Trying to Pinpoint the Unique Muny Experience
It’s the moments we remember.
Jimmy Stewart once remarked that movies give audiences “little pieces of time they never forget.” The film star went on to say that “people remember these little moments as vividly as if they were parts of their own lives. It’s all connected somehow – their lives and these movie moments.”
In this regard, theater shares much with film. Over our lifetimes, for so many of us the Muny has been a primary source of indelible moments. When we see Ken Page onstage this week playing the warring king in Aida, we do well to remember that Page is here because fifty years ago this very summer he attended a production of Oklahoma! in Forest Park. When Robert Horton entered on horseback singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” the life of the boy who was Ken Page was forever changed. That was a moment to remember.
I might suggest that this summer delivered three such moments – not life-changing perhaps, but each luminous.
The first was the thundering sound of tap shoes that echoed throughout 42nd Street. Late in Act One, as the song “Dames” neared its climax, thundering hordes of dancers appeared at the top of some glitzy stairs – and they just kept coming. I have to assume that the 25-member ensemble was nearly doubled in size by the 18-member youth ensemble. And if that moment was memorable for a viewer, how much more hypnotic must that moment have been those young performers who found themselves an integral part of the spectacle.
The second moment to remember – and you’re probably already ahead of me on this one, because this fantasmagorical moment already has entered the annals of Muny lore – was “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in Young Frankenstein. Again, the number was made spectacular because of the surprising participation of the youth ensemble. It wasn’t that many years ago when youngsters on the Muny stage were a distraction; they simply added to a body count, they served to fill space. But those days are past. Now the youth ensemble is cunningly employed to enhance the Muny brand. This has been a wise and productive philosophical change.
It also speaks to the third moment to remember – the curtain call in Mamma Mia!, which united the large audience in a euphoria more potent than any drug. Anyone who already has seen Mamma Mia! knew it was coming. But, as with “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” the surprise arrived in the execution, in the insistence on concluding the evening, not simply with a Mamma Mia! moment, but with a memorable Muny experience.
My evening at Mamma Mia! was a reminder that some memorable Muny moments occur before the show even begins. Walking to the theater from the lower parking lot, I stop to watch children feed turtles that inhabit the lagoon in front of the box office. (I don’t see that at any other theater.) On the east lawn, young singers from the St. Louis Black Repertory Company are providing a vibrant preface to the evening ahead as they dynamically work their way through Laura Nyro’s canon (“Eli’s Comin’, “Stoned Soul Picinic”). On the other side of the theater, on the West Pavilion the Muny Teens are delivering an impressive and polished 30-minute performance that speaks with great assurance to the future of theater in Forest Park.
But it wasn’t only the performers (and turtles) that put on a pre-performance show. I was transfixed by young ushers who were pushing elderly patrons in wheelchairs through the crowds on the concrete concourse near Gate One. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, and these ushers seemed to deem it a privilege rather than a chore to escort these senior citizens to their seats. As I observed some of the faces of these elderly folks, I couldn’t help but wonder what age they were the first time they attended a musical in Forest Park. How many shows had they seen in their long lifetimes? How many Muny moments had they stored up over the decades?
Only in St. Louis.
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SPEAKING OF MOMENTS … The appearance this week of Patrick Cassidy as Zoser in Aida summons forth fond memories of one of my all-time favorite stage performers, Patrick’s father, Jack Cassidy. I first saw Cassidy on Broadway in August 1963. He was simply radiant in the original company of She Loves Me. His sly velvet rendition of “Grand Knowing You” is not to be forgotten.
Four years later Cassidy and his wife Shirley Jones appeared here at the American Theater in the thriller Wait Until Dark. (As the terrifying villain, Cassidy executed the play’s big shock brilliantly, eliciting from the audience maybe the loudest scream I have ever heard in any theater.) In an interview that week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cassidy was quoted as saying, “I know who I am. I’m larger than life.” How can you not love an actor who has the chutzpah, the self-assurance and the self-effacing humor to say such a thing?!
An actor who is larger than life is ideally suited for the Muny stage. Alas, Jack Cassidy never played the Muny. But his smiling, witty voice continues to infuse the CDs and LPs of such Broadway shows as Wish You Were Here, Superman, Fade-Out, Fade-In and Maggie Flynn. Patrick Cassidy is now five years older than Jack Cassidy was when he left us, much too young. But when the stage light is right and highlights the silver in his hair, it is clear that Patrick Cassidy is his father’s son, carrying on the family tradition, trying to create little pieces of time that viewers never forget.
Dennis Brown (Biography)
Dennis Brown was a theater critic for The Riverfront Times newspaper from 2001-2014. His articles and interviews have appeared in The New York Times,Los Angeles Times, Hollywood Reporter and, most recently, the Village Voice, among many others.
His book, Actors Talk: Profiles and Stories from the Acting Trade, was praised by Playbill magazine as “one of the finest interview collections ever published.” A companion volume, Shoptalk: Conversations about Theater and Film with Twelve Writers, One Producer—and Tennessee Williams’ Mother, also was well-received.
His stage adaptation of William Inge’s novel, My Son is a Splendid Driver, starring Mary Beth Hurt, William Atherton, Conchata Ferrell and Lane Smith, was performed to great acclaim at the prestigious William Inge Festival in Independence, Ks. He is also the author of the stage adaptation of the biography The Fabulous Lunts, about theater legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, which was performed in New York City in both 2009 and 2010.
He assisted Gregory Peck in developing his one-man show A Conversation with Gregory Peck. During the mid-1990s, he toured with Peck to 55 engagements throughout the United States and Canada.
He wrote the award-winning television-movie The Perfect Tribute, which starred Jason Robards as Abraham Lincoln. While on staff at CBS Entertainment, Brown was Angela Lansbury’s publicist for the final seasons of Murder, She Wrote.
Since returning to his hometown of St. Louis, in 2001, he has been an adjunct professor at Webster University, teaching classes in film.[/promo]