Music Circus goes AARP

When several cars turn the wrong way at H and 14th streets on a Saturday night, you know it’s Music Circus time again. For proof positive that the annual beloved celebration of American musical theater is going the same way as the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, watch the audience arrive and depart. Here, an anxiety about parking, one-way streets and panhandlers reflects a pure suburbia-mixed-with-AARP membership mentality.

I’m concerned about the future of musical theater—despite the fact that the opening night was a sellout. What about five years from now? I counted fewer than a dozen under-30 types at the opening night for Grease—which, perhaps not incidentally, enjoyed its greatest popularity the same year that I graduated from high school. And yes, I am old enough to be a grandmother.

One of my fellow critics pointed out in a recent conversation that, despite Sacramento’s apparent love of musicals, this love seems to be limited to a relatively narrow style: shows that are completely divorced from the pulse of the culture at large and instead focus romantically on bygone days. That explains why this year’s Music Circus blockbuster is Disney’s The Little Mermaid. It also exemplifies how bringing in TV stars of yore to shore up ticket sales (Shirley Jones and Adrienne Barbeau) won’t do much to bring in a younger audience.

“I had a huge crush on Adrienne Barbeau when she played Maude’s daughter,” I told a colleague.

“Who’s Maude?” he asked.

And that’s precisely the problem. If I’m the target audience for Music Circus, forget The Unsinkable Molly Brown; it’s sunk. That’s because my generation, for extremely age-appropriate reasons, is growing more concerned with aches, pains, bathroom habits and retirement. We’ll take our grandkids to see The Little Mermaid and The Nutcracker, but if we’re the backbone of your audience, prepare for smaller venues.

The Sacramento Ballet figured this out pretty quickly, and has been working like mad to build a new audience, staging events such as a “Thriller” flash mob and a Beer & Ballet series.

But frankly, the only young people I see that are crazy about musicals are the ones who work in them. And we’re not seeing locally—with a few exceptions—the really interesting and unusual shows. Granted, it’ll be a while before California Musical Theatre brings us The Book of Mormon, but definitely don’t expect to see it at Music Circus, where Sweeney Todd is considered “edgy.”

This is the fifth time they’ve done Grease; the 10th time for The Music Man; and the whopping 12th time for Fiddler on the Roof. Meanwhile, Crazy for You is a baby with only three appearances.

Mind you, I really like all these shows—especially Fiddler, with its incredible songs, story by Sholem Aleichem, and underlying political and historical commentary. And Music Circus always delivers really good shows—but it can’t expect to build an audience this way. For that, you’ll need either more gritty relevance or more spectacle—or both—as that seems to be what draws young people.

This story has been corrected 07-06-12