The idea for Sacramentos Music Circus has an astounding quality to it. Put professional theater productions in the round. Nobody does that. Nobody west of the Mississippi, anyway. Make it musical theater, classics of the truly American art form and run the productions one week at a time. Thats what producers Russell Lewis and Howard Young did in 1951 at the request of Eleanor McClatchy, the longtime president of The Bee.
What they started in a temporary canvas tent 63 years ago has become not only a beloved regional institution but the largest nonprofit musical theater in California. Originally known as the Sacramento Light Opera Association, the company is now called California Musical Theatre,e responsible for Music Circus and the Broadway Sacramento Series of national touring shows as well.
In 2003 the Music Circus moved into a new permanent $12 million air-conditioned, state-of-the-art facility on the site of the original tent. Still it is the summer season of original productions created just for the Sacramento audiences that are the heart and soul of CMT.
Its something that is so uniquely special, said Richard Lewis, president and CEO of CMT. Lewis, the son of founder Russell Lewis, grew up around the business, moving from selling programs to stage managing and now running the company.
To a large degree, Music Circus what we do and what we were able to achieve even under the old canvas tent really provides heart to this community, Lewis said.
Going to the theater, and in particular something so intimate, is very important around here. Going to the Music Circus has truly become a summertime tradition. In 1951 people were showing up wearing ties and coats. I know it was just as hot then as it is now.
Show Boat, considered the first modern story-based musical, was the original show Lewis and Young produced in the canvas tent erected in the parking lot of the old Civic Repertory Theatre at 14th and H streets.
Since then more than 400 productions of 150 musicals have graced the circular Music Circus stage.
Producing theater in the round makes the Music Circus unique. While it allows for greater intimacy for the patrons (the theater seats 2,200), the configuration also creates significant artistic challenges.
There are no walls to hang scenery on and whatever sets are erected on stage must be minimal to allow all of the audience to see action unfolding on stage.
With no real backstage, actor entrances and exits occur on one of four ramps leading to the stage from outside the theater.
Music Circus has always staged classic musical theater titles, from My Fair Lady and Oklahoma! to more modern shows such as Les Misérables and Jesus Christ Superstar. But there was also a time when popular stars came to town. Variety shows by John Davidson, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Engelbert Humperdinck and others were featured for a time, and even the show musicals had stars attached. Gradually the audiences decided they just wanted the shows done well, stars or no stars. The producers were happy to oblige and began casting the best talent out of New York, Los Angeles and here in Sacramento.
Weve grown as Sacramento has grown, Lewis said. Music Circus has evolved as Sacramento has evolved. Its not about growing up or growing older, its about evolution.
When Music Circus built its permanent indoor venue on the site of the canvas big top, Lewis said the goal was preservation.
Weve preserved not only the Music Circus as an institution by giving it a permanent home, but we also preserved the biggest thing that the audience wanted to hold on to their relationship to the stage.
The 32-foot-diameter stage remained at the center of the building with new amenities including air conditioning, upholstered theater seats and more restroom facilities.
Unlike the old tent, which required large support posts, the new theater has unobstructed views of the circular stage from all 2,200 seats, as well as greatly improved wheelchair accessibility.
The Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce inducted Music Circus into its Business Hall of Fame, acknowledging the companys commitment to the growth and development of the Sacramento region, making it the first performing arts group so inducted.
CMT Executive Producer Scott Klier believes something magical happens at the Music Circus.
Theres something going on under that roof that has yet to be explained, Klier said.
Theres some sort of molecular exchange between the audience and the actor that is inexplicable but essential to what we do. There is no venue that Ive experienced a show in that does it as well as ours, Klier said. Musical theater is the most life-affirming art form. It celebrates the very best of mankind and incorporates the visual elements, the music, the dance.
Theres no other art form that incorporates other disciplines in one performance like musicals do. It offers our community a unique experience, and its contagious.
Call The Bees Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.