The Second Act: Mike Isaacson
“It's rich and fraught. Musical theater is a form that's completely dependent upon total integration of all the physical and artistic forces.”
In an established business, how do you balance the idea of innovation—which can by nature be a little messy—and efficiency? That’s the question that confronted our guest when he took over as the creative force behind The Muny, St. Louis’ storied musical theater venue that’s been staging shows for more than a century.
As the curtain rises for this episode, we meet Mike Isaacson, tapped in 2011 to become the new executive producer and artistic director for The Muny. Yes, The Muny, the 103-year-old outdoor amphitheater in St. Louis’ Forest Park, a massive venue renowned worldwide for drawing audiences to professionally produced musical theater. Cherished as one of the city’s crown jewels, The Muny has drawn stars of stage and screen to perform before its 11,000 seats and, in many ways, is a bellwether of the health of live community theater nationwide.
The business issues raised in today’s episode may be familiar, and the choice of the venue is also compelling for WashU Olin Business School, which recognizes such challenges through its minor in the business of the arts, a program aimed at university undergraduates.
For his part, Mike—a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer with an MBA from St. Louis University—only insisted that he have the chance during the 2011 season to overlap with his predecessor. He reasoned it would minimize the transition required when he took the reins for the 2012 season.
“That's when I saw the depth of the work that was required,” Mike said. “I saw a lot of people breaking down, frustrated, screaming. People who didn’t have what they needed to succeed. I didn’t realize the shape The Muny was in. Shame on me for not knowing that.”
CURTAIN. End of Act I.
Act II of our story examines how Mike diagnosed and began to fix the problems. Dysfunction affected the creative process at The Muny. Before he came along, to streamline the process of staging productions, artists weren’t permitted to collaborate. Mike called it a “factory model” for staging musical productions: It created efficiency and allowed shows to turn over quickly, one week after the next. But Mike found the process sucked out the creativity and affected the product.
Attendance was down. Box seats were sold but a third were empty at showtime. They were wasting money on legacy vendors who weren’t delivering creatively. And Mike frequently met people who expressed their love for the idea of The Muny but couldn’t recall the last time they’d actually been to a show.
It may be an oversimplification, but Mike’s solution was simply to empower Muny artists to have a collaborative part in the creative process. He’s also invested in new technology and theater upgrades, overseeing a transformation in every aspect of production that culminated in 2019 with the arrival of the theater’s new stage and a state-of-the-art stage house that includes revolutionary LED technology and automated sets.
Act III brings Olin faculty context to the process of overhauling and revitalizing a business, which requires that we remind everyone: Theater is a business.
Our final act, the Epilogue, speaks to the results of that work. “My success—the success for the audience—was destroying the pyramid organization and building the organization from the bottom up so people could make a contribution,” Mike said.
This podcast is a production of Washington University in St. Louis’s Olin Business School. Contributors include:
- Katie Wools, Cathy Myrick and Judy Milanovits, creative assistance
- Jill Young Miller, fact checking and creative assistance
- Hayden Molinarolo, original music, sound design and editing
- Sophia Passantino, social media
- Lexie O'Brien and Erik Buschardt, website support
- Mark P. Taylor, strategic support
- Paula Crews, creative vision and strategic support
Special thanks to Ray Irving and his team at WashU Olin’s Center for Digital Education, including our audio engineer, Austin Alred.
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Download the podcast transcript (PDF)