"I don't understand a world without the arts," Thomas Schumacher says. "The arts are a fundamental way of connecting."
Schumacher, 53, has been helping people connect for over three decades. He is president of Disney Theatrical Group, in charge of development and production of Disney stage shows. His musicals include The Lion King, now at the Minskoff, beginning its 15th Broadway year; Aida; and Mary Poppins, celebrating its fifth anniversary. Newsies, a stage musical expansion of the Disney movie, was just announced for a spring 2012 Broadway run.
His attraction to the stage began in childhood. "I have no recollection of not being interested in theatre," he says in his office atop the New Amsterdam, the theatre Disney rescued and restored in the 1990s as a crucial part of Times Square's rebirth and now home to Poppins. "I grew up outside San Francisco. My earliest best theatre experiences were at William Ball's American Conservatory Theater. They inspired me to go to UCLA's theatre school. Upon leaving I worked for Gordon Davidson at the Mark Taper Forum, where I did a genuine apprenticeship at the feet of a master."
Schumacher was a producer on the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival and associate director of the 1987 Los Angeles Festival of Arts. Peter Schneider, with whom Schumacher had worked on the Olympics festival and who had moved to Disney, asked him to produce an animated movie. Schumacher's first was "The Rescuers Down Under." He has been at Disney for almost 24 years. The 21 animated films he wound up supervising include "The Lion King," "Pocahontas" and the first Pixar features.
In the mid-1990s, Michael Eisner, then Disney's head, asked Schumacher and Schneider (who left Disney in 2001) to run the company's theatrical branch and take it worldwide. Disney had already brought Beauty and the Beast to Broadway. The next major production was The Lion King.
It was mostly chance and luck that Lion King came first, Schumacher remembers. "We had a number of other things in development — Mary Poppins, Aida — and it was just a matter of seeing which was ready. No one knows what's going to be a massive hit."
Among the pleasures of The Lion King, he says, "was working with Julie Taymor." Hiring Taymor, then an avant-garde director, was considered audacious. But Schumacher says he had followed her career, "and there was never a discussion of anyone but her. We allowed Lion King to become a production which with prudent judgment and great business sense one would never have done."
The Lion King "has touched an extraordinary number of people, because we've had so many productions" — 19 past and present, including ones in New York, U.S. tours, Las Vegas, Canada, Japan, London, Hamburg, France, Korea, China, South Africa and now Madrid.
When it comes to the future, Schumacher says he's "drowning in joy, creating many new things."
Disney's new musical, Newsies, premiered in September at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. "Last spring we mounted our first-ever play Off-Broadway, Peter and the Starcatcher" — also just announced for 2012 Broadway life. "This summer Casey Nicholaw [The Book of Mormon] directed a pilot production of Aladdin. Stephen Daldry is working on Dumbo. We're messing around with Tim Burton on Alice in Wonderland. We're working on a stage version of Father of the Bride. We have a lot."
One thing he doesn't have a lot of is regrets. "When I was young, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do. And then I let the winds of fate take me where I am today. And I've ended up doing exactly what I said I wanted to do."