The Muny And Other Cultural Events Make St. Louis. What Happens When They Go Away?

 JEREMY D. GOODWIN | St. Louis Public Radio

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Live cultural events are typically a big part of summer life for many in the St. Louis region. But this year, musicals at the Muny, free concerts and other events are called off, to prevent spread of the coronavirus in large crowds. 

This creates a void bigger than the hole in attendees’ social calendars. It upends family traditions. It removes gathering spaces where people make connections with neighbors and with strangers.

It affects many people’s very relationship with the city.

Last Friday morning, the sidewalk in front of the Muny’s shuttered box office was dotted with people taking advantage of the fresh air to take a walk or a jog.

The theater’s 103rd season had been due to start a few days earlier. Inside the amphitheater, the sound of birds chirping rang clearly through the air. There were no stagehands scurrying about, no distant rumble of rehearsal. Instead, 11,000 empty seats sat as silent witness. 

Managing director Kwofe Coleman stood near a side entrance to the seating area, thinking of the people who would have been filing into the theater later that day and filling those seats, if not for the coronavirus. 

“If we talk about what’s difficult about not having a season this summer,” he said, “the hardest part is missing the people that come out to see the shows, and seeing how much it matters to them. And knowing that they don’t have that. That’s what’s hard.”

Among them is Lynn Phillips. She grew up going to the musicals at the Muny. It’s a family tradition, one that she would have been carrying on this summer by taking her 14-year old daughter to shows. Now, the tradition is on hold. A place where she’s always felt comfortable is now a painful reminder of how the world is changing during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“There was actually a knot in my stomach,” Phillips said of a recent drive by the theater, “the kind that you get when you feel a deep loss. It’s palpable.”

“Essential to the city’s understanding of itself”

That loss is shared by many in the region, whether or not they count themselves regular Muny attendees, said Henry Schvey, professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University.

“The idea of the musical here in Forest Park is something that is essential to the city’s understanding of itself,” he said.