California Musical Theatre (CMT), once known as Sacramento Light Opera Association, is Sacramento’s oldest professional performing arts organization and California’s largest nonprofit musical theatre company. CMT was born in a parking lot, the product of a fortunate convergence of local boosterism and Broadway know-how, prudent business practices and theatrical artistry, compatible personalities and simple good luck.
In 1949, theatrical innovator St. John Terrell set up a circus tent in an empty New Jersey field and began producing musical plays. The Music Circus, as Terrell’s hybrid was called, mixed familiar but disparate elements of theatre in a combination no one had ever tried before: the informality of the circus; the arena layout that afforded everyone a good seat; the summer-camp, Chautauqua-style ambiance; and the musicals themselves, then, as now, the first choice with theatregoers. It took the Eastern Seaboard by storm. From their headquarters in Los Angeles, Russell Lewis and Howard Young were watching closely.
Lewis and Young had produced eight shows on Broadway and 27 for national tours before heading west after their World War II service. They were considering setting up a music circus on the West Coast when they got a call from Eleanor McClatchy, president of The Sacramento Bee and the city’s foremost theatrical “angel.” The founder of the Civic Repertory Theater, one of the city’s leading amateur troupes, she was determined to bring professional quality theatre – in particular, musical theatre – to Sacramento. McClatchy invited Lewis and Young up for a look around. The three hit it off from the start. After two meetings and a few phone calls, the deal was done: In 1951, Lewis and Young Productions launched Sacramento Music Circus – the first professional musical theatre-in-the-round west of the Mississippi and only the fourth in the entire country – in the Civic Repertory Theater parking lot. It was an instant success, the “in” thing to do on a summer evening.
Under Lewis and Young’s direction, Music Circus, formally incorporated as the Sacramento Light Opera Association (SLOA) in 1953, put its hometown on the theatrical map. With Lewis overseeing artistic details and Young tending to the business side of the enterprise, the partners quickly impressed professional actors across the country by bringing Broadway production values to the tent.
Over the years, Sacramento Music Circus became known as one of America’s most fertile acting nurseries. “It would be impossible,” Young once said, “to recall all the people who have used Music Circus as a training ground – a stepping stone to Broadway, film and television.” Among the unknowns who later made the trip to the big time are Madeline Kahn, a rather comic Magnolia in Show Boat (1969); Joel Grey, an impish Huck Finn in Tom Sawyer (1960); and Eileen Brennan, an earthy Queen Guinevere in Camelot (1967).
Established stars also took their turns under the big blue-and-green tent, thanks to the producers’ Broadway connections. The mix of seasoned performers and enthusiastic newcomers, familiar shows with innovative stagings, and the outdoor, casual ambiance added to the distinctive Music Circus experience. As Lewis once said, “There’s something about the tent and the courtyard. There’s something about people strolling in the half-light to their seats. It’s a lovely, quiet thing to do.”
Those half-lit summer nights have ushered thousands of Sacramento residents to their first experience with live theatre. Over the years more than 400 productions of some 150 different musicals have graced the round Music Circus stage, with the classics of the genre – Show Boat, The King and I, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma!, for example – always well represented. Parents who were taken to Music Circus by their parents are now bringing their own children there.
Until 2002, Music Circus productions were presented under a canvas tent, the last of its kind in the country. In 2003, on the same site as the original canvas tent, California Musical Theatre opened the Wells Fargo Pavilion, which combines the traditional arena stage with improved audience comfort. Music Circus is the largest continually operating musical theatre-in-the-round in the country, making it a landmark in the professional theatre community. Indeed, Music Circus has become a Sacramento summer tradition, an annual gathering place for families and friends of all ages to experience the magic of live theatre.
California Musical Theatre introduced the Broadway Series in 1989 as a wintertime companion to Music Circus. Renamed Broadway Sacramento in 2007, the indoor series, presented at Sacramento Community Center Theater, offers touring productions of newer works, many still playing on Broadway, as well as major revivals of established musicals.
In December 1992 Lewis died at age 84. Young, his partner for over half a century, died the following spring at age 81, less than a year after receiving the Founders’ Award from the National Alliance for Musical Theatre for his decades of leadership in American stagecraft. Lewis and Young were succeeded by Producing Director Leland Ball, who strengthened and expanded Music Circus and the Broadway Series.
In February 1994 The Broadway Series production of West Side Story was selected for presentation at the United Nations Center in Vienna in six performances to benefit the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
In 1998, Ball and CMT were recognized by Actors’ Equity Association with the Rosetta LeNoire Award for contributions to increased diversity within the American theatre. The award marked the first time a musical theatre or a West Coast theatre had been recognized with the award. According to Alan Eisenberg, Equity’s Executive Director, the theatre deserved the award because of its long-term leadership in non-traditional casting.
CMT is the only theatre in the nation to receive five consecutive annual education grants from the Broadway League and the Theatre Development Fund. CMT’s innovative educational programming and youth activities, widely emulated by other theatres, were honored with the 2001 Heart of a Hero Award from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
Music Circus was inducted into the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame in acknowledgment of its long-term commitment to the growth, welfare and development of the region. Music Circus was the first performing arts group to be inducted.
In 2003, Music Circus moved to a permanent indoor venue on the site of the canvas big top. The new theatre, the Wells Fargo Pavilion, allows for greater audience comfort and a myriad of artistic improvements, but is true to the tradition of tent theatre in the round.
Today, CMT is under the direction of President & CEO Richard Lewis (son of founder Russell Lewis), Executive Producer & COO Scott Klier, and Artistic Director Glenn Casale.