PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Thomas Schumacher

By Andrew Gans
19 Sep 2006

Thomas Schumacher
Thomas Schumacher
Photo by Michele Asselin

The Disney producer chats about Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, Aida, The Lion King, The Man in the Ceiling and more

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With the recent opening of Tarzan at the Richard Rodgers Theatre and the imminent arrival of Mary Poppins — a co-production with Cameron Mackintosh — at the New Amsterdam, it seemed like the perfect time to chat with Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatrical Productions, the primarily New York-based company whose more than 100 employees occupy three floors of 1450 Broadway.

Prior to his work for Disney Theatricals, Schumacher was president of Feature Animation for Disney, supervising 21 of its animated films, including "The Lion King," "Pocahontas," "Mulan," "Toy Story 2" and "Finding Nemo." His pre-Disney credentials include five years on staff at the Mark Taper Forum, associate director of the 1987 Los Angeles Festival of the Arts and assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Ballet.



Formed in 1994, Disney Theatricals' Broadway productions to date — all currently overseen by producer Schumacher — include Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Tarzan and the now-closed Aida. The company is also launching its newest Broadway-bound work, The Little Mermaid, under the direction of Francesca Zambello, in June 2007 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. And, regional and amateur productions of High School Musical — based on the smash hit TV film of the same name — will begin to sprout in thousands of venues around the country within the next year.

Schumacher recently welcomed Playbill.com to his Disney office to speak about the company's many projects, including its most recent Broadway offering (Tarzan), the two major upcoming openings (Poppins and Mermaid), projects-in-development (The Man in the Ceiling), a few shows that are no longer on the Disney plate (Hoopz, Spellbound and Pinocchio) as well as the aforementioned stage version of "High School Musical."

Playbill.com: How has it been working with Cameron Mackintosh on the musical Mary Poppins?
Thomas Schumacher: It's been fantastic. It's never been anything but great since the day we actually started working on the show. That was the hard thing to get to — to figure out that we would actually start — because he owned half of it, and Disney owned half of it. We had to have a meeting of the minds to figure out how we would work together. And it all came together once we realized we had the same vision in our minds. We agreed to start working together in 2001. We started working together in 2002, and the show opened in London at the end of 2004, and now we're 2006, and we're opening here [in New York].

Playbill.com: Is it the same working relationship for the Broadway production of Poppins?
TS: Yes. In London the show is managed out of the Mackintosh office, and in New York the show is managed out of the Disney office. And when [Mackintosh is] here [in New York], he's sitting right on the other side of this wall [although he does have his own] office in New York . . . . The whole staff that runs Mary Poppins is here — the associate producer, company management, stage manager — they all work out of this office, and all the design stuff is going on downstairs.

Playbill.com: Has the show changed at all since it opened in London?
TS: Oh yeah. It's gone through this natural thing that happens when you do the second production of something. It's also been evolving while it's been in London because London does something that is very different than America. Annually, the cast changes over in London. People are on year contracts — everybody is on a contract, whereas here in America, the ensemble is not on a contract, so they don't all change out. But in London you have the annual big cast change, and as we've come to the cast change, we've been making adjustments and changes, and [director] Richard Eyre goes back in, and Cameron goes back in. We've made changes, restructured some things, even rewrote a number.

Playbill.com: Which song was that?
TS: It's not on the cast album, [but] it's the song [heard] the first time you go into the bank. We restructured that a bit and made some trims and things as we've gone along. And, so now that we're in rehearsal [in New York], it's an all-new cast of actors — one person from London [Gavin Lee] — so, of course, it takes on a new life with them. All the numbers you know are there, but, yeah, little changes, little tweaks [have been made].

Playbill.com: I know there was some talk when Mary Poppins first opened that it was a little darker than people expected. . . .
TS: It's funny, right now as the premiere producer of family entertainment, family theatre around the world, which is a delight, that's what we [at Disney] do. I have The Lion King running, I have Beauty and the Beast running. When you do these shows, it's a great privilege to have people come in, and [Mary Poppins] is a family show. It's just like our [other] shows.

It's an interesting question, and it does come up, and I think it's because there's a number that's like kind of right out of The Nutcracker, when the toy box comes to life, which I also have in "Toy Story." . . .

What ["Mary Poppins" author] Pamela Travers created and what Bob and Dick Sherman and Walt Disney expanded on was this idea of this wonderful woman that we don't know where she comes from. There's this great line in the first book where Mary's asked to explain herself, and she says, "I never explain anything." We use the line in the show. Mr. Banks says, "Mary Poppins, explain yourself." And, she says, "Let me make one thing clear. I never explain anything." We don't know where Mary Poppins comes from. . . . In the movie, it opens with a sweet scene, which is actually a reproduction of a scene out of "Dumbo," where the stork is on the cloud, and his bag keeps dropping through. In the "Poppins" movie the same thing happens. She's up on a cloud, and who is she? Is she an angel? Is she a fairy? Is she a sprite? She's this magical woman, and Pamela Travers never explains it. She turns up in this family . . . [where] the children misbehave terribly and can't keep a nanny, and the family is coming a bit unglued, and then the dad loses his job. And Mary Poppins teaches them that the one thing they don't need is Mary Poppins, and the one thing they can depend on is each other, and then she flies away at the end. That is a really sweet, dear story.

Playbill.com: So, for what ages would you recommend the musical?
TS: I always say, "Do you take your kid to see a Broadway show?" Thinking about the fact that if you ask people of my generation, "What's the first show you saw?," they'll say, "Oh, I saw The King and I. I saw The Sound of Music." We didn't invent family musicals, but how old was somebody when they went to see Annie? A proper Broadway show is about two-and-a-half hours long. Does your child want to sit in the theatre quietly watching a play for two-and-a-half hours? So, when people ask, I always say six years old and up — if they're used to going to the theatre.

I produced a lot of children's theatre — I used to run the Children's Theatre for the Mark Taper Forum — and we do Disney on Ice and Disney Live!, which is Winnie the Pooh for little guys, and that's great because the show is short. [It's great for a] three-year old — it's a short show, and it's a lot of color, and it's geared just for [very young kids]. But would you take a three year old to The King and I and The Sound of Music? It's not about whether [the material is] inappropriate, it's [that] I don't know that many three or four year olds who want to go sit in a theatre seat for two-and-a-half hours. But I know a lot of kids who love going to the theatre. After all these years of The Lion King, I can [watch audiences coming in and] tell they're just the right age to enjoy it. If you're six, seven, eight and you're really attentive [you'll enjoy the show] — if you're a little older, it's great. Parents know their own children.

Playbill.com: Moving on to The Little Mermaid. What led to the decision to launch the stage musical in Denver?
TS: We've taken every one of our shows — except Tarzan — out of town, although we had done some out-of-town workshopping on Tarzan. But Beauty [and the Beast] started in Houston, The Lion King started in Minneapolis [and] Aida had two starts — a regional theatre production in Atlanta, after which we did a creative overhaul, and then [we] did our out-of-town tryout of the Broadway version in Chicago. [Mary] Poppins started in Bristol, so we have a long tradition of going out of town. You're looking for a lot of things when you go out of town with a show. You're looking for, literally, a city you can get to — that has air service. Ideally, you want a theatre that has a slot available at the right season for you, and then you want a theatre that's fantastically well-equipped. . . . It has to be able to accommodate building new costumes, building new scenery. It has to have a crew that can handle changes, and then you want an audience that's a real theatre-going audience. We've had all of our shows in Denver. We launched our national tour of Lion King in Denver, so we have a history with [the city]. . . . [Mermaid director] Francesca [Zambello] and I talked about a lot of cities, and each has advantages, and then you weigh them against each other. Francesca likes Denver a lot, I like Denver. . . . It's a good audience, smart.

Playbill.com: How did Zambello come to the project?
TS: One of my dearest friends is kind of a famous opera singer named Lauren Flanagan, and we've been friends since we were 15 years old. She was the leading lady in Prince Igor, opening night of the San Francisco Opera, maybe 10 or 12 years ago. I flew out, and it was so fantastically staged, [and] at the party afterwards I met [the opera's director] Francesca. Over the years we've kept a dialogue going. I actually asked her to do a workshop for me of [Carnival] that we ultimately didn't produce. . . . We were talking about doing something together, and she said, "I have an idea, a way into Mermaid that I would like to try." We had a number of meetings about it, and we just started working on it, and we began to develop the idea together. I had her meet Alan Menken, who, of course, is my partner in crime on this show.

Playbill.com: Has he written new songs for the stage Mermaid?
TS: Oh, yeah, because [there are] only [seven] songs [in the original film]. The movie came out in 1989, so it will have been almost 20 years [by the time it reaches the stage.] . . . With Howard Ashman, he wrote the [seven] songs that are in the movie. Some of [the film's songs] were cut back in the movie and shortened, and we expand those songs back out again. In some cases there are some reworking of lyrics done by Glenn Slater because the songs have some tiny new elements in them, and Alan and Glenn together have written a bunch of new songs.

Playbill.com: How will the underwater scenes work — how will they communicate the underwater experience?
TS: Effectively! [Laughs.] . . . Our job isn't to reproduce the movie because you can go watch the movie. Our job is to use stagecraft. We're not the first people to have ever told 'The Little Mermaid' story, [but] we're the first people to go to a kind of exotic universe. . . . What I can tell you is it's big — physically. It has scale because [scenic designer] George Tsypin works with scale. . . . [Tsypin] was an architect, and he comes at things from a very structural point of view. It's a pretty aggressive design sense, which is great. I knew of him through the opera world through Julie [Taymor]. It's his first Broadway musical. It's Francesca's first Broadway show. And, [Tatiana Noginova], who's doing the costumes, it's her first Broadway show. Francesca and I went through a number of costume designers. We looked at a couple of portfolios of different people, and then she showed me Tanya's. And I loved it. Tanya was here working at the [Metropolitan Opera], and she came over and we met, and that's [how she became involved].

Playbill.com: Is there any casting yet?
TS: No, we have a lot of ideas because we've done a reading and workshop of the show, so there's a number of people that we've met. . . . I've announced Denver, but I haven't announced New York because you have to see how it shakes out, and I need a theatre of some scale, definitely one of the bigger houses.

Playbill.com: Is that why Lion King moved [to the Minskoff] because Mary Poppins needed one of the larger theatres?
TS: Well, Lion King moved for a couple of reasons. One, the opportunity came up. Cameron and I wanted the perfect venue for Mary Poppins, and he said the only theatre that [he wanted] more than any other theatre in New York [was] the New Amsterdam. And, I said, "Well, we can't have the New Amsterdam because Lion King's not moving." And then I realized that I actually could [move it] because of the way Lion King plays and what it does . . . and because the Nederlanders are such great partners. We've got Tarzan at the Rodgers, Beauty at the Lunt and Lion King at the Minskoff now . . . . We started talking, and I realized I could — there was the right window — move The Lion King. And, as we begin our second decade, being right in the heart of Times Square, I was actually able to tighten up my seating capacity and yet keep the same box-office potential, which is good. There's a lot of business reasons to do that, and it worked out. And, it gives Poppins a fantastic place. And, now a whole new audience gets to come and see the New Amsterdam Theatre again, which is such a beautiful theatre.

Playbill.com: Now, getting on to Tarzan. What's the marketing plan for the show since the reviews weren't terrific?
TS: Well, obviously I have a challenge! [Laughs.] If you're in the theatre and you watch the show, you're having a great time, and that audience is having a fantastic time. Reviews, historically for us, have not been the indicator of whether a show is going to do well or not. And, arguably, you could say that for the whole last [theatre] season. Look at things that are closed that got the greatest reviews of all time. . . .Both in my movie experience and my theatre experience, whether you do or do not get great reviews, it's really "Can you find the right connection with the audience?" The advantage I have with Tarzan is that there is a connection with the audience, the advance has been very strong, and it has not substantially eroded, which is great. So, from that point of view, I'm in okay shape. I actually, oddly, have a better advance going forward to the end of year on Tarzan than for any of our other shows, other than Mary Poppins. And, after the first of the year, the same thing is true. So the question is, if my advance is stronger than those shows, do I have enough interest in the show to be able to get to the next level? Is there enough interest in the show to be able to get the rest of that work done? We've shot a commercial, which we didn't have — we were just using B-roll [footage] before, and [the commercial] begins [airing] in two weeks. [The] commercial ties into radio, which ties into print [plus an] enormous number of group things. Group scores are really high; groups are a big part of our business.

Playbill.com: Are there any plans for a tour of Tarzan?
TS: We're actually casting today for the [next] production. I'm going to do sit-downs, so the next one opens in Amsterdam. [When] most people here think . . . about Broadway or musicals, [they] think New York and maybe a tour, [and] think, "Oh, that's successful." But to us, that's not it. Look at Aida. We ran Aida five years on Broadway. We still have a production running in Japan, we have a production running in Germany, we have a production running in Korea. That's how [we] succeed. . . . I have to finish final casting in four weeks in Amsterdam. [Then] we open Mary Poppins and then, right away, race to Amsterdam to start rehearsing the new Tarzan there. We open Amsterdam, then we open Germany, and then I'm hoping for one more country.

Playbill.com: Do the bulk of the profits come from overseas productions?
TS: No, but once you've workshopped a show and invested in all that development, then it's simply the production cost after that. And if you take on partners, you reduce your potential earning, but you also reduce your potential risk. And then the longer you can run it, the better you do. Each of our shows has kind of gone on that model, Beauty and Lion King having the most separate companies, but it was a huge part of the success of Aida. . . . Plus, from a creative point of view, you want to have productions of your shows. In each case, we creatively control them. They are our productions. They're mounted by the original creatives or their associates and designees. In fact, in Korea the production of Aida is actually on the Broadway set.

Playbill.com: How did Disney decide to proceed with a musical version of Man in the Ceiling?
TS: [Composer] Andrew Lippa and I were on a panel together — we met through Stephen Schwartz [for] one of the ASCAP panels. Afterwards, we both started talking and realized we didn't know each other at all . . . [so] he came in for what was going to be a half-hour meet and greet, and it went on for like an hour-and-a-half. As he was leaving, I said, "Is there anything you've always wanted to do?" And he pulled this book out [points to book on table], and says, "There's this book by Jules Feiffer called 'The Man in the Ceiling,' and I don't have the rights to it, but I've always wanted to do it. I've talked about it with Jules, but it's never really come together." I said, "Well, I'll read it." So I went out and bought a copy, and I read it, and I was deeply moved by it, and fell in love with it. I called him up and said, "We want to do The Man in the Ceiling with you." He was speechless. And I said, "It's your idea, you brought it in. You own it, so let me go acquire the rights for you." . . . Then I went up and saw Jules and asked him if he'd write the book [of the musical], and he said, "I'll do this if Andrew is in because he really knows how to do this from a musical perspective." So, we're off and running. I just had dinner with Andrew last week to go over an outline and [see] how it's coming.

Playbill.com: Would Disney ever produce a non-musical on Broadway?
TS: We invest a lot in that. I think most people don't realize we do that. . . . There's a property, a book, that the Walt Disney Company owns, and I'm in second position on it if they don't make a film out of it. I think the vision for it is kind of a "theatre of the imagination" thing. Imagine Nicholas Nickleby two hours long — that style of staging, where you're on a blank stage and you make the event out of it. Or Barbara Damashek's production of Quilters — one of those kinds of shows. And this would be a play on a very famous theme that would have music, but I don't think you'd ever call it a musical, but it would absolutely be a piece of theatre for the family. It would be a play with music.

And I did approach Edward Albee about writing a play for us, but it didn't work out. He wanted to do it, and then I think he thought better of it, but I really wanted to do it with him. He's a huge fan of AA Milne, and Walt Disney Company owns the theatrical rights to "Winnie the Pooh." I asked Edward Albee if he would write a stage version — in any way he wanted — of "Winnie the Pooh." It's my fantasy that he will still do this. I would love to do it with him under any conditions that he wants to name, any way that he wants to do it. So, that's what I said, "If you want to make it a one-man show, if you want to write a story about the making of it," because he loves the material so much. . . . That would have been a non-musical.

Playbill.com: What led to the decision to release High School Musical to schools and regional theatres?
TS: There are a few regional theatres that I'm going to allow to do it, and that's based very much on a case-by-case basis. And they're very specific people — like Peter Brosius at Children's Theatre [Company] of Minneapolis. I've known Peter for maybe 25 years or more. We ran the Improvisational Theater Project for the Taper together way back in the early eighties, so of course I'm going to let Peter do it. Everybody on that list is somebody that we're affiliated with in some way.

What I wanted to do is let high school students do it, kids performing the show for kids was the first goal. My goal this year is that there will be 5,000 performances by kids for kids. How long would it take you if you did the show on Broadway to do 5,000 performances of a show? What fun to get this piece out there that much.

We did a workshop version of it here in New York, a reading where we had actors from Lion King and Tarzan, Beauty, Wicked, Hairspray, and they all came in and performed it, so we could see if the script worked. We've done an adaptation and changed some of the music and moved things around because you can't put a TV film onstage. You have to restructure it for stage language. We had such a good time. It was really fun. . . . Then we went about two weeks ago up to Stagedoor Manor, the legendary drama camp in the Catskills, and we let those kids do it. They rehearsed it for two weeks, and it was wonderful.

So my thinking was, the show as it is on TV has a certain innocence, but there's such demand for wanting to see it. From a quality level point of view and to get it out to the kids, we thought if we could make a great adaptation with a really singable score, we could provide all these materials so the schools would be able to [produce it]. It's essentially karaoke. All the songs are prerecorded without the singing. There's a piano track with vocals for you to rehearse with. You get a kit, and you don't have to have a band to play [the music]. They can just knock it out of the park and do it, so why not? . . . . Unlike Mary Poppins or Tarzan or Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, High School Musical is not for the broadest possible audience. In fairness, it's completely targeted right in the pocket of those kids.

Playbill.com: Will Disney be involved in choosing the creative teams for the regional productions?
TS: No, because we chose ones that we knew what their plan was. We know their level of integrity and what they want to do. That's why [they were] very specifically chosen. [They were also picked] because of where they are based regionally. . . . And, in one case the production's going to coincide with a huge national festival of young people's theatre. They're all going to come together, so they'll actually be able to all see it mounted.

Playbill.com: Does Disney have a developmental department that looks for new musicals?
TS: We have a dramaturg and a literary manager, and we have a development process, but when you look at how many things we're doing right now, part of that department is currently managing Man in the Ceiling, Little Mermaid. Of course, it's also managing the translations and all the other versions of our other shows, plus working on all these new musicals for MTI. We even have little productions for kids. If you have a group of kindergarteners or first graders, we have a knock-it-out-of-the-park half-hour version of 101 Dalmations that I promise will bring a tear to your eye when all those little Dalmations run up onstage! All of which we've developed and workshopped. In terms of looking for new material, we don't take submissions for the most part. People that we know come in and say, "Have you ever thought about. . . ?" And, we've played around with some venue-based stuff, meaning things that are not Broadway but that are locations where a lot of performances are done.

Playbill.com: I wanted to go through some of the other Disney projects that have been mentioned at some point and see whether they're still in development. Hoopz?
TS: No, we gave up Hoopz and we gave up our rights to the Harlem Globetrotters. That was an issue of we had a limited window when we had the rights to make a musical out of it. Ultimately, as compelling as I think the idea of the real history behind the Globetrotters is, which is fascinating, ultimately you want to see Globetrotter basketball played onstage, and that's kind of going to run completely counter to what the theatre is. If you want to see a great basketball game performed onstage, then you should go see basketball. And it would have to be so heavily stylized — although I think somebody could do it — the audience expectations . . . we couldn't meet.

Playbill.com: Pinocchio?
TS: No, we had developed it. We had talked about it with Tina Landau at one point, and then we talked about it with Julie Taymor, and we did some development with it. But the idea of actually taking the Disney film "Pinocchio" as a base, it's so different than the [original] Collodi [version] and what the Pinocchio values really are that you fall into this "Are you going to do Collodi or are you going to do [Disney's] Pinocchio?" We couldn't ever get it to mesh together, so we sort of agreed to disagree. Julie Taymor is, however, developing something that we are funding the development of.

Playbill.com: Can you talk about that?
TS: No, not until she's ready to talk about it. It's a fun idea, and she's got ideas stacked up everywhere!

Playbill.com: Is it a musical project?
TS: Yes, it's completely music-based of a famous story. It's a great idea, so I said, "Do something you want to do."

Playbill.com: Spellbound?
TS: Well, Spellbound, obviously spelling was in the zeitgeist. The funny thing about Spellbound is I was sitting with [producer] Margo Lion right after Hairspray opened, and she said, "What am I going to do next?" . . . I said, "Have you seen this movie 'Spellbound,' Jeff Blitz's documentary about spelling bees?" I said, "That is a musical," and she goes, "I don't get it." I said, "Spelling bees are a big idea. This is a musical," and I spent the whole lunch trying to convince her to develop "Spellbound" [to no avail.] . . . I left a week later and was on holiday with Roger Rees; Rick Elice, who wrote Jersey Boys; Kurt Deutsch, who runs Ghostlight and Sh-K-Boom Records; and his wife, Sherie Rene Scott, who needless to say is a fantastic actress. And, we're all on holiday together, and I say, "What do you think of this idea?" And they all started screaming at me, "You have to do it!" So I contacted Jeff Blitz and I said, "I want to make a stage version of your documentary."

Playbill.com: What was his reaction?
TS: He was really slow to respond. . . . and it took me a year to get him to focus and give us the rights. . . . And finally when he said we could do it, we were up to our eyeballs [with other projects]. And, then, instantly Bill Finn's brilliant Putnam County Spelling Bee opened in the Berkshires. And, it's like I said, "Well, there it goes. It's over." And [producer] David [Stone] very cleverly picked it up and brought it in. I love William Finn. He's brilliant, and they did a great job with it, and they got there first.

Playbill.com: Hunchback of Notre Dame?
TS: Hunchback we did in Berlin, and we probably will develop Hunchback as a licensed property. I don't have any intention to bring it to Broadway.

Playbill.com: Finally, what do you enjoy the most about your job and what are you proudest of in terms of your accomplishments?
TS: If you look at the artists that we have assembled to work with on shows that either we did or did not do but that we've developed. Look at Poppins: Cameron Mackintosh, Sir Richard Eyre, Matthew Bourne, Stephen Mear, Bob Crowley, Julian Fellowes. That's a phenomenal team. . . . For me, I'm proudest of turning to a community of world-class people and trying to create musicals that both delight and challenge the notion of how you tell a musical. . . . . The greatest joy for me and the thing I'm proudest of is being able to work with these people and make musicals that people respond to. . . . For me the most fun is going to someone like Julie Taymor or Bob Crowley or Francesca Zambello or James Lapine and saying, "Do you want to try to do this?" That's a great pleasure.