Judith Newmark’s book tells the story of St. Louis’ venerable summer stage

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Since 1919, The Muny in Forest Park has been a unique St. Louis treasure, providing musical theatrical shows, both familiar and new to appreciative audiences each summer.

Judith Newmark, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch theater critic, has just published a sumptuous and celebratory book, Songs of St. Louis Summers: The Muny, which chronicles the incredible history of the unique St. Louis musical theater venue with splendidly-crafted prose, augmented by hundreds of nostalgia-evoking photographs from the archives of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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Newmark is best known to St. Louis readers for her excellent theater reviews which appear regularly in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She has reviewed scores of plays at The Muny during her career, up to and including last week’s breathtaking debut performance of Les Miserables, which she described as “superb,” and “the show of the summer.” Newmark also did a sidebar piece on how the actors, actresses, crew and orchestra coped with the record-breaking heat which gripped St. Louis on opening night.

“The Muny presents some shows with religious subjects — Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” writes Newmark. “But Les Miserables may be the most spiritual show ever to have played here in a long time. It’s an impressive conclusion to The Muny’s 2007 season: serious, smart and beautifully performed.”

Newmark’s writing is also consistently serious and smart in its own right, and she brings those skills to her impressive book, which is both informative as well as entertaining, just as are many of the productions at The Muny.

The modest jacket bio mentions that Judith Newmark “is a native of St. Louis (who) started going to The Muny in the free seats with her sister and her parents when she was so little that she sat in her father’s lap. Over the years her seats have gotten much closer, but never more comfortable.”

Newmark is a serious critic who “calls them like she sees them,” and can be highly critical of shows or elements in shows which she feels do not work. In Songs of St. Louis Summers: The Muny, she combines her critical insights with the wonderment of her childhood self who sat on her father’s lap in the free seats.

The book has all of the good features of a lavish “coffee table book,” with a well-researched and interesting history of a unique and in many ways amazing theatrical venue.

The book can be enjoyed on a leisurely afternoon just by thumbing through the terrific Post-Dispatch photographs, but the sharply written and informative text should not be ignored.

Newmark organizes the book into convenient sections covering all aspects of The Muny experience: The Scope; The Stars; The Chorus; At Rehearsal; Behind the Scenes; The Music; Special Twists; The Weather; The Crowd, and The Shows, making it easy to turn right to a given area of interest.

The “Scope of The Muny” is deservedly given a chapter of its own, which Newmark begins with an amusing fact: “A favorite St. Louis urban legend isn’t true. No Broadway star every stepped onto The Muny stage, looked out at the size of the house, and fainted,” she writes.

“In terms of size, there isn’t much to rival The Muny, the biggest outdoor theater in the United States and one of biggest anywhere. Even its statistics boggle the imagination.” She notes, “The Muny seats an audience of 10,779. Looking for a comparison? A typical Broadway theater seats about 1,200.”

The Muny’s vastness can be truly breathtaking not only to the performers but to the audience. It is important, no matter where you are seated, to stand up and look back at the seemingly endless rows of seats that stretch back what appears to be the combined length of several football fields.

And Newmark’s comparison with Broadway venues is indeed on the money. St. Louisans who get tickets to first-run Broadway plays are often disappointed by the relatively puny size of venues on the Great White Way.

Small wonder that while no Broadway star ever actually fainted upon seeing the vast audience, “everybody who believed it had good reason,” according to Newmark.

The section on The Scope of The Muny is accompanied by a vintage photograph from 1920’s season, proving that “from the start, The Muny draws — and accommodates — big crowds.”

In the section on The Stars, Muny fans can find a compilation of some of the “big name” entertainers whose talents have graced the huge stage, including “Ethel Merman and Zero Mostel, Lauren Bacall and Yul Brynner, Pearl Bailey and Joel Grey,” described by Newmark as “marquee names. Neon names. Broadway names. They’re Muny names as well.”

Readers of the St. Louis Jewish Light will be interested in the fact that of the names highlighted by Newmark are such Jewish entertainers as Zero Mostel, who was Tevye in one of several Muny productions of Fiddler on the Roof; Lauren Bacall, whose given name is Betty Perske, the nice Jewish girl who became Humphrey Bogart’s wife and Joel Grey, best known for his Tony Award winning portrayal of the demonic emcee in Cabaret.

Newmark gives deserved recognition to Paul Blake, who became executive producer of The Muny in 1990, who “returned the outdoor theater to its roots, staging virtually every show at The Muny and for The Muny. Observing that there are many more talented performers than famous ones, Blake shifted the emphasis from big names and put it on big shows instead.”

The Muny also continues its decades-long tradition of using large numbers of local talent, including ensembles of children and young adults who often fill out The Muny’s huge stage, as was the case in the recent and excellent productions of Joseph and the Amazing Techniclor Dreamcoat and Les Miserables.

Even though The Muny now presents some edgier and more “adult oriented” shows than in its past, it is still a very “family friendly” place, evoking Judith Newmark’s memories of her own childhood with her family, in the free seats.

“It is not unusual to see children in The Muny audience costumed like the characters onstage,” she notes in the section on The Crowd.

The words describe an adorable color photograph of Kathy Rose helping her two daughters with their costumes which they wore to see The Wizard of Oz; Taylor was dressed as the Wicked Witch and Madison was dressed as Dorothy.

In the section entitled “The Shows,” Newmark asks, “What would today’s audience make of The Muny’s first seasons? And what would those first Muny-goers think of shows like Gypsy, La Cage aux Folles and Grease?” She adds that “The early fashion for operettas and breezy revues took a sharp turn in 1927, when Show Boat, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, made its Broadway debut.”

Newmark credits Show Boat for having “fundamentally changed musical theater. Naturally that meant changes for The Muny — where Show Boat debuted just three years after its Broadway premiere.”

There are numerous Jewish composers, writers and artists singled out by Newmark as among “the most theatrical artists of the mid-20th century: Kern, Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe,” of whom only Cole Porter was not Jewish.

Indeed, Broadway and American musical theater has been profoundly influence by great Jewish writers, actors, actresses, dancers and musicians, making Newmark’s book a treat for both Jewish and general audiences.

As The Muny moved dramatically into the 21st century with its stunning debut production of Les Miserables, which received a highly favorable review from Judith Newmark, it continues the wonderful tradition that she recalls as the child sitting on the most comfortable seat in the house of 10,000-plus: her father’s lap.

Both Newmark’s superb appreciation of theater and her warm affection for The Muny shine through in Songs of St. Louis Summers: The Muny, which is in bookstores now.

Go out and grab a copy; it is a book to savor now and well into the future.