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As it celebrates its past century, the Muny gears up for big changes

Directly behind the stage at the Muny on a recent morning, workers were hammering, sawing and welding together sets that will appear onstage this season, in some of the theater’s seven productions.

“As we’re performing one show at night we’re actually building two to three other shows during the day,” said Sean Smith, the operations director for the outdoor theater. “We’re finishing up sets for the opening on Monday but then we’re also looking at the next few shows, building for ‘The Wiz,’ which is coming up next.”

As it begins its 100th season this week, the Municipal Theater Association of St. Louis has one eye on the past. But it has another on the future, in the form of series of planned renovations due to be completed after this summer season and before the 2019 campaign.

There have been theatrical performances at Forest Park even before the Muny’s first season in 1919. Three years earlier, an organization of local theater patrons sponsored a production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” there. Afterward the group donated the performance space built for the show to the city, in hopes it would lead to a permanent theater there. In a few years a partnership was formed — an independent theater company performing in a venue owned by the city government.  

The organization is marking its centennial with its first full-fledged capital campaign, seeking to raise $100 million. There have been other upgrades to the property over the years, but the planned renovations amount to a generational shift in the history of the outdoor theater.

“We’re going to start tearing out the stage, our light bridge, those towers, all of that comes down,” Smith said, gesturing to areas on the grounds that he says need improvement. “So when you come out [this summer], you take a look at those towers, the stage, that’ll be the last time you see that. And then we’ve got a completely new design as we come into the next year.”

A short walk from the backstage area, there was a sense of organized chaos at the rehearsal space known as West Terrace. Dozens of performers were milling around, stretching and waiting for a choreographer to call them for their scenes. They were working on the season’s first show, “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” a revue of famous scenes from musicals choreographed by the late theater legend.

The incremental upgrades at the Muny in the past, like new seats and cooling fans, were aimed at improving the audience experience. Though patrons will still reap the benefits from a higher-tech onstage presentation, the organization’s leader said this new round of construction is geared toward retaining high-quality creative talent.

“The facilities here, frankly, are getting old,” said Dennis Reagan, the Muny’s longtime president and CEO. “We have to make sure that we maintain state of the art technology on the stage so that we can attract the best directors, the best choreographers, and the best creative talent, including actors, that we possibly can.”

Reagan said he’s balancing this concern with respect for the familiar experience that longtime Muny fans expect to have when they visit.

Sharon Smith curated an exhibition about the history of the Muny for the Missouri History Museum. She expects the essential experience to remain intact.

“At first I’m like: ‘But I’m always used to seeing it look like this and now it’s going to look like that!’ And it’ll be fine. And it’ll always be still this outdoor canopy with the trees and the sky and the stars. That’s what makes the Muny the Muny,” Smith said.

The theater aims to assure potential donors to its capital campaign that it’s not going anywhere. It’s seeking a 50-year extension of its lease to the property, which is due to expire in 2031. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen is scheduled to discuss that extension on Thursday.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @JeremyDGoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.