SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Drink With Disney Theatrical President Thomas Schumacher

By Robert Simonson
28 Apr 2013

Thomas Schumacher
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
The other Disney show on Broadway right now is Newsies, a surprise hit fashioned from a failed 1992 Disney movie. It's road to reclamation was an improbable one, told Schumacher.

"What happened is we do surveys with lots of smaller theatres, asking, 'What do we have in our catalogue that you would like to see?' And Newsies kept popping up. Over and over people would tell me, 'Nobody cares about Newsies.' But whenever I would go speak at colleges, some kid would say, 'When are you doing Newsies on stage?' And then Alan Menken told me that when he went to colleges to speak they always said, 'When are you doing Newsies?'"

So he decided to put together a stage version, not for Broadway, but to license. "It kind of floundered and didn't quite make it. And then Harvey Fierstein, in a chance meeting with Alan Menken, said, 'What are you doing with Newsies?' Alan said, 'We're having trouble cracking it.' It was Harvey who came up with a different approach and took it apart." A subsequent reading was successful, and a production at the Paper Mill Playhouse was arranged.

"Then," he said, "it became a thing." Critics loved it, audiences loved it. Suddenly, the Nederlander Theatre was available when a planned production of Anne Christie starring Jude Law was canceled. Still, Schumacher wasn't thinking about a long run for Newsies. "We just thought, let's do it on Broadway for a little bit to brand it Broadway before we license it. And then it took off."

Schumacher bristles slightly at the suggestion that Newsies helped to rejuvenate Disney Theatrical. A company that has dozens of productions all over the world, he pointed out, is hardly in need of rejuvenation. Such a question "makes us think," he said with a smile, and a wink in his voice, "you probably don't think about our deep dimensionality."

"What Newsies did do," he added, however, "is it may have redefined what you think we do. It's smaller, and it wasn't based on a hit. It doesn't feature any kind of a fantasy element. It's a different kind of show."

Thomas Schumacher
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"At the beginning it might have gotten a kind of novelty audience," he continued, "who might have had some affection for the film. But what it rapidly became on Broadway is a show for the general audience. Stand in front of the theatre and you see a regular, general Broadway audience."

Schumacher's non-stop schedule and many years of service notwithstanding, he appears to retain the same zest for theatre that he possessed as a teenager, when the best way he could think of to celebrate a new driver's license was to park his car in front of the nearest theatre. He has a caricature at Sardi's, and frequently arranges to sit under it when he dines. The current Broadway season contains revivals of two shows that remain close to his heart: Pippin, the title role in which he played as a young man in California; and Annie, the original production of which he saw back on that fateful first trip to New York. He won't listen to a bad word uttered against either of them. "I don't tolerate Annie bashing," he said, sounding at least half-serious. "Sometimes there are certain songs that cheer me up. And 'Tomorrow' does cheer me up."

He even seems to enjoy talking to journalists. "That's all I do is conversation," he said. "A little gossip, a little chat, a little idle talk of this and that."

And so the conversation concludes, with a little idle talk. Did I know that Phil Collins played the Artful Dodger in the original London production of Oliver!? No, I did not. Or that, when he got too old for that role, he switched to the part of Noah Claypole? No, not that either. Finally, the coup de grâce. "Who was Phil Collins' understudy? One young Cameron Mackintosh!"

"And now I've been able to work with both of them on Broadway: Phil Collins on Tarzan and Cameron Mackintosh on Mary Poppins." By God, the man is good at chit chat.

"See how I put a little bow on this for you?" he said with an impish grin.

The writer sees it. And he takes the bow willingly.