Artistic Director Glenn Casale

Portrait Courtesy of California Musical Theatre

Music Circus artistic director Glenn Casale has spent the past 26 years making our hot summers a little cooler by helping bring big Broadway shows to Sacramento. The theater veteran talks about the up-coming season, which starts on June 21 with a version of The Wizard of Oz that will feature flying monkeys and the Wizard’s head floating down the aisle. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

The 63rd season of Music Circus will begin on June 21 with The Wizard of Oz, followed by Show Boat, Sugar, The King and I and Chicago. If someone could just see one show this season, which one would you recommend?

If it was me, Chicago. It’s the first time ever that it will be done in the round. It really makes it a different experience from the proscenium, where you look at [a show] from a distance in a frame. People are used to watching that Bob Fosse choreography from one side. Now the dancers will be coming down the aisle dancing at you. You’ll feel like you’re in the middle of Chicago.

Sounds exciting. You’re overseeing all the shows, but you’re personally directing three of them: The Wizard of Oz, Show Boat and Sugar. Can you tell us a little about each production?

I’ll tell you about Sugar. If people liked the movie Some Like It Hot [on which the musical is based], it’s that movie on the stage. It’s word-for-word the movie, and it’s a funny movie. And Jule Styne, who wrote [the music for] Funny Girl, wrote the music, so the music’s great. It’s so much fun. I’ve never done The Wizard of Oz in the round, so we’re creating it from scratch. It’s a brand-new [challenge] to make it magical and creative. I’m going to use flying. I’m going to use the same people who [worked on my production of] Peter Pan to come in and fly the monkeys and fly the witch. I’m going to put the Scarecrow and the Wizard’s head in the aisle and we’re using 20 local kids as Munchkins. It’s going to be a full experience in that theater. And you know what’s interesting about the dog [playing Toto]? There’s really one guy who trains all of the dogs on Broadway. His name is Bill Berloni. He’s got the dog in Annie now. We hired him to come out with Toto. So it’s a completely trained Toto that knows how to do everything in The Wizard of Oz.

And Show Boat is locally significant because it was the very first show that Music Circus put on back in 1951.Glenn Casale (with actress Jessica Grové  as Ariel) directed the U.S. premiere of  his production of The Little Mermaid  last summer at Music Circus.  (Photo by Charr Crail)

Yes. The cast I have for Show Boat is just unbelievable. I have three Phantom of the Opera people in the leads: Jennifer Hope Wills, who played Christine [on Broadway]; Ron Bohmer, who’s played Phantom [during a national tour]; and George Lee Andrews, who was in Phantom on Broadway for [almost] 25 years. Not only that, we have Phillip Boykin. He [got] a Tony nomination last year for Porgy and Bess. I have never heard “Ol’ Man River” [from Show Boat] sung like he sings it.

This will also be the first time that Show Boat will be performed at the Wells Fargo Pavilion [home of Music Circus since 2003]. The last time it was staged for Music Circus was in the old unair-conditioned tent. I’m sure that will make a big difference.

Yes, the [air-conditioning] makes me more comfortable, but for the actors, it makes the whole experience. We always had to worry about heat exhaustion [before]. Actually, I was doing Smokey Joe’s Cafe in the tent [in 2002]. It was hot as hell and the lead actor went down on the ground in the dress rehearsal two minutes before curtain, and couldn’t get up. He was out for the whole show. So I had to re-block the show with the audience [already] there. I had other people pick up his lines and I cut some songs. We were doing it on the fly around the tent. 

Wow. Of course, that tent also has a storied history, with everyone from Liberace to Marlene Dietrich to Bob Hope performing there. Last year for Music Circus, Shirley Jones and Patrick Cassidy starred in The Music Man. Can we expect any bold-faced names this summer?

Not this summer. But there are Tony nominees, which is good. [Music Circus holds auditions in New York and Los Angeles every year.] We used to [hire] all star names. I feel like when it’s right, it’s good. But when it’s not right, to put a star in is old-fashioned behavior. We moved away from that and want to give the best quality we can. Sometimes people were star names, but they just weren’t good actors.

Also last summer, Music Circus staged the U.S. premiere of your production of The Little Mermaid, which had new songs and elements like flying. How did that come about?

Because of my doing Beauty and the Beast in Boston years ago. In 2004, Disney saw a production of Beauty and the Beast that I did [there]. I’d reconceived it. I went back to the novel, which is so dark, and made [the musical] darker. You know, it’s really a play about life and death. It’s an adult story. The [Disney theatrics people] responded to the honesty of it. I got a call from the head of Disney theatrics and he said, “Hey, I loved your production. Would you do that production in Europe for us?” Since then, we’ve had it in 10 countries in nine different languages. It’s a French story, and this fall, it’ll be the first time it [has played] in Paris—it’ll open in October. After Music Circus, I’ll go there. And we’ve got [The Little Mermaid] in Tokyo, Moscow and Amsterdam right now.

So you have worked in many theaters around the country and the world. What is it about Music Circus that makes it stand out in your mind?

Casale with Patrick Cassidy, who starred in the Music Circus production of The Music Man with his mother, Shirley Jones, last summer. (Photo by Charr Crail)

What makes Music Circus special is the audience and the atmosphere. The audience there is so involved. I went the other night to see Matilda on Broadway. [Casale’s The Little Mermaid is playing in New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse through June 30.] The girl who played Rizzo in Grease last year [for Music Circus, Lesli Margherita] is now playing [one of] the leads in Matilda. So I went backstage and they were all saying, “Oh my God, I want to work at Music Circus.” It’s so exciting. Everywhere I go, when I say that I’m with Music Circus, they’re like, “I love that place.” The Disney [folks] came out last year [to see The Little Mermaid] on opening night and they said, “It was brilliant. We loved it. The crowd was so excited.” So I go over to their offices [now], and they’re like, “We’ll do anything for Sacramento.” It’s great. S