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A Homecoming

Washington Native Steven Minning, Who Danced at The Muny for Five Seasons in the ’80s, Is Directing The Muny Season Opener ‘Billy Elliot’

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Posted: Saturday, June 14, 2014 7:00 am

There’s no place like home.

For Steven Minning, a 1971 graduate of Washington High School who has gone on to direct stage productions of shows like “The Lion King” in cities all over the world and is now is St. Louis preparing to direct The Muny’s season opener, “Billy Elliot, the Musical,” that’s more than just a trite saying. It’s a warm truth.

There is something special about being surrounded by your roots, Minning told The Missourian, sitting in the lobby of his St. Louis hotel. He feels more relaxed here.

“I don’t feel the pressure of having to produce,” Minning commented. “It’s work, but I feel very supported by the administration here, where I’ve come from. This just feels great to be back home.”

Making the experience even better is that he’s directing one of his favorite shows and one with which he is long familiar, having been the resident director for the National Broadway Tour of the 2009 Tony Award winning musical.

Minning’s resume includes numerous other high profile roles:

• Assistant managing director for the Off-Broadway Sanctuary Theatre Company’s inaugural production of “Hamlet” starring Rip Torn and Geraldine Page

• Dancing in the original Broadway production of “42nd Street” and the first Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

• Choreographic associate to Tommy Tune on “The Will Rogers Follies.”

• Staging the Coca-Cola 1994 Olympic reception starring Celine Dion.

• Directing the World Cup Opening Ceremonies featuring Liza Minnelli and the B52s.

• Resident director for numerous companies of “Showboat,” directed by Harold Prince and choreographed by Susan Stroman.

• Resident, supervising and associate director for international and national companies of Disney’s “The Lion King,” directed by Julie Taymor.

• Artistic director for Cirque du Soleil’s Asia Pacific tour of “Dralion.”

Pressed to pick a favorite show of his career, Minning put “Billy Elliot” at the top.

“It’s a fine piece of theater put together, ” he said. “It’s just so layered. There’s a lot to it.”

Based on a movie by the same name, “Billy Elliot” tells the story of a young boy living in the north of England and his struggles growing up in a social climate that is very unsettled.

“He stumbles into a ballet class,” said Minning. “He was in a boxing class at the community center . . . and he literally gets caught up in it, and it’s interesting because he’s looking for a place to fit in. He comes from somewhat of a broken family, and there’s no one who’s really paying that much attention to him.”

His mother has passed away, his father and brother are very involved in a strike that has broken out, and his grandmother is a bit dotty. But something in the ballet class speaks to him.

“So it’s about finding your place in life,” said Minning. “I think it speaks to all of us on a much larger level. It’s that story of real human success and soaring.”

The music is by Elton John

“It doesn’t get any better,” Minning remarked. “I think it’s a wonderful show.”

One of the unique aspects of “Billy Elliot” is that so much of the show depends on one boy, the main character, who is usually a boy between the ages of 11 to 14 years old.

“They have to be extraordinary,” said Minning, noting in the tours, he had four boys who alternated shows. “They are fine athletes. They can sing, do tap and ballet. They are really amazing, these kids.”

Eleven-year-old Tade Biesinger, who will portray Billy in The Muny production next week, performed the role of Fritz in Ballet West’s “Nutcracker.” At age 9, he won the title of National Mini Outstanding Dancer for West Coast Dance Explosion and was the National Male Mini Dancer for the New York City Dance Alliance at age 10.

He made his Broadway debut in “Billy Elliot” playing the title character. He also performed the role of Billy on London’s West End.

Minning auditioned all the people who will be in the show at The Muny. Many of them were in the Broadway show or the national tours, and he called them to see if they were available because they were already familiar with the show.

“ ‘Billy Elliot’ is very detail oriented,” said Minning. “It was first a movie, so it’s directed like a movie. There’s a lot of detail in it, and to get all that detail in is the challenge for the week.

“So if we could get people who had done it before, and who were successful, they know already a lot of those details. Then it’s just about putting it into a different scenario because our set is different here. The blocking, the staging, there will be some different conceptual things because it’s The Muny versus a black box or The Fox or somewhere else.”

The Muny production of “Billy Elliot, The Musical” runs June 16-22.

His First Was a ‘Tent Show’ in Washington

Long before Minning, son of the late William and June Minning, ever thought about having a career in theater, he put on “a tent show” for the neighborhood kids. On his website, www.stevenminning.com, he recalls that experience:

“My circuitous route to New York began when I threw my father’s heavy painted-stained tarpaulin over the backyard swing set and captured a lightning bug in the mason jar . . . with holes punched in the lid.

“I charged my neighbors 2 cents to view my wonder and my ‘act’ was an immediate sensation. I had to expand! But how to top the lightning bugs? One afternoon, my next door neighbor showed me the backbend she learned in acrobatic class earlier that week. That was it! The fact that the human body could be made to perform such a feat was a marvel that I was convinced everyone had to see.”

Minning guesses he was about 8 or 9 years old at the time, an age when for kids, “anything can be anything.

“That’s what’s great about it,” he said. “You haven’t learned the rules of what you can’t do. I don’t even think my parents were aware of it. I was just doing it in the backyard.”

In high school, Minning began to fine-tune his theatrical chops, portraying characters like Og the leprechaun in “Finian’s Rainbow.”

After graduation, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in theater from Central Methodist University in Fayette and had plans to start a teaching career.

“I thought that’s what you did — you went and taught,” said Minning, who taught one year at the high school in Potosi. “But I didn’t really enjoy it. I was too young.”

He didn’t feel like he had enough acting and theater experience himself to be teaching it to others, Minning explained.

“I realized I needed to be out in the world doing theater. Teaching could wait.” 

So he enrolled at Emporia State University in Kansas to work on his master’s in theater with a focus on directing.

And, while Kansas may not seem such a likely place to launch a theatrical career, it’s where things really started to happen for Minning, beginning with a job at a dinner theater in Wichita, Kan.

“I saw an ad in the Wichita paper saying that a new dinner theater was opening up and they were looking for performers,” Minning recalled. “I went down to the audition, got the job, there were six of us. It was pretty crazy. It was absolutely insane because the guy who owned the Crown Uptown Dinner Theater, which was this magnificent old restored theater, he bought it and was turning it back to a live theater, but he was way behind. Opening day was coming, and it was a mess.

“So the six of us pulled together a show. Basically we would do these melodramas and Broadway review-type things,” said Minning.

The company that catered the dinner theater also catered other jobs and approached Minning about providing theatrical entertainment for those as well. He agreed and created an entertainment troupe called Backstage out of Wichita, Kan.

“We had nice little shows. I hired people from New York, brought them in and housed them. We did it for about two years,” said Minning, who created, directed and also performed in the shows.

A Dancer Too, Briefly

As a child growing up in Washington, Minning took dance lessons from Gloria Uhrmann.

“I can remember being in her basement, across from the VFW, she had lots of dance classes that she taught,” said Minning.

As a child, he didn’t stick with dancing, but he picked it up again in college, and the year that he taught in Potosi, Minning came into St. Louis for dance classes. He continued with them during graduate school.

“But it was when I went to Kansas that I really got involved with this ballet company, and I was just really lucky because the ballet master, I think he needed more guys in the company, and he saw that I had potential, so he really worked me,” said Minning. “For two years, I worked really hard. I was in ballet class by 8 a.m. and in it all day.

“It gave me a really strong foundation. It was late, but I didn’t go into it to be a professional ballet dancer.”

Over the years, dance fell by the wayside for Minning, but looking back, he can see it played a big role in developing his career.

“That’s what helped when I got to New York,” he said. “I would audition as a performer, and I got in shows. And that’s how I first started working here at The Muny Opera. I did like five seasons at The Muny as a dancer in the early ’80s.”

He lived in New York City, but stayed in St. Louis for the summer for the Muny season. Over the five years, Minning was in about 30 shows at The Muny as a member of the resident company.

Minning had moved to New York after two or three years working professionally in Kansas.

“I just knew that’s where I needed to go,” he said.

For someone growing up in the Midwest who wants to have a professional career in theater, the timing of when to make the move to New York is a personal one, said Minning.

“I just kept following the opportunities that were in front of me, and those were not necessarily New York,” he said. “If I had to do it over again, I probably would do it the same because I thought it was a nice segue.

“I say to people today if they are going to go into theater and if they’re from the Midwest especially, I would suggest they go to Chicago first, because Chicago’s got a great theater scene.”

‘There’s Nothing Like The Muny

Being back at The Muny is “very nostalgic” for Minning, and not just because of his work there in the ’80s, but because he can remember coming to shows here as a child with his family.

“It’s something as a kid, you always looked forward to,” said Minning. “I can remember coming down with Mom to see ‘Bells Are Ringing’ starring Harry Belafonte. I just remember looking at the program and thinkging, ‘Wow! This is major.’ ”

As a venue, The Muny is impressive for its size and the fact that it’s an outdoor stage with seats for some 8,000 people. It is recognized as “America’s oldest and largest outdoor musical theater.”

“There’s something about performing outdoors that’s great,” said Minning. “You can look up at the sky, see the stars, and you know that people are just really enjoying themselves.

“If you go out on that stage and look at all those seats, that’s an amazing thing to look out on 8,000 seats full of people. It’s quite exhilarating.

“You really get a sense of community with the people who come,” he added. “You are doing it in one week stock. It’s an amazing deadline to try to hit . . . Yeah, there’s nothing like The Muny.

Dealing with the threat of rain and St. Louis’ signature heat and humidity is always tricky, but that comes with the territory.

“You just deal with it,” said Minning. “You have to love doing it. No one is making you. You do it because you love it.

“I did like three ‘Fiddlers’ here. It’s based in Russia. It’s heavy coats, wool, in 100-degree temperatures. It was crazy,” said Minning. “You lose a lot of weight.”

Teaching in California

In addition to his work as a professional director, Minning this past year began working as an upper school drama teacher at Menlo School in California’s Silicon Valley.

“I decided to do it, because I decided it was time to start giving back,” he said. “When I first went into teaching I felt like I needed to go out and do it first. Well I feel like I have gone out and done it, so now I can share that information.

“And an opportunity made itself available. I almost tripped over the opportunity, and I thought, why not? It’s been great. I have a beautiful, new creative arts and design center and a very strong and supportive administration.”

Minning and his students put up three shows this year:

“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Our Town” and “The Pirates of Penzance,” which they did outside.

Minning has already signed a contract to teach again at Menlo next year, but that won’t prevent him from any theater work that comes his way. The school wants him to continue to work as a professional director, he said.

Ready to Hang Out at Lions Lake

Wearing a St. Louis Blues T-shirt that reminded him of his parents — Minning’s mom was a big fan, and his dad used to do some work for a man who once owned the Blues — Minning said he’s looking forward to visiting his cousins and extended family in Washington next week once “Billy Elliot” wraps up at The Muny.

“Washington’s a great area. I’m very fortunate to have lived there,” he said. “My roots are still there.

“I can’t wait to finish this and go home for like a week and a half, to go to Lions Lake and just hang out.”

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