Broadway Sacramento Bounces Back
“We presented ‘A Bronx Tale’ over in the Memorial Auditorium,” says longtime Broadway Sacramento Artistic Director Richard Lewis, “then everything shut down.”
Broadway Sacramento hosts the Broadway on Tour season each fall and Broadway at Music Circus in the summer. Those productions see an estimated 100,000 audience members each year and generate countless touring, and local jobs in the process — many of them union.
In addition to hosting touring Broadway, the summer program employs hundreds of theatre professionals and has become a sought-after destination for theatre folk of all trades. For the last two summers, however, Music Circus was dark because of COVID — the first and second dark summers since its founding.
When it became clear that audiences wouldn’t be able to safely enjoy live theatre in 2020, Lewis and his team made some difficult choices to keep the company afloat. Some staff were laid off, shows were canceled, and everything went on hold. “I was extremely upset because I didn’t understand how this company could continue to exist,” said Lewis. “If you can’t put 2000 people into a theater, you’re washed up.”
The company relied on a patient donor base to bridge the gap financially. “We’d sold tickets to shows that we couldn’t do, but the supporters of the company, they got it,” said Lewis. The government helped too. “I’ve never allowed this company to rely on federal funding,” but Lewis says they ultimately did take PPP loans, and a shuttered venue operator grant, to stay afloat.
For Richard Lewis, protecting Broadway Sacramento is not just his job, it’s personal. Music Circus, the popular summer program Broadway Sacramento presents at Sacramento’s Wells Fargo Pavilion, was founded by Lewis’ father Russell in 1951. Richard grew up in the theater and after earning a degree in theater arts at UCLA, he worked as a stage manager and lighting designer for more than 50 productions before becoming a full-time employee of Broadway Sacramento in 1983.
During the COVID-19 shutdown, Lewis worked with the city on the redesign of the SAFE Credit Union Performing Arts Center in Downtown Sacramento. The city — which owns the building — relied on Lewis’ decades of theater expertise to help shape the future of the venue.
The Artistic Director says his priorities for the overhaul were full ADA compliance, improved acoustics — something the old house struggled with — and “you have to take care of the ladies,” Lewis says with a laugh. He is referring to the expanded and updated restroom facilities in the new space.
“Will there still be a line at the ladies room? There will always be a line at the ladies’ room,” but Lewis says the new theater can get everyone in and out of the facilities during an intermission more easily, “and we don’t have to send people across to the Convention Center.”
Broadway Sacramento’s long closure came to an end in September of this year, when “Hamilton” opened in the new theater. The seats were full, and the initial reviews — at least of the acoustics — are good. “Members of the ‘Hamilton’ company told me their show has never sounded better than in our house,” said Lewis.
But what about audiences, are they returning to the theater? Lewis says yes. “When you put a ‘Hamilton’ on your season, the other couple of shows really benefit from that.” Attendance is expected to be back at 90% when “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” opens at the end of the year. “Anastasia” follows in February. Also in the first half of 2022, the always-popular “Wicked” returns, and “Tootsie” debuts.
As for what the future holds for Broadway Sacramento, some big changes are in store. “Mrs. Lewis has indicated that I am an old man and that I need to stop,” said Lewis. He plans to step down in July of 2023, but says he works years in advance and will set up his successor, Scott Klier — the current Producing Artistic Director and Chief Operating Officer — with a slate of shows first. “Scott’s got the necessary energy, the youth, the pace, and he’s artistically savvy.”
As for Richard Lewis, he says he plans to spend his retirement watching theatre and trying “not to do anything vaguely physical.”
Tickets are still available for the remainder of Broadway Sacramento’s season at the newly renovated SAFE Credit Union Performing Arts Center in Sacramento. Go to www.BroadwaySacramento.com
This article originally appeared in Outword Magazine’s December 8th issue and was edited by Chris Narloch. Special thanks to Fred Palmer, Matt Hessburg and Richard Lewis.
Christopher J. Beale is a queer independent radio host, producer and journalist based in San Francisco.