California Musical Theatre (once known as Sacramento Light Opera Association) – the Capital City’s oldest professional performing arts organization and California’s largest nonprofit musical theatre company 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: Lewis and Young Productions launched Sacramento Music Circus – the first of the new "tune-tents" 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.
"A Lovely, Quiet Thing to Do"
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 Guenevere 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 Sacramentans to their first experience with live theatre. Over the years more than 400 productions of some 150 different musicals had graced the round Music Circus stage, with the classics of the genre – Show Boat, The King and I, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma! and the like – always well represented.
On the Cutting Edge
To survive, however, every theatre must learn to adapt, to offer something beyond the expected. Always on the cutting edge, California Musical Theatre introduced the Broadway Series in 1989 as a wintertime companion to Music Circus. An indoor series at the Sacramento Community Center’s proscenium theatre, the Broadway Series offers newer works – many still playing on the Great White Way – and major revivals of established musicals.
But fate has a way of writing changes to the script. 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.
Today, CMT is under the direction of Executive Producer Richard Lewis. In the past several years, CMT has reached a number of artistic milestones. 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 League of American Theatres and Producers 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, CMT opened a new permanent Music Circus tent 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.