For generations, St. Louisans have flocked to the Municipal Theater in Forest Park, known as the Muny, to fill their summer with musical storytelling. The venerable Muny is currently producing its 99th season, with a little something for everyone in a strong lineup. Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt is thrilled to be back at the Muny, designing two shows this season in collaboration with visiting artists and the core team. Schweikardt is equally happy to be in St. Louis, a place he a affectionately refers to as his “second home.”
Schweikardt is well traveled, mounting shows and seasons for theater companies around the U.S. and in Europe, but he finds St. Louis so engaging that this year he is renting a loft in the Central West End. The choice better connects him with city life and allows him to indulge in another creative outlet: cooking for friends. “I love food,” Schweikardt says, “and I love the restaurant scene in St. Louis as much as I enjoy cooking for friends, the cast and crew.” He raves about Olio, which offers a “fantastic experience in total, not just the excellent food,” as well as Brasserie by Niche and Central Table. Schweikardt is also a fan of local favorite Ted Drewes, finding the frozen custard sweet and delicious, but not overpowering to a guy who tends toward savory flavors.
The mention of Ted Drewes leads Schweikardt to another aspect of St. Louis he enjoys: walking. “I like to walk — often six to seven miles at a time,” Schweikardt says. “The city neighborhoods are fabulous for walking and people watching, but I particularly love walking [Forest] Park. I frequently choose different paths and entry points, and always find something new or interesting. It’s simply a beautiful park with so much to see, and to work in the park, at a theater as well-equipped as the Muny, is an added bonus.”
While Schweikardt enjoys St. Louis’s food and culture, he’s passionate about scenic design and working at the Muny. Schweikardt first became part of the Muny family when director Rob Ruggiero, whom Schweikardt has known since college, requested he design “The King & I.” Schweikardt was pleased by how much he enjoyed working in St. Louis. Since his Muny introduction, he’s returned every year and also designed sets for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. This year, he’s responsible for two sets, including the second offering of the season, “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.”
“Designing for the Muny stage is uniquely challenging,” Schweikardt observes, “but it’s a challenge that delivers rare gifts.” He notes the size and scale of the stage, as well as the need to clearly play from the front row to the very back of the amphitheater with equal success. When you add the constant push to excel at delivering the “magic” — the spectacle, finesse and imaginative touches that take productions over the top — “designing for the Muny becomes a collaborative creative process by necessity,” he says. “You become a family because you work tirelessly to ensure the actors, choreography, costumes and design work together seamlessly.”
For a musical like “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” one that springs from a beloved animated film, the coordinated e ort is doubled. Schweikardt specifically notes the character of Ursula, portrayed by Emily Skinner. Ursula is an anthropomorphic octopus, so the audience needs to see her face and expressions as well as feel her, and her eight tentacles, gliding through the water. A team of four teenage men and an elaborate stage piece-puppet-costume ensure the character comes to life in an awe-inspiring way. “At the same time,” Schweikardt emphasizes, “Director Marcia Milgram Dodge is clear that we’re not trying to recreate the movie on stage. Instead, we’re providing an experience you can’t get from the movie and, hopefully, inspiring creativity. We want little kids to create their interpretation of what they saw. That’s the joy and imagination we want to spark.”
Schweikardt loves the Muny stage because he can take a cinematic approach to the storytelling, using movement, video and choreography to deliver the feel of being underwater. “The costumes and puppets are extensions of the actors,” Schweikardt continues. “To ensure we surprise and delight audiences, particularly children and families that adore the lm, we have to work together.”
As he speaks about his work at the Muny, Schweikardt’s face lights up and his enthusiasm — already high — turns to exuberance. “[Artistic Director and Executive Producer] Mike Isaacson loves his audiences so much,” he says. “He is constantly pushing us to do something new, innovative or unexpected that will make every show memorable and spectacular. This top-down commitment to creativity and excellence is infectious and one of the primary reasons I look forward to returning to St. Louis. The city is clearly supportive of art and culture, and I want to explore more of the local flavor while amazing audiences each night of the season.” M