Show People with Paul Wontorek: Thomas Schumacher of Disney Theatrical Productions

Show People with Paul Wontorek: Thomas Schumacher of Disney Theatrical Productions


–As president and producer of Disney
Theatrical Productions, Thomas Schumacher is one of the most
influential leaders in the Broadway community. Celebrating 25 years since
their arrival on the scene with Beauty and the Beast, Disney Theatrical is
currently responsible for the amazingly long-running The Lion King, the
high-flying hit Aladdin, and their newest smash, Frozen, now starting its second
year. Hear the creative accept talk about his early days on the stage, the
origin stories of some of his biggest successes, and his grandfatherly love
of his Disney family on this week’s Show People. [music] –Thank you for being here Tom. –Wouldn’t
miss it! –This is such a big, actually a milestone for you. You are hitting a
milestone in your career. –We at Disney theatrical are hitting a
milestone. It’s 25 years since Beauty and the Beast opened on Broadway. –Right. –Which
probably makes you feel very old. –Well I was around for that.
–That’s what I mean! –Yes, so I actually remember it happening and I remember what the Broadway scene was
like then and and what it was like to have Disney arriving with this.
–We obviously weren’t the first people to do a family musical, right? Certain
generations say, Oh, the first musical I saw was The King and I, or would be The
Sound of Music, or it would be Annie. So when we came along
with Beauty and the Beast, which had already been nominated for an Oscar and
all that stuff, but it did bring a very different audience than what people were
expecting on Broadway. –Everybody says Beauty and the Beast their first show.
–Which was interesting about that show because it was both a date night show and a kid
show right? The number one merchandise item— why this is relevant? Only because
it indicates the romance of it were those roses. By the way what a great
thing? Get a silk rose, put a Beauty and the Beast label on it and sell it for $1,000 or
whatever we charged for it. But people bought them like crazy because they were on dates at
the same time that there’s some you know little boy or girl in their princess
dress. –I feel like I’ve met a lot of like Jersey guys who were like, I’m gonna bring
my girl to Beauty and the Beast and it got them scored them points. –Yeah it felt.
–That’ happening now too though. –Oh yeah.
–At Aladdin, that’s happening at Frozen.
— Aladdin particularly gets it because Aladdin has this fun nostalgia thing going on and I always like
to say that the Aladdin kind of grew up when you were 12 and you first saw it
back in 1992, you know, you’re like a real adult, potentially even with your own kids.
But you come on a date because you have all these nostalgia points about it. And
we deliver those moments, but we do it slightly meta. We’re very very aware of
ourselves and the fact that the thing has grown up with you. So we cast it
older. We don’t cast it with teenagers. And that’s all because we know who that
audience is. –So, that’s interesting because if you think back on Beauty and the
Beast. The stage production of Beauty and the Beast was not that.
–No. –It was it was
much closer to something you would see at Disney World. Is that fair to say? –Well,
I think what is fair to say —I wouldn’t argue that point. When you go to the park,
you want to see an exact recreation. And so the intention is to give you
the movie on stage. And that, that was how we started.
–It was expanded, you’re right. There were a lot of
–Oh, there’s fantastic songs that we cut from the movie. Tim Rice came onto it.
But the look of it, the feel of it. And in fact, right now we’re working on a
revival of it with the entire original team, but in a complete new design for
every element, and new dance arrangements, new whole new staging ideas, which is
really fun for that team now to be able to dive back in. We’ve done it, we’ve
altogether done a couple of versions. We have one playing in Shanghai now, that
isn’t a copy of Broadway, in Mandarin. I’m sure you’re dying to see that in
Mandarin. But I bet you’d follow it. –Sure. –It’s fun to reinvent them and go back in.
And now to really do a proper revival is exciting.
–That’s interesting. You haven’t done a revival yet, Disney Theatrical. –No. I mean, we won’t —not on Broadway. And we’re doing
this actually to tour as well. –Right. What was opening night of Beauty and the Beast,
1994, what was it like for you? Did did Disney feel like outsiders? You’re the
chairman of the board of the Broadway League now. You are very much a huge part of the industry and the community and a leader in this world, but did it did it
what what did it feel like back then? –Well, what was happening, keep in mind that when we did Beauty and the Beast, people did not think, right, when that team— And I did not, I did not mount Beauty and the Beast. When that team did Beauty and the Beast, it was
just a one-off. There was no big idea of being on Broadway. We were
developing a rehabbing the New Amsterdam Theatre at the time. Our then chairman
Michael Eisner already begun that commitment and that was well underway. But there wasn’t this giant… there was no plan really. And now we’re just
fully part of everything. We have three shows running. We we’ve had things that
worked, things that didn’t work. I think people have realized we’re just like
them, except we have some extraordinary IP to work with. –You are a
real theater person, and I know a lot of theater people when they have projects
that maybe don’t work in the way that some things really do work, they get
kind of obsessed with what could have been. I mean, look at Stephen Sondheim and Merrily We Roll Along, right? –Well I relate to
–Something like that. — I relate to Steve on
that because they have gone back in and and back in. And then they let other
people take a whack at it. –Right, yeah.
Do you have that at all? Do you think about…
–Well, yes, because fortunately, we’ve only had two shows that were that, for an
our definition, were a swing and a miss. And that would be Tarzan and Mermaid.
Now, mind you, each one ran a year and a half or whatever.
But in our sense of the world, they didn’t really land. Something that we did
about putting it together didn’t work right. But in both of those cases, we were
able to, because of our international reach and the potential of this IP, we
reinvented. So just this fall, I was in Germany closing the ten-year run of
Tarzan.
–Right. –And we’ve had great success with that. And and certainly Mermaid.
There’s two productions in Japan. We’ve done it in in the Netherlands. And of
course, we’ve reworked it enough that it gets licensed everywhere. So, they both
have actually economically paid back, which is nice. You know, you like to not
fail that way. But also, I think creatively, getting a second chance at it,
trying to figure out what’s the connection is to make it right is
enormously gratifying. –You have brought a lot of Disney magic to the stage. We
will be back with more Thomas Schumacher right after this. [music] [music] –And we are back with Thomas Schumacher, Disney Theatrical.
–Still here. I tried to leave, but they’ve locked the door.
–Still here. Nope, still here We have a lot
–You can’t even get out of this room.
–Can’t get out. It’s locked. So, let’s go
back to California. You you are a real –I’m a fourth generation.
–Fourth generation –Yeah, my great-grandmother was born in Benicia, California. And my
grandfather on that side was born in the same house. Do you keep a residence in
California? No. I haven’t lived in California since I think 2004. For a, for between 97 and 2004, I commuted back and forth. But now we’re
here completely, so. –Right.
— I’m in the city and then I have a place upstate.
–So, when you were growing up back in California, it sounds like you were quite a hoofer.
–Well –Your
dancing is still talked about, isn’t it? –Well, yes. People died to see Natasha Katz filmed me tap dancing in the Doshas palace in Venice a couple
years ago and that video has been seen everywhere because the place was empty for a party we were having. And she shot it and there I am. But no. What I did was, I was
a theater kid, right? So, I grew up outside of San Francisco in a city called San
Mateo, California. I grew up, you know, I had a very active community theater. I
didn’t do much theater in school, but had a very active community theater. And my
community recreation center hired me at 16 to direct. So I was directing kids a
little bit younger than me, professionally. I was working for the city, directing. And
I was doing theater and I was the custodian at Burl Davis’s Dance Arts
Center, and if I was if the mirrors were clean and the floors were clean every
morning, I got to take class. And James Iglehart learned how to tap dance for
Aladdin in the same studio that I used to clean. But no, so I danced and
then, and then I realized when I went to college that being able to read well out
loud isn’t acting. A lot of people haven’t figured that out. But I could read well out loud,
so I thought I was an actor. And I… –This happened while you were playing Pippin, correct? –Yeah. Yeah, I did Pippin Renfield and Corporal Hamilton Steves in in
South Pacific in rep and then understated Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. And at the end of that summer season of summer stock,
I took my wig off and said never again. Went back to school for my senior year of
UCLA where I was a theater major, and I was I was like Matthew Broderick in The
Producers. [sings] I want to be a producer. Yeah, that’s what I wanted.
And and I did everything I could. I worked for Susan Dietz, who often
produces on Broadway. I was in her box office for the LA stage company when she
started that. I did everything. Anything I could do to stay in theater.
–There’s a long list of your former jobs you documented it in your book.
–In my book for kids because I
wanted kids to know. I mean, I got hired pretty soon after school to work at the
Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, which was run by Gordon, the great Gordon
Davidson at the time. And I spent five years there, overlapping with other stuff
because I was sometimes project-based, sometimes full-time. But it was a
five-year period. But I always want kids to read it. I gave a talk at the at the
Center Theater Group when we did Aida out and at the Ahmanson. And they asked
me to talk to families. There were about 200 people in this rehearsal room, rehearsal room A. And I said I need all the young people in the room to stand up. I
made them all stand up. I said, Now, I need you to separate your feet about 12
inches apart. And then they all did that. I said, Now, I want you to look at the
floor between your feet. I said, Sweeping this floor was my first
professional job here at this theater. And I’m very proud of that. I used to
have to, I was a production assistant on the main stage and had to sweep the
floor and wash the coffee cups and drive people to their costume fittings. Lou
Gossett Jr. was doing a play with us and he wouldn’t get in my beat-up Volkswagen
with no seat belts to ride to his costume fitting. So he said, How about you
sit in my BMW next to me and I’ll drive us to the fitting? [laughs] –Sure! –It was a version of
working, you know? –What’s your favorite thing about your job now? What really
gets you excited to go to work? Your job seems like it’s sort of you do a lot
of things.
–Well, we’re big. –Overseeing a lot of things.
–Yeah, we have so many shows running. My
favorite part is is the period of creation. The now pretty
well-documented discovery on Aladdin when we were out of town in Toronto and the show famously wasn’t working, we reworked the whole show without the
cast knowing because we couldn’t tell them until we had it. And we didn’t tell
them until they were leaving town is when they found out. And that’s when
James Iglehart found out his whole role as the Genie had been restructured. And
watching that for the very first night, watching that just happen, when we got it
to where it was in a place where the audience was having more fun, it’s
unbelievably thrilling, unbelievably thrilling. Our business, very different
from most other parts of this industry, the industry of
entertainment: We get to be together. If you make a movie, you don’t see everybody
else. You’re separated into your thing. You’re into your process. The editor isn’t
sitting there with the actor. But we’re all in the room together, right? That to
me is so thrilling. And oftentimes, it’s the same people. For me to go sit next to
Natasha Katz while she’s lighting a show, and just watch her do it. I love it. We’ve
done so many shows together. It’s the people.
–I want to know what shows are in your head that maybe… You must always have future projects that are always
there things that develop for many years, right? And then there are sort of..
–Yeah –That people are really hungry for and certain things that certain –Well, see, people sometimes think they want something, right? And then you’re trying
to make something else. So I have projects that I’m excited about that we’ve been
puttering with for a long time. There’s not much advantage in announcing things
just to announce them. You should go make them.
–Yeah that being said, I can tell you
that sitting with David Yazbeck and Bob Martin and Rick Ellis working on The
Princess Bride is so unbelievably thrilling. Right? And the other day we
were sitting, we were doing, we were reading through the you know first act
of the show. And and David pulled out his guitar and started playing a song. Everyone
at the table was weeping. It was so beautiful, you know? So, we’re not ready to
announce it. I can tell you, but we’re in the middle of working on it. –That is very exciting.
–Isn’t it? –Yeah. That’s definitely one of those one of
those dream musicals we keep hearing about. Broadway.com hears all the time
from certain –Yeah, what’s happening and where’s it going? That happens, you
know. But sometimes things take a very long time. I have an idea for something
that is not a Disney piece of IP, but it’s the story of an extraordinary woman
inventor. And I’ve had this idea for 20 years. And someday, you know, someday
there’ll be a window. –And then frozen happened like that.
–Well, Frozen was crazy because I had nothing to do with the movie and I’d seen a presentation, you know? They do
those things like that they would show to marketing people. And I was like, Okay,
whatever. And then my friends at animation said, You should see this. And so at midnight, we screened it. While
I was working on Aladdin in Toronto, we screened it in one of these Disney
screening rooms. You know, it’s the middle of night and you know it’s like watching
Rocky Horror Show like, Why am I awake? And I was so captivated
immediately that it wasn’t that it was a stage musical. And that’s really because
of Bobby and Kristen, because of the way they shaped the music. That
construction of the music and how brilliant they did that. And I thought, Oh,
here we are. And I literally, like from the theater called, cuz fortunately by
this time it wasn’t 1 or 1:30 in the morning out in California, and I said,
When do we start? And that one, you know, it’s the unexpected consequences of
making a movie that they struggled to make the movie. It was a very hard movie
to make. Everyone knows that. Got reinvented right in the middle, saying,
Why is Elsa a villain just because she has this curious ability or disability
that this thing happens? Why is that a problem?
Movie gets reinvented on its feet. We watch it, goes on stage, now it’s gonna be
all over the world. –And during its second year on Broadway.
–Woohoo! –We’re gonna
talk more of a Thomas Schumacher after this break. [music] [music] –We are back with Thomas Schumacher. –I’m still here. The door seems to be
actually bolted now. That’s the part that’s scary. –But people call you Tom than Thomas, correct? I mean you’re Tom. –You can call me Mr. Schumacher.
–Mr. Schumacher. –No, no,
you can yeah Tom is just fine. Yeah. –Let’s talk about The Lion King. Can you imagine a Broadway where The Lion King is not running? Well it
–Oh yeah. I can imagine that. –Really? I
mean, because you’re actually, you’re a producer. You produce it. You keep it moving.
–I’m terrified of that. You know there’s a lot of companies of The Lion
King playing tonight. We’ve done many many productions of The Lion King. And now we’re 21 years in New York, 20 years in Tokyo, the 20th anniversary in London
comes up this fall. –Right.
–And they’re all plain strong because the material is so
strong. Julie’s concept is so timeless. There’s
the rustics like Timon and Pumbaa, but there’s the elegance of Mufasa’s mask.
And all that stuff still works. And and all that beautiful music works. And if we
stay with it and nurture it and treat it like something special, you know, maybe
it’ll last. But to think it’s just gonna be here, it certainly isn’t on autopilot.
–Right. Oh, absolutely not. –We’ve changed it a lot over the years. You know, we took 12 minutes out on the twelfth anniversary, tenth anniversary, because it was so long. We’ve
adjusted it, Julie’s rethought things, we’ve come up with some new staging ideas. –It’s so interesting to be in this place now where you originally were tasked
with taking these great Disney movie properties, bringing them to the Broadway
stage, creating theatrical versions. And now studios now taking these musicals
and then making live-action. It’s such an interesting… process.
–Well, I think the credit for like, for example, when you look at like the Beauty and the Beast remake, right? –Yeah, which you worked on.
— Yeah, I was executive producer of that. And then I’m
working on…
–Huge hit! –It was a big hit, yeah.
–Huge! –Yeah, yeah. Bill Condon did beautiful work on it and John Favreau. And I’m also involved in The…
— Lion King –Lion King movie that
comes out in July. And Favreau is doing something so… You guys have just seen
that trailer, but it is extraordinary what he’s doing. Now, yes. They’re taking
for the most part a big hunk of the movie that many people watching this
grew up on and making it now seem like it’s done
with trained lions. It’s it’s startlingly beautiful, and it’s the music you
grew up with for the most part. That cycle I find interesting. This
fascination with these musicals coming back on film and coming in as
live-action movies is really the bulk of that credit, for me, goes to the great
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken because Disney had never properly made a musical.
–Right. –They made films with music. So I think of my favorite one from the
earlier era, Lady and the Tramp. Lady and Tramp don’t sing ever. It’s always
secondary characters that are singing. It’s the classic, kind of Hollywood film
musical, where there’s music, but it’s not driving the story. And it was Howard who
brought the Broadway model into Mermaid and then when Beauty and the Beast wasn’t
working as an animated film, it became a musical, and then Howard applied that to
that. That means a generation grew up with that. And they grew up with MTV and
lots of other musical input, but the idea if you’re 35 years old today, to sit in
a theater and watch a story that you like, told with music, seems completely
natural. –Mm-hmm.
–And and I would argue that that’s because this generation was
raised watching that. And if we get it right, we can both pull on the
nostalgia factor of it—it’s a time to return home—but also show you
something new. So, Belle is a little bit different in Bill Condon’s version of
the of the film right? She’s… And that’s good because these films adjust
themselves for their time. –Absolutely. Hercules is another one that I hear people a lot mention Hercules as sort of a dream thing.
–Yeah, well –And it’s happening this summer
–It’s happening. So what happen with Hercules is, I, again, you know I was there. I mean, I literally
was in the room. John Musker and Ron Clements, who created the idea of
Hercules based on a gong show pitch that as we said, the whole staff come
in. And then they got paid for it they get a little screen credit. But a lot of
us shows, Mermaid came from a gong show, our film Pocahontas came from a gong show. A lot of them. Aida came from a gong show –So, a gong show pitch is an office thing? –Yeah, it’s an office thing. Anyone at the animation studio. You could be the janitor. You
could be the receptionist. –Wow.
–You could be a senior animator, a background painter, and
you’ve got you got to come in the room and pitch to me and Peter and Michael
Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg for a long time, and Roy Disney.
–Amazing –Yeah. People would do these
funny, elaborate pitches. Sometimes really simple. But anyway, Hercules came
out of that. Ron and John, we made this movie. Gerald Scarfe was the sort of uber-
thinker for the design of it, did all the original drawings, fantastic animation.
And the film kind of went, Eh. It just broke 100 million, which wasn’t enough
back then. And people kind of disregarded it and then people kind of like, Well,
that was a disappointment. But it lived so strong because of the song Go the
Distance, sung in the movie by Roger Bart. And when that clamshell video came out,
people fell in love with it. And they met it on video. And the advantage for all of
us who made movies back then, is that some of these films could live on. And
same thing for Walt, by the way, because a lot of movies that you think were hits
for him weren’t. But later and many many in his case, decades and decades and
decades later got reignited. But certainly Hercules was like that. Lear DeBessonet, who’s such a gifted, gifted director, and she went to see Alan Menken
at his studio upstate. And she said, What are you doing with Hercules? And then she
took it to Oskar Eustis. And so then we all came and met, and The Public said, We
would like to do this. We’ve done a couple of readings of it. And Alan Menken
and David’s Zipil, who did the songs for the original, came back and they’ve
written new material. And it’s really fun. And it’s very emotional to be in the
room with the music and see these glorious actors do it. And now, we’re
gonna have the stage full of the community and and I get to work with
Lear some more, who I just was in the office today. I just adore her. And that’s
fun. And she invented this methodology. And it gives us a chance. It’s only, what?
Seven performances or something. So, that’ll be a bit of a riot to get a ticket. –Very different, kind of, paths for a
–Yeah, a very curious, but why not? We know that there’s no formula to creating anything. There just isn’t. I have this expression I’ve used.
The recipe for success is the formula for failure. If you think you know how
it’s done, and you don’t approach each one fresh and new.
So the way Newsies became a Broadway show is totally different than the way
Aladin making a Broadway show, which is totally different from the way Lion King, which went very, very fast. Mary Poppins, you know, this is weird
marriage between us and Cameron Mackintosh. And we each wanted to do it and
we each had different parts of the rights, so we did it together. All these
things have a different path, and this is the path for Hercules.
–Sometimes it’s hard when you’ve doing something for a very long time to
actually sort of take a breath and go, I hit a milestone. This this is
sort of a moment. Or you’re just always like moving forward. It’s sometimes it’s
hard to acknowledge the passage of time. –Well, it’s hard for lots of reasons.
You know, I don’t see them as mine. I see them as ours, our events. And I want
people to jump in. And some of this is hard people who are brand new because
they don’t even know what all this is. You know, there’s always somebody new
coming in. But the, it is ours. It is this collective experience. And that’s
the part that makes me emotional. Like even today, just watching the whole
Frozen team gathered as we go on to all these new productions of it. To sit there
and look at Peter Hilynskey, who did that extraordinary work on the sound, and Jeremy Trunik who did all the special effects, you know? And Lorenzo
Pizhoni, who I saw a stunt he did in a production, last production of Noises
Off. And this guy falls down the stairs and I said, Who the hell did that? And why
don’t I know that person? Who staged that? And I don’t ever want to do something without Lorenzo Pizzoni now. He’s so brilliant you know? To see them all in the room.
Then I get— I’ve become grandpa, which is sad, you know?
I cry at telephone commercials, things like that. And I cry when I see
this that the gang all together because I believe in them so much. I know
it sounds nutty and rambling, but it it’s them. This isn’t a singular art form. It
isn’t. It’s a collective art form. And everyone brings something to that thing.
And I remember it. Who did what, who said what, who did —I keep
going back even on all these movies, you know? And it’s little bits by everybody,
little bits by everybody. –I’ve kept you here too long.
–Well, I go on. –But.
–It’s sad. It’s sad. I go on.
–The Broadway.com staff would be very upset if I did not ask you… –Uh huh –If there’s any chance we’re gonna see Aida again? That’s another one people people
want to see Aida. –Well,
–Does Elton John want to back Aida? Do you?
–Well, I will tell you because— I wouldn’t say it, but my pal Michael Riedel heard about it and leaked it. So, yes. I
love Aida. And there was there’s a lot of blood on the ground around Aida. So, yes.
We’re in the middle of developing Aida. We’re gonna do a little bit of a reading
very soon. David Henry Hwang is doing some stuff with the script.
The director is Shelley Williams, who actually was Nhebka in original production.
–Of course! Shelley Williams is fantastic. –And Shelley and I’ve been meeting over the years about lots of things, a lot. And we spend a lot of time together.
She’s spectacular, and I was talking to Bob Crowley about what the changes…
because we want to keep the essence of what he had created originally, but of
course for today. And we were going over it and I said, God, it needs to be
somebody to do this that’s of today, that is appropriate for it, but also who knows
what it was and what it could become. And I kept describing… And finally I said, You
know, I’m just describing Shelley. And Bob said, Well, let’s have Shelley do it! You
know, so that’s how it happened. I adore her, so that’s what’s happening.
–So do I. That’s fantastic news. –Yeah, I know. It’s so, we’re so newsy today! But I’m not attaching
dates to these things or locations –At some point in time, these things might happen.
–or all of that. But these things, these things are all in the cooker. –Thank you so much for being here.
Congratulations. I can’t wait to see many, many more years of Disney on Broadway. So exciting. –Well, yeah. I hope so too. Thank you for always keeping it
interesting! –Well, we do, we try to shake it up. And let’s see if it you know…that
sticks. –Shaking it up. I love it.
–Okay. –Thank you so much, Tom.
–You bet. –Thank you for watching.
We’ll see you next time. [music]

9 thoughts on “Show People with Paul Wontorek: Thomas Schumacher of Disney Theatrical Productions

  1. They mean the Elton John Aida, not the Verdi one?
    If so, that’s cool, coz I’d quite like to see that one day.

  2. One of my heros! Although I've never met Mr. Schumacher, he has been a huge part of my theatre/life education with his book and work in the theatre. Great interview 👍

  3. I enjoyed this interview very much! I would like to see Tangled, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, The Happiest Millionaire, and Mary Poppins Returns hit Broadway.

  4. Beauty and the Beast was my first show, too. I saw Tarzan and The Little Mermaid. Tarzan was awesome. Not sure why it flopped. The Little Mermaid wasn’t terrible, but it was pretty clear why it flopped. It didn’t have much appeal for anyone beyond 5 year old girls. But it does seem to be really popular in children’s theaters and community theaters around the country.

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