great instincts and is willing to take chances, most of which are successful.”
From the addition of outdoor fans to innovative creative decisions, Hughes said the leadership of Isaacson and Muny CEO Denny Reagan has been smart and well-spent, helping to grow the Muny’s reputation nationally and internationally.
“Because of his tremendous Broadway success – (How many Tonys does he have?) – Mike has been able to remind the New York theatre world that the Muny is not just typical summer stock – it is the Muny,” Hughes said. “It feels like a new golden age at the Muny, and it is very exciting to be a part of it.”
This year’s season opener, “The Wizard of Oz,” featured an elaborate Emerald City, menacing monkeys in flight and a Great Oz that would make any lion cringe like a kitten.
For “Young Frankenstein,” the sets were massive, as were the special effects – including a scene when “the monster” was raised on a 50-foot forklift.
For the finale of “42nd Street,” the crew built a set of stairs spanning 42 feet – the full length of the stage, complete with 999 lights. Each night before those steps were moved into place, every bulb was checked and rechecked to make sure it would glow.
And every performance showcases the orchestra’s prowess. In this year’s production of “Music Man,” the horn section played a major role, particularly in the finale. Hughes and Vincent were excited to help create the illusion of the boys’ band in grand form when they performed “76 Trombones.”
For this week’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Hughes, Vincent and their fellow musicians in the orchestra are getting a bit of a promotion – literally. Though they will continue to don their classic black attire, they will abandon the pit to play the entire show on stage. The move reinforces the metaphor of community, a theme that is central to the story.
The Muny operates on a grand stage, in a grand setting, but it tempers grand style with equally grand substance.
“Good theater acts as a magnifying glass that reveals a truth,” Isaacson noted. “It provides a lens that allows a singular voice – a solo, a monologue – to speak volumes that often make the most poignant moments on stage.”
Isaacson’s respect for artists – along with his own artistry – has enabled the Muny to flourish as the jewel in the crown of theatrical experiences in St. Louis.
“Muny magic has to do with the sum of its parts,” Vincent said. “It really is the case the whole of the experience is so much more – more even than the many, many people committed to putting on a great show. More than the performers and musicians and stagehands and directors. I’m talking about the people in concessions and the ushers, the back lot folks and everyone else. We are all committed to making each performance great.”
Isaacson could not agree more.
“There is no other theater in the world like the Muny. … it’s a real gift to have. Everyone here is so grateful – it is just magic,” he said. “And it’s the music that sprinkles the fairy dust over all of it.”