Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Music Circus

This was a feature article which appeared in The Davis Enterprise on July 5, 2007.

Carolyn Tucker boycotted Music Circus for nearly 50 years. “My boyfriend Bob promised to take me to a show,” she explained. But the couple had a fight and Bob took another girl instead. “I vowed I would never to go Music Circus,” she said resolutely.

Happily Carolyn and Bob patched things up and have now been married for nearly 50 years, but because of the bad memories, she steadfastly refused to attend a Music Circus production until someone gave them free tickets a few years ago. “I was thrilled!” she said.

She was so thrilled that they returned the following year to bring granddaughter Samantha to “the big tent” to see “Annie.” “We thought it might be her only chance to see a real stage show,” she explained. Samantha was able to get a backstage pass, to meet the cast and have her picture taken with Sandy, Annie’s dog.

Now the Tuckers attend productions regularly. Carolyn’s all-time favorite musical is “Cats,” while Bob “will see anything.”

As Music Circus gears up for the July 10 opening night of “Les Miserables,” a company premiere, the challenges are massive, but everyone rises to the occasion. This will be the first time that “Les Miserables” has ever been presented in the round and Music Circus is one of only eight theater companies in the country which has been given permission to do their own production. “We’re very proud of that,” says publicist Chris McSwain.

This is the kind of experience which appeals to Louise Wilson, who has performed community theater herself and is a seasoned theater-goer. She feels that theater in the round brings a new dimension to old favorites and she enjoys being introduced to new musicals, like “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” which she loved, and to new staging of old favorites, like “Les Miserables.”

For Lindsay Terry, Music Circus reminds her of her childhood, when she used to participate in school plays. Like Carolyn several years ago, Lindsay plans to introduce her five year old daughter Isabella to theater this summer, also with a Music Circus production of “Annie.”

California Musical Theater’s Music Circus is a Sacramento institution which has brought musical theater hits to the area for nearly sixty years and introduced many new generations of children to theater. Music Circus has offered productions of 157 different musicals, many performed more than once, with “The King and I,” “Oklahoma!” “South Pacific” and “Show Boat” leading the pack at twelve different productions each.

In addition to “Les Miserables,” the 2007 season will include two additional new productions, “Jekyll and Hyde” and “1776,”with old favorites “Nunsense,” “Kiss Me Kate,” and “Annie” filling in the rest of the season.

Music Circus history dates to 1949 when a man named St. John Terrell set up a circus tent in an empty New Jersey field and began producing musical plays. The enterprise was innovative, something that had never been done before, a theater that wasn’t quite a theater, a tent that was more than a tent. The experiment was wildly successful.

Russell Lewis and Howard Young were producers who had worked on Broadway and arranged national tours. Watching the success of Terrell’s “Music Circus,” they wanted to try the same thing on the west coast.

Enter Eleanor McClatchy, then president of The Sacramento Bee and the city’s staunchest supporter of all forms of theater. McClatchy felt that Sacramento audiences would support professional quality theater and she invited Lewis and Young to meet with her. It was a marriage made in heaven.

Lewis & Young Productions raised the Music Circus tent in the summer of 1951 and produced its first season, opening with “Show Boat” on June 19th. The choice of shows would set the tone for subsequent seasons–a mixture of well known titles and lesser known titles, musical and operetta: “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Brigadoon,” “The Desert Song,” “The Great Waltz,” “The Merry Widow,” “Naughty Marietta,” “The Red Mill,” and “Rose Marie.”

(The season does not begin until after the 4th of July and runs through Labor day, with generally a 7-show season, though it has included as many as 10 shows, publicist Chris McSwain says.)

Music Circus became an instant success and despite, the summer heat, people flocked to the big tent for a chance to see quality productions of shows they might never see elsewhere. It was “the” thing to do in the valley in the summer. (“I loved the tent – it was a wonder,” said Carolyn Tucker)

When the brand new 2200 seat Wells Fargo Pavilion opened in 2002, replacing with tent with a real building, the director’s chairs with theater seats, adding air conditioning and improving the sight lines it was a major change for Music Circus.

(“The new building is the difference of night and day,” says Louise Wilson. Lindsay Terry agrees. “There is no bad seat in the house. You never have to worry about something obstructing your view.”)

In 1993, Scott Eckern, then a professor of theater (among other things) at the University of the Pacific was hired as full-time general manager and in 2002 became the artistic director. He remembers the days when “name” stars, like Harv Presnell, Leslie Uggams and Alan Young took the lead roles, a practice which began to change in the 1990s. When they stopped casting familiar celebrities, it allowed them to choose the shows for each season differently. They didn’t have to choose shows by what celebrity was available, but they could hold open auditions for the shows they wanted to present. It allowed them to balance the season better.

“Our mission is to keep the classics alive and also help move the art form forward. You look at the classic pieces like Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Lowe and then add the shows that are the future classics or the newer pieces of musical theater,” explained Eckern. “We try to get a balance. The classics are classic because they are well crafted and they tell good stories, with a solid book. There is a whole generation of actors who haven’t performed many of them.”

Eckern auditions over 2000 actors for some 125 parts. He travels some 14 weeks a year and auditions people in New York, in Los Angeles. “We now cast Tony award nominees and winners, stars on Broadway. Music Circus is ‘the’ summer job to get in the theater.”

“People want to perform with Music Circus,” says Education Director Victoria Plata. “It is a great thing to put on a resume. In Sacramento we’re such an institution that we’re taken for granted. In New York we are considered one of the finest regional theaters in the country.”

(It’s not only the featured players who look forward to Music Circus. Richard Bulda is an example of one of the members of the supporting staff who arranges his summer around the season, and doesn’t make other plans until he’s checked to see into which shows he might fit.)

While Eckern is auditioning performers and Bulda is arranging his summer schedule, Plata is getting ready to welcome her new crop of interns. The internship program, which she “inherited,” allows students to learn about technical theater. Eckern developed a program through American River College where students would receive up to 6 units of theater credit for working 10 weeks during the summer.

Interns rotate through several departments -- costumes, scenic design, and props, and also work with the stage manager. They are also part of the technical crew, those unsung heroes of the Music Circus who run up and down the darkened aisles carrying huge set pieces. Occasionally interns may find themselves on stage in costume for brief periods.

My daughter Jeri worked two seasons at Music Circus, one year as an intern, and another on the paid staff. She found herself on stage several times, for example as part of townspeople raising a ruckus in “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” She also remembers Davis’ Stewart Mayhew playing the delivery boy from the bookseller in “Oliver!” “You don’t hire people to play roles like that,” she says.

Music Circus also has a large volunteer program, coordinated by Bryant King. Volunteers run scenery and work as dressers, for example. There may be some 40-50 volunteers working anywhere from one week or through the entire season.

The company has an arrangement with the local stagehands union and hires two professional stage technicians from the local union to oversee “an army of volunteers,” says stagehand Phil Sequeira. “Usually the hired hands get the biggest, heaviest, most awkward pieces to move.”

The combination of professionals on and off stage, interns, and community volunteers is a part of the flavor of what Music Circus is all about. “It’s a community based organization,” says McSwain, adding that the final component of the “community” is the audience. “I never stop bragging about our audiences,” he says, adding that even the national actors who come in for the Broadway Series in the fall are blown away with the support of Sacramento audiences. “Sacramento has the smartest, most responsive audiences,” brags McSwain.

Louise Wilson, Lindsay Terry and Carolyn Tucker have introduced their own children to theater through Music Circus, and there is a generational component to the tech crew as well. Tim Kunz, who currently works as a stagehand, is the son of Clarence Kunz, a former stagehand, who still comes to shows each year. Flyman Jimmy Lovelace, who has been working in the rigging since the tent days, is the son of Russ Lovelace, who also worked as a technician in the old tent.

On July 10, opening night of “Les Miserables,” the office will be full of flowers waiting to be delivered to the performers, the lights will go up in the Wells Fargo Pavilion, several generations of patrons will file into the theater, and the 2007 season will get underway.

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