Coleman discusses upcoming 103rd season and the challenges ahead

By Lynn Venhaus
Kwofe Coleman, who started at The Muny as a seasonal employee when he was 16, will become the theatre’s next president and CEO, succeeding Denny Reagan, who is retiring after 52 years.

Coleman begins the new position on Jan. 1, 2022. He is currently The Muny’s managing director, overseeing the organization, financial and business affairs. He will assume the role with more than a decade of extensive theatre management experience.

“I am honored and humbled by the opportunity to lead The Muny and serve a community that I love,” Coleman said. “The unparalleled history, remarkable resources and aspirational spirit that have yielded a century of success for The Muny are our foundation as we begin our second century.”

The Muny Board of Directors announced the decision Friday.

One of the premier musical theaters in the U.S., the 103-year-old St. Louis venue traditionally welcomes more than 350,000 patrons over its nine-week season in the nation’s largest and oldest outdoor theatre in Forest Park.

The opportunity to mold The Muny’s future is not one Coleman, 38, takes lightly.

“With great excitement, I look toward the future of a cultural institution that will take intentional steps to broaden and evolve our identity and relationships through both our art and our investment in this community,” he said.

He has been preparing for this opportunity for many years.

“It’s been a 22-year job interview,” he said. “The opportunities I have had to work in different departments and gain the necessary experience in a community I care about has motivated me to want to figure out our next chapter. ‘What else can I do?’ We have an opportunity to define what a cultural institution is. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Coleman said he is eager to get to work.

“I have a lot of respect for what the people do here. I’m honored for this moment, and I’m so excited to do the work,” he said.

Coleman’s promotion has been met with local and national praise, with both the board chairman and retiring president describing it as a “perfect” choice.

“Thanks to Denny’s leadership, and the diligent stewarding of the selection process by the executive committee and full board, the perfect candidate has been chosen,” Muny Board Chairman James S. Turley said.

Reagan, who has been with The Muny since 1968, has served as president and CEO since 1991. He announced plans to retire in December.

He and Coleman have worked extensively alongside each other. In recent years, they have stood together near stage left, greeting patrons before each of the seven shows on summer evenings.

And like Reagan, Coleman started working at the Muny as a summer job when he was in high school. He was an usher, handing out programs and helping with patrons’ needs.

“Kwofe is a remarkably gifted leader who understands the institution at its core, and more importantly, its commitment to the St. Louis community,” Reagan said. “He will ensure The Muny’s future remains bright while offering a new perspective on how to lead our beloved theatre into its next century. Without question, he is the perfect choice.”

“Undoubtedly, Kwofe will ensure The Muny continues its commitment to accessibility, regardless of physical or socioeconomic limitations, while expanding the vital role we fill in our community,” said Turley, who is also the Second Century Campaign chairman.

Dave Steward, founder and chairman of World Wide Technology, the nation’s largest black-owned company, said Coleman was a national and local leader of rare passion and commitment for serving young people.

“His record reflects an accomplished innovator who is making education and training increasingly accessible for historically underserved communities through schools and the arts,” Steward said.

“From the Gospel of Mark we learn, ‘Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant,’ and I am confident that Kwofe will lead with faith and humility. The Steward family, along with World Wide Technology, salute The Muny on choosing Kwofe as their next leader,” said Steward, a Muny board member.

World Wide Technology and the Steward Family Foundation became the first overall season sponsor in the history of The Muny in 2014. They were to be the 2020 Season Presenting Sponsor but instead continued as the online season presenting sponsor with a leadership gift.

Coleman is recognized both locally and nationally as a strong force in theatre operations and currently serves as the president-elect of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre.

 Betsy King, NAMT executive director, noticed the symmetry of Reagan, a former president, passing the torch to Coleman.

“I can say with both excitement and confidence that Kwofe will be a charismatic, insightful leader for The Muny. He will respect the past while also moving the organization into a strong, vibrant future. The Muny is in excellent hands!” she said.

Coleman was a 2018 Fellowship advisor for the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.

“The Muny has enjoyed a remarkably stable and strong leadership that has allowed the organization to move from strength to strength. Appointing Kwofe Coleman as the new president and CEO ensures leadership continuity. Kwofe brings his own insights and talents to the position and will lead The Muny to even greater heights in the years to come,” said Michael Kaiser, DeVos Institute of Arts Management chairman and Kennedy Center president emeritus.

Photo in St. Louis American. Kwofe Coleman and Dennis Reagan backstage at The Muny

103rd Season

Because of the public health crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 102nd season was cancelled, and the line-up was transferred to the 2021 season. Even though season ticket sales were announced in March, the current health landscape, best practices and all available information must indicate that a season is possible.

A final decision will be made next month, Coleman said.

“We’re eager to come back, to gather and have the shows, but we have to be safe and be cleared to do so by the health department and the labor unions,” he said. “We’re looking at every angle. We might have to have a slightly reduced season, a socially distanced scenario. We’ll do something. How we will do it has to be figured out.”

Coleman said meetings continue to take place, consulting with the city and medical experts on the COVID-19 regional numbers and mitigation efforts. He said they have watched what the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Blues and other local institutions have done in their altered re-openings.

“We’ve had a lot of great conversations. We’re only going to be together again by working together,” he said.

The upcoming season, announced in December, is to start later in July and then run through September, a shift from the usual June to August schedule, “should conditions allow.”

The seven shows are: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (July 5 – 11), Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins (July 14 – 22), Smokey Joe’s Cafe (July 25 – 31), The Sound of Music (August 3 – 9), Sweeney Todd (August 12 – 18), On Your Feet! (August 21 – 27) and Chicago (August 30 – September 5). Three – Sweeney Todd, Smokey Joe’s Café and On Your Feet – are Muny premieres.

In the meantime, the activities at #1 Muny Drive continue. The stage is being installed, construction is on track and preparations to return are underway.

The Muny is currently undergoing a multi-year major renovation project that was announced in October 2018.  Phase 3 started in September, focused on backstage support spaces. The Muny’s aging 11.5-acre campus needs upkeep and maintenance.

The new Emerson Artists’ Building will house dressing rooms, the wig shop, hair and makeup departments and wardrobe. Renovations are planned for the costume shop, production and general offices, rehearsal space, craft and scenic room, painter and carpenter areas, and the sewer and plumbing infrastructure. The capital campaign has raised $85 million so far.

The first two phases focused on rebuilding the state-of-the-art James S. McDonnell stage

Summer of 2020

The Muny announced in May that a modified season of 5, not 7, shows would take place beginning in July only if local health experts and officials deemed it safe, but on June 8, the decision was made not to move forward.

After that sad news, the Muny pivoted to an online season, a first in its 102-year history. They aired the live Muny Magic concerts at The Sheldon, never before made available to the public, and created a new series, “The Muny 2020 Summer Variety Hour Live!” This one-of-a-kind, free online endeavor was packed with performances by Muny artists across the country and dancers performing outside on the grounds.

Because of the online season, The Muny was able to employ several members of its typical summer staff, including trades people, performers, artists and musicians.

With viewers from 22 countries, the total estimated attendance for the free 10-show summer season was 189,582. This number represented a record-breaking first in The Muny’s live-streaming history, and is an aggregated estimate based on YouTube analytics.

“While this season was anything but ordinary, the support from our viewers has been nothing short of extraordinary,” Reagan said.

“My heart was transported back to so many magical summer nights past,” said Mike Isaacson, artistic director and executive producer of The Muny.

“I am so grateful to everyone in the Muny family who worked on and created these 10 streams,” Isaacson said. “It was a remarkable collaboration in so many ways, and in this really challenging time, these shows allowed us to create, to celebrate and to be together. We’re all very grateful.”

The Muny 2018. Photo by Lynn Venhaus

Coleman’s biography

Coleman joined The Muny full time in 2008 as a staff accountant, helping to manage the finances, accounting and payroll for its multimillion-dollar annual budget.

In the decade preceding it, he performed a variety of roles, including house manager.

In 2011, Coleman formed The Muny’s first digital communications department, reconstructing its internet presence and social media identity while also dramatically increasing the theatre’s internet sales stream, national presence and forming connections with nextgeneration audiences.

He was promoted to director of marketing and communications in 2014, where he managed branding and marketing efforts through its 2018 centennial season. During this time, Coleman was also key in the creation of both The Muny’s Second Century Strategic Plan and the $100 million Second Century Capital Campaign.

Following the 2018 season, Coleman was named The Muny’s managing director, responsible for managing the business functions while working with Isaacson, to embrace and articulate the artistic and institutional vision.

In St. Louis, he is an active contributor, serving on the St. Louis University High School Board of Trustees, Cor Jesu Academy Advisory Council, Common Circles Advisory Council and as a proud founding board member of Atlas School.

Coleman is an alumnus of St. Louis University High School, Class of 2001, and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Emory University in Atlanta.

He is a first-generation American. His parents migrated here from the Republic of Ghana in the mid-1970s and settled in Bellefontaine Neighbors. He has two sisters, both doctors, who attended Harvard and Duke universities, and locally, Cor Jesu Academy. He said his parents prized education and his father worked side jobs to send his children to private schools.

Coleman said his parents appreciated the arts and culture, and that was handed down to their three children, to make sure they were well-rounded.

“Art was natural to me and I appreciated it,” Coleman said.

He also serves on the board of directors for the Saint Louis Club, as well as other various social service organizations. During the 2020 holiday season, Coleman served as executive producer for “A New Holiday,” a short film musical set in St. Louis created by LIFE Creative Group.

He is a 2015 recipient of the St. Louis American’s Salute to Young Leaders Award and was named to the 2020 St. Louis Business Journal 40 under 40.

For more information about The Muny, visit www.muny.org.

Season tickets can be purchased online at muny.org or by phone by calling (314) 361-1900. Currently, the box office in Forest Park is closed to the public.

The Third Annual St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards winners were announced Sunday, June 2 at the Fabulous Fox Theatre.

The ceremony was hosted by KTVI Fox 2’s Mandy Murphey and directed by Tony Parise.

The winners were named in 14 categories (plus WOW! Performance Awards and Special Recognition Awards) including the Outstanding Lead Actress and the Outstanding Lead Actor who will go on to compete in the Jimmy Awards/National High School Musical Theatre Awards on Monday, June 24 at the Minskoff Theatre in New York City, presented by The Broadway League Foundation.

The pair going on to The Jimmy Awards were in Cor Jesu Academy’s “42nd Street” — Anna Gassett, who played Peggy Sawyer, and Michael Harp, who played Billy Lawlor. Anna is a recent graduate of Cor Jesu who plans to major in musical theatre at Texas State University. Michael will be a senior at Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville. He lives in Swansea.

Outstanding Lead Actress:

Anna
Gassett | Cor Jesu Academy

Outstanding Musical – Level 1
Budget:

Timberland High School, The Addams Family

Outstanding Supporting Actress:

Abi Mirikitani | Lafayette High
School

Outstanding Musical Direction:

Cor Jesu Academy

Outstanding Ensemble:

Westminster Christian Academy

Outstanding Choreography:

Kirkwood High School

Outstanding Technical Execution:

Cor Jesu Academy

Outstanding Lead Actor:

Michael Harp | Cor Jesu Academy

Outstanding Musical – Level 2
Budget:

Westminster Christian Academy, Meet Me In St. Louis

Outstanding Supporting Actor:

Kyle Rehme | Timberland High School

Outstanding Direction:

Chaminade College Prep

Outstanding Scenic Design &
Execution:

Central Visual and Performing Arts

Outstanding Costume Design &
Execution:

Timberland High School

Outstanding Orchestra:

Kirkwood
High School

Special Recognition Awards and
WOW! Performance Awards for outstanding work in support of the production were
also given out.

The Extra Mile:                                                                          Behind the Curtain:                                                                                                                       
                                                  

St.
Dominic High School, Les Misérables                                  Lindbergh
High School, Legally Blonde

Westminster
Christian Academy, Meet Me In St. Louis

Spirit of Theatre:                                                                                                                                                                             Union High School, Big Fish   

WOW! Moment:

Awarded for an outstanding performance in a
role not eligible for a nomination.

Ethan Budge | Rockwood Summit                                               
Brooke Hance | First Baptist Academy

Grant Morgan | Jerseyville
Community High School                  Hannah Wozniak | Lafayette High School

About
The St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards

The St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards (SLHSMTA) are produced by The Fabulous Fox, The Muny and The Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation. This program is designed to celebrate outstanding achievement in high school musical theatre. Participating schools will have their productions evaluated by a panel of theatre professionals.

The year-long adjudication process culminates in an awards ceremony modeled on the Tony Awards©. The winners of the Outstanding Actress and Outstanding Actor categories will travel to New York (all expenses paid) to compete in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards (Jimmy Awards©) program and to participate in a week-long professional development experience

About
The Jimmy Awards® / National
High School Musical Theatre Awards®

The Jimmy Awards®/The National High School Musical
Theatre Awards® (NHSMTA®) program impacts more than 100,000 students who
participate in high school musical theatre competitions sponsored by presenters
of Touring Broadway productions throughout the United States. Presented by the
Broadway League Foundation, the program sends a Best Actress and Best Actor
winner from each of these competitions to New York for a week-long theatre
intensive of coaching and rehearsals with industry professionals in preparation
for a one-night-only talent showcase on Broadway. Named for Broadway impresario
James M. Nederlander, the program has been the catalyst for more than
$2,000,000 in educational scholarships. The eleventh annual Jimmy Awards will
take place on Monday, June 24, 2019 at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway.
Coaching and rehearsals for this one-of-a-kind event will be held Monday, June
17, 2019 through Monday, June 24, 2019 in New York City. For more information,
please visit www.JimmyAwards.com.

About The
Thomas A. Kooyumjian Foundation

The Thomas A. Kooyumjian Foundation is a not-for-profit
corporation organized and operated exclusively for charitable purposes and in
particular to preserve Armenian Culture of Americans of Armenian descent and support
other educational and charitable organizations.

*pronounced [coo-YUM-jun]

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
RISING STARS: Seeing talented teenagers passionately follow their dreams is such a thrill. The Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation is ahead of the game, for it fosters, promotes, and encourages young people in the St. Louis region to discover and participate in the joy and wonder of live performances.
Besides the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition, the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation also produces a variety of other performing arts programs that focus on youth including Kids’ Night at the Fabulous Fox, Broadway Master Classes, Educational Encores, and is a producing partner of the 2nd Annual St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards.
This Sunday, they are sponsoring a free event that will feature 25 entertainment acts, including finalists from the 8th Annual St. Louis Teen Talent Competition and nomineees from the 2nd Annual St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards:

The High Schooll Musical Theatre Awards representatives include: Outstanding Lead Actress winner Maggie Kuntz and nominees Paige Terch. Meg Gorton and  Sydney Jones
Outstanding Lead Actor nominees Tony Merritt and Jared Goudsmit.
Outstanding Supporting Actress nominees Annelise Laakko, Natalie Brown and Haley Driver.
The Teen Talent Showcase representatives include pianists John Yanev and Robyne Sieh, singers Morgan Taylor, Josh Royal, Bennett English and Jennifer Ferry; dancers Arielle Adams, De’Jai Walker, Madison Alexander, Megan Mayer, Brooke Reese, Hillary Zgonina, Kelsey Carnes and DessaRae Lampkins; alto sax player Kameron Huff and TBD (Lilliana Matthews, Aaron Moore, Everett Remstedt, Allan Stacy and Jalen Thompson.
The Rising Stars Showcase featuring the Stars of Tomorrow will take place on Sunday, Aug. 5, at 2 p.m. at The Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis. Admission is free and it is open to the public. For more information, visit: www.foxpacf.org.
 
Photo Maggie Kuntz, Dolly Levi in Cor Jesu’s “Hello,Dolly!” She went on to compete in the National Jimmy Awards.
***
EXPLORE ST. LOUIS:  St. Louis will be rolling out the red carpet when throngs come to the city for the 100th PGA Championship Aug. 6 – 12 at the Bellerive Country Club.
Have you seen the four commercials that award-winning actor and St. Louis native Sterling K. Brown has done for the St. Louis Visitors and Convention Bureau? The 30-second segments are “Arch,” “Blues,” “Family Fun” and “Neighborhoods.”

Local actor, playwright and theater booster Stephen Peirick played Merriwether to Matt Lindhardt’s Lewis in the “Arch” commercial. He said Sterling was kind and introduced himself before they started working on the spot.
If you want to see the commercials or find out more about what’s happening here in August, check out www.explorestl.com.
 
***
GO SEE A PLAY POLL: Meet at the Muny for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the finale of the Muny’s Centennial Season! Those who send in their choice in the poll will be placed in a drawing for two tickets to any performance of “Meet Me in St. Louis” from Aug. 4 – 12 at the Muny in Forest Park.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” was a 1944 MGM movie before it was adapted as a stage musical in 1989, although the Muny presented it before that.in the 1960s and ’70s.
This 2018 production will feature a revised book by Gordon Greenberg and new orchestrations by John McDaniel is the first since 2009, and the eighth overall.
McDaniel, a Grammy, Tony and Emmy-winning producer, composer, conductor and pianist is from St. Louis. He was Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show bandleader from 1996 to 2002, and has worked with the Muny before, on the 2012 “Pirates!”
Poll Question for Ticket Drawing: What is your favorite movie that either takes place in St. Louis or was shot in St. Louis?
“The Game of Their Lives”“The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery”“King of the Hill”“Meet Me in St. Louis”“Up in the Air”“White Palace”
Send your selection by email to: [email protected] by 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3. Please include your phone number. The winner will be notified, and arrangements will be made with the Muny for the night you choose.
Our July 28 poll winner was Robert Kapeller of St. Louis. He won two tickets to “Evita” at The Rep on Sept. 7. As for the favorite girlfriends musical, “Wicked” won in a landslide.
***
DOWN MEMORY LANE: The first time I saw the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis” was at a free showing at the downtown Famous Barr department store the summer of 1974. They had special events and exhibits in honor of the 70th anniversary of the World’s Fair in St. Louis and showed the movie for free in their ninth floor exhibition hall. (That’s what was transformed into the holiday world extravaganza at Christmastime.) At the movie, they sold specially-priced iced tea and hot dogs, two refreshments who made their debut in 1904.
Sally Benson’s “Kensington Stories” was the basis for the movie, and her family lived at 5135 Kensington in north St. Louis city. The house is long-gone but this is what it once looked like, pictured at left.
***
 
 
TRIVIA TIME-OUT: Forty years ago, the first National Lampoon movie, “Animal House” premiered. This groundbreaking movie first shown on July 28, 1978 spawned many knockoffs and launched the careers of many young stars, including the first film by SNL breakthrough John Belushi. (And is very helpful in the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game).
Question: Who are the two people associated with the movie that have a local connection?
Answer: Writer Harold Ramis attended Washington University, Class of 1966, and used his college days as a member of Zeta Beta Tau for inspiration. He would go on to fame as a writer, actor (“Ghostbusters”) and director (“Groundhog Day”), and returned to his roots here. He served two terms on the Washington University board of trustees and was master of ceremonies for Homecoming in 1984. Here is a 1979 photo of him back in a Wash U frathouse.

Karen Allen, who played Katy, was born in Carrollton, Ill. Her mother was from Jerseyville and her father from Roodhouse, and she spent summers visiting her grandparents in Jersey County after his FBI work took them to other cities for her first 10 years. Her father went to Washington University after her parents married; they met at Illinois College in Jacksonville.
I interviewed the delightful and very active Allen two years ago when she was being honored by the St. Louis International Film Festival. She said she enjoys seeing cast members at film reunion events.

At left she is shown with Peter Riegert. “Animal House” was her first movie.
To read more about her life, here is my feature in the Belleville News-Democrat. https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article114225998.html
***WORD: Wise advice from the late great screenwriter, actor and director Harold Ramis:
“There’s a great rabbinical motto that says you start each day with a note in each pocket. One note says, “The world was created for you today,” and the other note says, “I’m a speck of dust in a meaningless universe,” and you have to balance both things.”
“No one will laugh at how great things are for somebody.”
“My only conclusion about structure is that nothing works if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell.”
― Harold Ramis (1944 – 2014)
***
WINNERS CIRCLE: Cinema St. Louis handed out awards for the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase on July 22. This year’s event featured 107 films, and some advanced to the 27th annual St. Louis International Film Festival Nov. 1 – 11. These are the juried award winners that were written, directed, edited, or produced by St. Louis residents or films with strong local ties.
DOCUMENTARIES
Best Use of Music: Busking on the Wagon, Randy Shinn and Drew Gowran
Best Sound: Such and Such, Cory Byers
Best Editing: Gateway Sound, Justin Fisher and Patrick Lawrence
Best Cinematography: Lingua Francas, David Christopher Pitt
Best Local Subject: The Man Behind the Merferds, Phil Berwick
Best Direction: Lisa Boyd, An American Tragedy
Best Documentary Short: For a Better Life, Yasmin Mistry
Best Documentary Feature: Gateway Sound, Justin Fisher
EXPERIMENTAL
Best Experimental Film: Passages in Revisiting: I Hear Someone Playing Urheen, Xinyue Deng
NARRATIVES
Best Costumes: Shutter, Nancy Eppert and Maude Vintage
Best Makeup/Hairstyling: East Plains: Get Out!, Jessica Dana
Best Use of Music: The Wedding Song, Ben Stanton, Thia Schuessler and Will Dickerson
Best Sound: Strings, Ross Mercer, Ryan Kneezle and Theo Lodato
Best Production Design/Art Direction: Parallel Chords, Gypsi Pate
Best Special/Visual Effects: Dawn of Man, Vlad Sarkisov
Best Editing: MLM, Benjamin Dewhurst
Best Cinematography: Parallel Chords, Kyle Krupinksi
Best Screenplay: Foxes, Tristan Taylor and Garrick BernardBest Actor: Ayinde Howell, Foxes
Best Actress: Jackie Kelly, Mother of Calamity
Best Direction: Richard Louis Ulrich, Steve
Best Animated Film: Tiffanys, Caitlin Chiusano, Sean Esser and Zhara Honore
Best Comedy: Cabin Killer, Michael Rich
Best Drama: Saint Sinner, Brian Cooksey
Best Narrative Short: Foxes, Tristan Taylor
Best Narrative Feature: Parallel Chords, Catherine Dudley-Rose
To see the list of films selected for SLIFF, visit www.cinemastlouis.org
Pictured are Best Actor Aynde Howell of “Foxes” and Best Actress Jackie Kelly of “Mother of Calamity” on the Showcase program.
***
Have any tidbits for the column? Please contact Lynn Venhaus at: [email protected]
Featured photo of ‘Meet Me in St. Louis” from Tams-Witmark. Harold Ramis photos from Washington University archives.