Arts & Theater

Behind the scenes at Music Circus: "The better you are at your job, the less people notice"

Discover the passion behind the scenes as workers prepare for performances inside the warehouse of the Broadway at Music Circus in Sacramento.

What do a Set Designer, Master Carpenter, Costume Shop Supervisor, and Head Stitcher have in common? Come behind the scenes inside the warehouse of the Broadway at Music Circus and discover their passion.
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What do a Set Designer, Master Carpenter, Costume Shop Supervisor, and Head Stitcher have in common? Come behind the scenes inside the warehouse of the Broadway at Music Circus and discover their passion.

On a sweltering afternoon, I walked down the middle row of the middle room in Broadway Sacramento's Production Center. I saw a witch's crystal ball, aged and foggy, with oversized plastic spiders frozen mid-crawl around its edges. I saw a pound of scarlet dynamite connected to a wooden ignition box, as if transplanted from an old-timey Western.

And, at row's end, I saw squares of shiny silver paper scattered about the concrete floor – what Hans and Gretel might have dropped to find their way home had they been 70s-era German technopunks.

I didn't need the paper pieces to navigate the cavernous facility. That's because I had Justin Muñoz, the warehouse director for Broadway Sacramento. He runs the Production Center, a 50,000-square foot locus for set, prop, and costume designers to collaborate with carpenters and metalsmiths and make theatrical scenes come alive.

But this warehouse is more than just a preparatory staging ground. It's a material archive of theater productions past and future, a playbill-turned-museum that represents Broadway Sacramento and the plays they put on.

In the fall, winter, and spring, Broadway Sacramento hosts traveling productions in a program they've recently renamed Broadway on Tour. But the theater company is perhaps best known for its summer series, Broadway at Music Circus.

As Muñoz put it, "it's an entire year's season packed into four months." The program, which began 67 years ago under an actual circus tent, has developed quite a reputation: thousands of Broadway-tenured and Broadway-caliber actors audition for parts in the shows each year, according to Producing Artistic Director Scott Klier. When actors are chosen and arrive, they have a hectic two weeks to rehearse before only five days of frenzied performance.

To prepare for these mad dashes, the center runs year-round. Muñoz averages about 16,000 steps per day, according to his Fitibit, triple an average person's count, as he traipses around the warehouse.

Although Broadway at Music Circus has relied on Muñoz and his team for over 15 years, the warehouse hasn't always been their exclusive hub for theatrical accoutrements.

Props, sets, and extra equipment used to be stored wherever staff could think to put it, in disparate buildings and office spaces on site and around town. The Wells Fargo Pavilion, where Music Circus shows are staged, is in the round, which means seats wrap 360 degrees around the stage like an indoor stadium. This set-up renders the expression "behind-the-scenes" meaningless – there's no "behind" when every angle faces the stage.

Over the past few years, Muñoz spearheaded the effort to centralize all aspects of Music Circus besides the talent at the warehouse. The last element was the costume shop and repository – 176 hats strung up on hangers from end to end, 59 size-40 sport coats, and 15 boxes labeled "Women's Can Can Boots," among other apparel – which was brought to the warehouse this past spring. Now, practically every part of every show is found or made here.

"It means a co-mingling of designers. It makes our product more cohesive, it keeps our teams together, and it's also a free sharing of ideas," Muñoz said.

When I stepped through its open doors last month, the sheer size of the warehouse made it seem more madness than method. Indeed, Music Circus is already pushing up against the space's maximum capacity, Muñoz said. (This has forced the warehouse team to get creative. For instance, some of their old "Sound of Music" set pieces will be re-purposed for "Mamma Mia!," which runs from August 7 to August 12.)

But after spending time exploring the warehouse's large rooms, I "started to see different shows pop up out of the chaos," as Muñoz had predicted.

Near some handsaws, a wood block cut to resemble stacks of newspapers awaited use in "Newsies," a revived show about a Hearst-era newsboy strike in New York, which runs from Tuesday, July 10 to July 15.

Two rooms over, crafts artisan Frances Sarcona stitched a plaid, regency-era bonnet for "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," a dance-heavy romp through Oregon country, which ran in late June.

And in the costume repository, a coat hung, one piece of the costume package for the original Broadway production of "Into the Woods."

"What we have here is not just part of Sacramento history, but of theater history as a whole," Muñoz said.

Too often, that theater history is defined exclusively by what an audience sees on-stage. For stagehands, "the better you are at your job, the less people notice," Muñoz said.

But in this warehouse, the builders' genius with improvisation comes to life.

Muñoz pointed to what looked like an early 20th-century camera on a tripod. "That lens?" he said. "It's a pie tin. And the one above it is a to-go coffee mug."

What happens in a theater performance is defined by its separation from the actual world, by that proverbial fourth wall, which makes the fiction of the stage real.

In the open warehouse, artifacts from more than 150 realities cohabitate. Everything stands next to everything, 1930s Weimar Republic inches away from an exotic Greek island adjacent to an eerie New York florist shop. With no fourth wall to keep disbelief suspended, the show is no longer greater than the sum of its parts. It is its parts – and in Music Circus's case, its parts are great on their own.

Muñoz loves giving tours of the warehouse for that very reason – the background becomes the foreground. Sometimes, though, all that can happen on stage, like it did in this summer's opening show, "Singing in the Rain."

"On the last night, I snuck in and watched it rain from the booth. It was amazing," Muñoz said, showing me the special platform he had helped design so that the miniature storm he had also helped to design in the Wells Fargo Pavilion would properly drain from the stage.

"Once it's over, there was that crazy wave, like 'aaaaah!' That's a rush, like, 'we nailed it!' Cause you know people are going to remember it."

In the midst of the warehouse, Muñoz grinned. "When it's that true 'standing O,' that's like theater heroin. That's why we're out here, working and sweating."

If you go

Broadway at Music Circus

Where: Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St., Sacramento

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees 2 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays

Cost: Tickets vary from $45 to $100 by performance; multi-show passes and group tickets available

Upcoming shows: "Disney's Newsies," July 10-15 ($40 kids tickets available); "Gypsy," July 24-29; "Mamma Mia!," Aug. 7-12; "Little Shop of Horrors," Aug. 21-26

More info: (916) 557-1999, broadwaysacramento.com

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