The incoming president and CEO of Broadway Sacramento, Scott Klier, talks about his new responsibilities as the longtime musical theater company evolves.
Earlier this year, on a cold, windy winter day, I walked up Broadway from NoHo in mid Manhattan with Scott Klier. We had just finished a long lunch at the renowned Italian restaurant Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria, and he was accompanying my wife and me to our subway stop. “Alimentari” means “food” or “foodstuffs” in Italian, and lovely pastas along with a decadent short rib sandwich had been consumed. “Vineria” is a wine shop, and a delicious Grenache blend accompanied the meal. Klier wanted to “walk off” a bit of the lunch, so he was going to continue on foot above ground to his hotel.
Klier was in the final days of an annual monthlong stay in New York, conducting casting sessions for the upcoming Music Circus season, which opens in June with “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” He had seen more than 2,500 actors for just over a hundred onstage slots. There are other casting sessions in Los Angeles and Sacramento where half as many performers are seen, but New York typically yields the most prospects for the season. When he got back to his room, Klier spread headshots across the bed and scoured notes on his laptop, looking for the right combination of singers and dancers he would hire for the summer shows.
Currently the producing artistic director of Broadway at Music Circus and COO of Broadway Sacramento, Klier not only oversees casting of the Music Circus season’s six shows; he also spearheads the selection of the titles he’s now casting for as well. Once a fresh-faced intern, Klier became an overworked production manager and then Music Circus’ artistic director. Klier’s journey at Broadway Sacramento reaches its apex this summer when he takes over as president and CEO, running the organization after longtime CEO Richard Lewis steps down.
“I think Scott is a perfect choice to take over the company,” Glen Casale tells me. Casale has been the organization’s artistic consultant and de facto house director for more than a decade. Casale is always in the room with Klier, seeing actors and deciding casting for the shows.
“He is always concerned that our audiences are gonna see the best quality that he can give them with his limitations, with the limitations of the theater,” Casale says.
Klier laughed easily and often during lunch, praising the food and the wine and allowing himself to relax after several weeks of nonstop work. He has preferred staying just out of the spotlight during his quiet ascension in the company. Now he is the face of the organization, representing it at the big industry party in April: closing night of “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway.
Coming in as a production manager, Klier soon began adjusting the unforgiving Music Circus summer schedule, instituting one-week gaps between shows and designing sets for the unusual circular space. “I think he’s got great insight,” Casale says. “He knows so many different areas about the theater in detail. He knows sound, he knows set construction, he knows set design. He knows stage management.”
When we talked, he was consistently interested in what I thought and had to say, and was himself guilelessly direct and surprisingly transparent. “My most formative years, my 20s, were spent in New York,” Klier told me as we walked up the crowded street. “The friendships and professional relationships developed over that decade are all in New York. To not have those folks in my daily life is a struggle to this day.”
Born and raised in Sacramento, he went to college at Loyola Marymount in Southern California before journeying to New York, where he built a solid career stage managing on Broadway and national tours.
Squinting into the wind, Klier recalled leaving New York in 2003 after a decade to come back home to Sacramento as a production manager for Music Circus. “Well, it was a mixed bag,” Klier said. “I was grateful to work for good people. I was grateful to work for an organization with such a great history. What was lost in this process was the access to Broadway, to the center point of the American theater.”
What Klier gained was the opportunity to contribute to the organization’s stability and growth while learning the business side of show business. The organization had just moved into its permanent physical theater space (then called Wells Fargo Pavilion and now UC Davis Health Pavilion) and would need to figure out how the building actually worked. Klier enthusiastically dove into getting the most out of the new theater.
He was also back in the physical sphere of his immediate family. “I was most grateful to be present for the last years of my mom’s parents and then my mom,” Klier said. “The thought of having been on the East Coast through her cancer journey is about as horrible a thing as I can think of.” His mother passed away in 2015.
As personnel shifted in the organization, doors opened for Klier at what was then called California Musical Theatre (now Broadway Sacramento), and he didn’t hesitate in filling the space. “My responsibility certainly grew over the developing years and the various changes,” he said.
Klier knew what he was getting into. In college, he worked as a summer intern at Music Circus after coming to shows in the old canvas tent as a child with his parents.
He’ll continue overseeing production of Broadway at Music Circus and assume some of Lewis’ other responsibilities. Broadway Sacramento is conducting a national search for someone to handle the complexities of tour booking.
There are few jobs in the country like Klier’s because there are very few organizations like Broadway Sacramento. There are plenty of organizations that book national tours of Broadway shows. It’s the Music Circus part of the equation that makes Broadway Sacramento unique and regional audiences fortunate.
The Music Circus shows are created almost entirely from the ground up in Sacramento. (Sometimes costumes are borrowed for particular shows, such as this year’s production of “The Music Man” with Klier making his directorial debut. It will benefit from costumes made for the recently closed Broadway production that starred Hugh Jackman.) Klier choreographs the complex logistics of planning and producing an undertaking that flowers in the summer at UC Davis Health Pavilion but gestates all year long in preparation.
Once the season starts, one show will be performed in front of audiences while the next one up is rehearsing. “Scott’s got Music Circus so wonderfully dialed in,” Lewis says. “Every last detail is on us. That’s the most complicated part of what this company does.”
When I first met Klier 20 years ago, after he had just taken the production manager position, his temporary office was in a converted janitorial closet just off the Sacramento Theatre Company Main Stage lobby. His current office has a large, lovely window looking across J Street to Memorial Auditorium.
STC and Broadway Sacramento share the space at 15th and H streets that houses their three theaters. The entwined relationship between the two companies has long been misunderstood, if known at all. Currently, Broadway Sacramento is responsible for the H Street property, which includes the Pavilion, and makes Sacramento Theatre Company its tenant. When the bonds are paid off, the Pavilion will be owned by Broadway Sacramento, and the STC property will be owned by the city. “Broadway Sacramento can use the Pavilion anytime we like, but it has no backstage/rehearsal space, which is why we use the STC spaces,” Lewis says. The period of access to STC for Broadway Sacramento is roughly from Memorial Day to Labor Day, though they share the box office all year.
This cohabitation obviously encumbers both organizations, though neither complains. It also renders one of the city’s finest performance spaces unusable nine months out of the year. It’s one of the constraints that keep Klier up at night as he figures out how to get more butts in seats.
Broadway at Music Circus is the most Sacramento thing there is. It has somehow survived seismic cultural shifts, recessions and a scandal but still stands, producing and performing this iconic American art form. There is a danger in being around for more than 70 years, as Music Circus has: People think they know who and what you are. Yet many people are still surprised to learn that Music Circus shows are unique original productions, not touring shows—they won’t go anywhere else. (Often that’s a shame.) There is also a perception it’s a quaint, anachronistic thing by people who haven’t paid attention to productions like “Hair,” “In the Heights,” “Once on This Island,” “The Color Purple” or revivals of edgy classics like last season’s “Carousel.” This year, titles such as “The Addams Family,” “Rent” and “Ragtime” give the season a current musical sensibility.
The Music Circus evolution is tied not just to the history of theater in Sacramento but to the history of theater in the West. Russell Lewis (Richard’s father) and Howard Young were Broadway producers whom Eleanor McClatchy, president of The Sacramento Bee and the region’s most generous and influential arts supporter, commissioned to come work in Sacramento. In 1951, Lewis and Young Productions debuted Music Circus—the first professional musical theater-in-the-round west of the Mississippi and only the fourth in the entire country—in the Civic Repertory’s Eaglet Theater parking lot at 15 and H streets. Lewis was in charge of the show, and Young saw to the business. Now, it’s Sacramento’s oldest professional performing arts organization and California’s largest nonprofit musical theater company, with a budget in 2023 of $22 million. The organization carries around 40 full-time employees and hires between 350 and 400 temporary workers during the summer season. This year it will present eight Broadway touring shows and six Broadway Music Circus shows, 120 performances in all.
Eventually renamed Music Circus, it presented shows under a temporary canvas tent erected in early summer and dismantled in the fall. The permanent Wells Fargo Pavilion opened in 2003, on the same site as the original canvas tent. On May 11, 2022, Broadway Sacramento and UC Davis Health announced a new partnership that included renaming the venue UC Davis Health Pavilion. Touring Broadway musicals for the Broadway on Tour series (established in 1989) are produced at the SAFE Credit Union Performing Arts Center at 13th and L streets.
Due to the pandemic, there was no Music Circus in the summers of 2020 and 2021. The shows came back in 2022, but audiences were still cautious. After a banner attendance year of nearly 100,000 in 2018 and a more representative year in 2019 of nearly 90,000, the return from the pandemic was nearly 25% off in 2022, with just over 75,000 tickets sold for the summer. The organization is now scrambling to not only make up for lost revenue but reclaim its lost audience as well. Sales for 2023 have been significantly stronger than last year. Still, it’s an open question whether people will come back.
After Lewis made it known he intended to step down this summer, the board approached Klier about stepping up one more rung. He had a decision to make. That he would take the position was not a slam dunk, at least not to him.
“I’ll be honest with you, when he (Lewis) made that decision and publicly shared it among our staff and with our board, I had to do some deep soul searching because at that very moment, I was pretty depleted,” Klier confided.
“The reality is that the last few years with the pandemic, with economic struggles, have really taken a toll on all of us. There have been many times where we’ve been running on fumes,” he said.
“The thought of showing up at that office every day and not having Richard there is depressing. I love him, and it’s going to be a very tough adjustment to not have that brilliant and ever-funny energy in the office,” said Klier.
“I think in many respects, producing theater and presenting theater as we do has never been more challenging,” Klier told me as we sat in a crowded midtown Sacramento wine bar. “The pressure on us to fill over 2,000 seats at every performance is enormous, and the consequence of not achieving that is equally enormous.”
Klier wants to broaden the Broadway Sacramento audience, not necessarily making it younger but more diverse in all ways. The worrying drought in local media coverage of performing arts, particularly noticeable in Sacramento, gives all regional performing arts organizations steeper hills to climb. They understand they have to take their stories to the people themselves. Figuring out how to reach audiences eager for engagement has become a priority.
“I hope that along the way, we create greater bandwidth for artistic expansion,” Klier said. “Nothing would make me happier if at the end of this next tenure, most people in Sacramento have had a Broadway Sacramento experience. We’ve got a long way to go before that happens.”
“Scott has a long-term vision,” Casale says. “He’s got ideas of how he could expand it. Maybe in the future, things will change a little.” According to Casale, Klier has an “audience first” mentality, which is prominent in any planning discussions.
“While I can fantasize about all of the shows that no one is going to stand in my way of doing, that’s a fallacy,” Klier said. “My responsibility is to find titles where there is synergy, where I’m confident the majority of our audience will show up for and appreciate.”
There was a downpour as we left the wine shop, and we huddled under a small awning looking into the steady night rain, which showed no sign of abating.
“To take this on without humility and fear—it’s a fool’s errand,” Klier said. “This is more than doing a few shows a year. This is a 70-plus-year arts organization that thousands of people have come to depend upon. I take all of it very seriously.”