By Lynn Venhaus
The show will go on this summer at The Muny – but the 103rd season will start later and be shorter because of the coronavirus pandemic challenges.
After meeting with St. Louis public health officials, The Muny leadership modified plans for a 2021 season of seven shows to five, moved two musicals to next year and pushed back the opening production to July 26.
The Muny’s internal COVID-19 Compliance Task Force, which includes infectious disease experts, developed a plan for attendees, including reducing capacity to 60% to meet the recently updated social distancing guidelines from the city of St. Louis.
With a later start date, The Muny and the city hope the health landscape will continue to improve, providing patrons more comfort and certainty when heading to the theatre.
“The City of St. Louis Department of Health has partnered with The Muny to bring you a safe and enjoyable experience this summer,” said Dr. Fredrick Echols, acting director of health. “By establishing COVID-19 guidelines and collaborating through the planning process, we feel The Muny is well positioned to welcome theater-goers back safely, allowing many who depend on these summertime jobs to provide for their families.”
During the summer, the Muny employs 800 part-time workers in addition to its 35 full-time staff members.
The revised five-show schedule includes “Smokey Joe’s Café,” July 26 – Aug. 1; “The Sound of Music,” Aug. 3-9; “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” Aug. 12-18; “On Your Feet,” Aug. 21-27; and “Chicago,” Aug. 30-Sept. 5.
Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s “Mary Poppins” and “Sweeney Todd” will move to the 2022 season.
The Muny is the nation’s largest and oldest outdoor musical theatre and seats about 11,000. As one of the premier institutions in musical theatre, they usually produce seven musicals each year and welcome more than 350,000 theatregoers over a nine-week season.
Last year, for the first time in 102 years, The Muny stage remained empty because of the public health crisis, with plans moved to this summer, if conditions allowed.
Recently, new Centers for Disease Control guidelines for fully vaccinated people and eased public health restrictions in Illinois and Missouri were announced. To comply with the city, the Muny has established guidelines on social distancing, face coverings, staff health screenings and other mitigation efforts.
Managing Director Kwofe Coleman said it was a well-thought-out decision. As they did last year, they had evaluated every aspect of its operation in relation to their audience, staff, cast, crew and community, with health and safety foremost in everyone’s minds.
“From city leadership to the hundreds who bring theatre to life on our stage each summer, a remarkable sense of collaboration among everyone involved has made it possible for us to safely welcome this community back to its theatre this summer,” Coleman said. “It will be a remarkable moment of hope and relief to see the audience gather and the lights go on. We’ve missed that.”
Fully vaccinated patrons will not be required to wear masks at The Muny. Patrons who are not yet fully vaccinated are strongly encouraged to wear masks on campus, unless actively eating or drinking.
For this season, social distancing will be required in all areas of the theatre. Patrons will be ticketed in groups of six or less with a minimum distance of 3 feet between parties in all directions (right, left, front and behind).
For the safety of patrons and employees, the event staff will wear masks. In addition, all full-time employees and event staff will be subject to daily health screenings before entering The Muny campus.
Concession stands, kiosks and other retail transactions made on The Muny campus will be cashless and only offer credit, debit or Muny gift card payment options.
Muny President and CEO Denny Reagan said he and the entire Muny family was thrilled to share their plans for the return of live theatre to Forest Park.
“To say we’ve missed our in-person audiences would be a vast understatement. We are overjoyed to welcome St. Louis back to its summer home for musical theatre and ready for many magical nights ahead,” he said.
The return is welcomed by a large contingent of collaborators, said Muny Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson.
“For every actor, designer, painter, musician, choreographer — well, everyone who creates at The Muny, the unprecedented past 16 months have been arduous. Knowing we’re returning to do what we do and be who we are is electrifying,” Isaacson said.
The casts and creative teams will be announced in a few weeks, Coleman said.
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, who said her first job at age 16 was as an usher at the Muny, said she welcomed the return to Forest Park after last season’s cancellation.
“I look forward to this cultural icon bringing people back from all over into Forest Park, and hope everyone who visits takes the necessary precautions to protect the health and safety of fellow Muny patrons, performers and workers,” Jones said.
To allow a continuous stream of physically distanced patrons to pass through security checkpoints without the delays typically associated with bag checks and handheld metal detection devices, or wands, the Muny campus has deployed new state-of-the-art metal detection scanners.
For patron convenience, hand sanitizer dispensers will be widely available throughout the Muny campus.
The current season ticket holders for the 2021 season will be contacted personally with detailed information regarding updated seating options.
New subscriptions for the 2021 five-show package will begin June 21, with single tickets becoming available July 5.
Previously, in mid-March, season tickets went on sale for the 103rd season, planning to start weeks later than usual, on July 5 and run through Sept. 5.
But because of the ongoing pandemic and public health restrictions, the Muny management said they would officially make an announcement in May: “A final decision regarding the status of the 2021 season will be made in late spring based on the current health landscape, best practices and all available information.”
The five shows scheduled were top vote-getters from the 101st season survey in 2019.
Two shows are Muny premieres – “Smokey Joe’s Café,” Broadway’s longest running musical revue, which will be set in St. Louis’ historic Gaslight Square, and “On Your Feet!”, the Gloria Estefan musical, which is also the Midwestern regional premiere.
Kander and Ebb’s six-time Tony Award-winning “Chicago” was last seen in 2012. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “The Sound of Music” returns after 11 years for its 11th run. The Golden Age Muny favorite, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” will make its sixth appearance, not since 2011.
“It’s a good mix,” Coleman said. “We pick shows that we hope people are going to enjoy. The main thing is that people are coming back to the Muny and we get to be a community again. It will be an exciting moment.”
Without live shows last summer, the Muny pivoted with virtual programming, producing a free five-episode series, “The Muny 2020 Summer Variety Hour Live!” and airing Muny Magic concerts presented at The Sheldon in the off-season.
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.
The activities at #1 Muny Drive have continued. The stage is being installed and construction is on track.
Because the aging 11.5-acre campus needs upkeep and maintenance, 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 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.
Coleman, who started at The Muny as a seasonal employee when he was 16, was announced recently as the theatre’s next president and CEO, succeeding Denny Reagan, who is retiring after 53 years. He begins the new position on Jan. 1, 2022.
Their mission, continued since establishing a home in Forest Park as the Municipal Opera in 1918, is to be accessible to all.
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 for walk-up service. However, the box office is available via phone for internet and phone sales.
All Muny Patron Policies and Sanitation Guidelines are available on The Muny website. Policies will also be communicated in preshow emails to patrons. Campus signage will be located at entrances and throughout public spaces to encourage proper physical distancing, hand sanitation, face covering policies and safety guidelines.
To stay connected virtually and to receive the latest updates, you can sign up for Muny emails or follow The Muny on their social media channels, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.