SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Drink With Disney Theatrical President Thomas Schumacher
By Robert Simonson
The first time Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical, came to Sardi's was in 1977, "the summer Elvis died," as he put it. He didn't waste any time getting there.
"I was old enough to drink in New York, because you could drink at 18 in those days. And I came into Sardi's and had a drink and looked around at these walls. And I said, 'Wow, it looks like the Brown Derby!'"
Schumacher knew from the Brown Derby. A fourth-generation California boy (his grandfather, for whom he's named, was a survivor of the 1906 San Francicso earthquake), he had once sold ladies shoes across the street from the famous Hollywood restaurant, and was well-acquainted with its famous Cobb Salad. But walking through Times Square that hot, sordid summer, he knew where he belonged.
"I thought, 'I was born to live here.'"
He can still recall, with a boyish theatre geek's glee, the shows he attended that summer. (And, make no mistake, he did come specifically to see shows.) He saw Al Pacino in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, the original production of Annie, I Love My Wife starring the Smothers Brothers, and Equus with Leonard Nimoy, among others.
These, of course, weren't the first shows Schumacher had seen. By the time he reached Broadway, he had taken in dozens and participated in more. "I was going to ACT and seeing the shows that Bill Ball was staging there. They were life-changing. At the Curran, I saw Peter Brook's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I grew up with this fantastic exposure to dance and theatre."
His early commitment to theatre is handily illustrated in the story of how he spent his 16th birthday. "I got two things on my birthday," he recalled, "a driver's license and season tickets to ACT." So, the Friday after he got his license, he climbed in his car, drove to ACT and saw The House of Bernarda Alba."
These days, as the New Yorker that he always knew he'd become, he flies more than drives, checking on Disney's various and far-flung projects. Just prior to sitting down to this interview, he had been in Florida, meeting about Disney on Ice and Disney Live, which sends out new shows across the world on a regular basis. He journeys to Florida often, and has a history there. In his early days with Disney, when he was working in Disney's animation arm, he had an office right smack dab inside Disneyworld in Orlando. It had a large window through which visitors could see the Disney employees all working. "It was like an animation petting zoo," he said.
Meanwhile, he has tended, in recent months, to a few landmark occasions concerning existing shows. In March Mary Poppins closed at the New Amsterdam after more than six years. "I did a yacky-yacky thing on the stage," at the final performance, he said. "Forty of the children who have played Jane and Michael Banks came. Some of them are in college now, which is sweet. It's adorable."
But that's not the end of Mary Poppins, for, it seems, the door never quite closes on any Disney stage property. "I was just at the opening of Mary Poppins in Mexico in November," he remarked. Aida left Broadway back in 2004 and has seldom been thought of in this town since. But, he will remind you, the show has never stopped being produced around the world.
The same certainly goes for The Lion King, which celebrated it 15th anniversary on Broadway last November, and remains Disney Theatrical's most prolific success by far. There are nine productions of it running around the world, including a recently opened one in Brazil. This fall, the number will rise to ten, with an Australian staging added. The show has the sort of international reach that when you ask Schumacher how many actors have played Simba, he'll reply, "In English?"
"I've worked on Lion King every week of my life for 22-and-a-half years," said the preternaturally youthful Schumacher, who doesn't look old enough to have been a working adult for that long. "I started on the movie. I got hired by Disney to produce an animated movie in 1987. At that time, there was nobody else making animated movies. 'Roger Rabbit' is what made animation hip again." He began work on the film "The Lion King" in 1990, and it premiered to great acclaim in 1994. The stage show bowed in 1998, and the rest is history.
Like its long-running neighbor, The Phantom of the Opera, the show has provided a regular home for some actors. "People come and go in it," said Schumacher. "For example, Alton Fitzgerald White, who was Mufasa on the road, then came to Broadway, then left to The Color Purple, then did Mufasa in Las Vegas, then came back to Broadway where he's playing Mufasa now." (Schumacher rattles off these feats of memory regularly. When asked how he remembers such minutiae, he replies, "It's my job.")
"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."
"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.
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