Disney's Top Theater Exec on 'Frozen' Musical Plans: "I'm Talking to Directors"

THR Thomas Shumacher - H 2014
Matt Furman

THR Thomas Shumacher - H 2014

Thomas Schumacher, president and producer at Disney Theatrical Group, opens up about the huge expectations involved in adapting the hit film, the massive success of 'Lion King,' and what went wrong with 'Little Mermaid,' 'Tarzan' and other movie-to-Broadway underachievers

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The accepted wisdom in showbiz is that theater is small potatoes compared to film or television. That's generally true, but the exceptions can be massive. Take Disney Theatrical Group's The Lion King, which this summer became the top entertainment property of all time, with a global yield of $6.2 billion, $1 billion of it from Broadway.

It's a sweet stroke of destiny that a show featuring groundbreaking puppetry should be presided over — like every stablemate out of Disney's 120-employee stage division in the past two decades — by Thomas Schumacher, who put himself through college working as a puppeteer. Schumacher, 56, was a "theater kid" recruited by Disney during the late '80s to produce The Rescuers Down Under. He became president of Disney Animation, overseeing 21 films, including The Lion King and Tarzan.

Following Disney's initial success on Broadway with Beauty and the Beast, the com­pany's then-CEO, Michael Eisner, approached Schumacher and fellow executive Peter Schneider to create a theatrical division in 1994. Now, two decades later, the offshoot manages multiple productions on Broadway, on tour and internationally as well as licenses shows for regional, amateur and school presentation. Disney doesn't break out theatrical revenue, but Schumacher says, "Seven years ago it was 43 percent of what it is today, so it's more than doubled in seven years."

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A fourth-generation Californian, Schumacher lives with husband Matthew White, an interior designer and former Los Angeles Ballet dancer, in Manhattan and their farm in upstate New York, along with their dachshund Holden, 22 laying hens, a white rooster and 12 head of cattle.

The assembly-ready bronze body parts are by New York sculptor Sabin Howard. “I have a number of pieces by Sabin,” says Schumacher. “I have this constructed, but this is a version he had in his studio. I move them around; I change the pieces.”

With only two commercial failures out of eight shows, Schumacher can make a fair claim to being the most successful Broadway producer of the past 20 years. He sat down with THR to discuss the Lion King milestone, the successful launch of Aladdin and the huge expectations around Frozen. That project and The Princess Bride are the biggest items in a pipeline that includes a Father of the Bride musical and a possible Broadway transfer of the play adapted from Shakespeare in Love, which opened in London this summer.

Is a Frozen Broadway musical at the top of your to-do list?

Before the movie came out and the hubbub began, we had a midnight screening with about five people from this office. I came out at 1:30 in the morning, and I texted John Lasseter and said, "When do we start?" Within about 60 seconds my phone rings, and it's John screaming because he's always wanted to try something onstage. There's something purely theatrical about the relationship between these two women [characters, Elsa and Anna]. You can see it. My job is to corral the writers of the movie. I'm already talking to directors, and I have a design concept, and we have to begin to fashion this idea. It doesn't need to be fast. It needs to be great.

Among prized possessions in Schumacher’s office above the immaculately restored New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street are Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff, the ventriloquist dummies from Paul Winchell’s popular 1950s act. “These guys were my best friends when I was a child,” says Schumacher. “You’re in the room with legends!”

Is it daunting to have every Disney stage project measured against Lion King?

Well, when I look at that number, $6.2 billion, what's impressive to me is the sheer count of people [more than 75 million] who have come to see the show. It's not on the shoulders of the movie anymore, it's its own entity. Is it daunting? It's a responsibility to maintain it. You're endlessly figuring how to position it, change it. The expression I love, since I've established my pathetic farming abilities, is: "The best fertilizer is the farmer's shadow." You have to be there; you have to be vigilant and supervise your field.

Was it a natural leap to start taking animated movie musicals to the stage?

It was very natural that Beauty and the Beast would make that transition. But then I'd argue it's probably not very obvious that Lion King would make that leap. For the most part, what has separated us from others who have tried to adapt film titles is that we're starting with something built around the idea of music, whether it's Beauty and the Beast or Mary Poppins. You're not trying to think how to musicalize it; you try to figure out [whether] it would be appropriate for the stage. Aladdin took 22 years from the time the movie opened to tell that story theatrically.

“These are Japanese doll heads. I love puppets,” says Schumacher, who has other bunraku figures and a 19th century Punch. “These are probably ’40s.”

How do you evaluate which properties in the library to turn into stage vehicles?

It's the hardest question. You have to sort of listen to your gut. You have to say, "Do the events in the film feel like they would be enhanced by seeing them happen in front of you?" You're always looking for the theatrical "in," as opposed to just putting a film onstage.

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When such movies as Tangled and Enchanted open big, do people suggest those are slam dunks?

Many people have come to us about Enchanted. But Enchanted has a fundamental narrative hook, which is they live in the world of animation and then they step into live action. I've thought about 20 different versions of how to do it, but I don't know what's so fun about that if they're never actually animated. John Lasseter and I have spoken so many times about Toy Story. But the fundamental joy of Toy Story is that Buzz and Woody are absolutely authentic toys. If Andy has to be 20 feet tall and we just see him from the knees down as a puppet, is that fun?

With Lucasfilm and Marvel now under Disney, are there theater plans for those vaults?

I have been talking with Marvel about theatrical opportunities. I have a very cool idea, but it would not be what you're expecting. There is a very interesting Lucas-oriented live event that could happen, but there's no rush on that.

You've bristled in the past at Disney shows being categorized as family entertainment. Why?

We just did a bunch of surveys, and whether you look at Aladdin or Lion King, 30 percent of the people who buy tickets — pairs, fours, whatever — 30 percent of sales are for clusters that include a child. Seventy percent are for people not intending to come with children. This is not a business of creating shows for children. So you have to figure out, what is my grown-up idea at the core of this? There's a great Walt Disney quote: "If I depended on critics and children to make a living, I'd go broke."

This wind-up Texas Ranger toy was one of two Valentine’s Day gifts from Schumacher’s old pal Ann Richards. “Look at that! Ain’t that a kick?” he says, doing an affectionate impersonation of the late Lone Star State governor.

How has developing a show changed now that everything in previews is scrutinized online?

We opened Lion King in Minneapolis in the summer of 1997, and we could barely get the show to run. Today, the Internet would have been all over us. If we knew then what we know now, we probably would have been afraid of it.

Aladdin has made a splash, grossing more than $40 million in seven months on Broadway. What kind of durability are you forecasting?

We';ve announced the first international production in Japan. And we have four more international productions on deck that we haven't announced yet. As for Broadway, it's too soon to tell. It's been in the top five for the past several months. But I don't know yet because I haven't gone through a full-season cycle. I have to see how big the holidays will be, then see what winter's like. I have to get through my second summer, and sometime around December next year I'll have a sense of how long it will run.

We're coming off a season with four major flop musicals based on movies. Looking at that and your own commercial underachievers on Broadway, The Little Mermaid and Tarzan, what went wrong?

In the case of our two shows that didn't succeed originally, I didn't get it right the first time. [Mermaid and Tarzan have been reworked since Broadway for international runs.] You set out to do something that works, and then maybe you make a handful of critical errors. So to blame anybody else when it doesn't work is disingenuous, because if there's anybody else in the room, you picked them.

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Do you abandon many projects that are not working in development?

Everything sounds interesting when you start talking about it. It's as you get deeper in, sometimes things aren't worthy. Maybe the failure is people don't pull the plug. We've developed three or four things that never saw the light of day. It might be that the material's not working or it might just be marketplace.

A curtain-call photograph of The Lion King at the New Amsterdam during Bill Clinton’s second term in office; the performance had been bought out as a fundraiser.

Are there producers who ignore the signs when things aren't working and go ahead regardless?

I don't know what other people do. We work with the money that we make. I spend that money on staff and development and I return the rest to Disney, and they're getting a great return. If you have scratched together your last bit of money on something that's not working, you have to try to make that work to get out of it — particularly if you've taken other people's money, because then we're in the Max Bialystock game.

Harvey Weinstein is bringing in his first musical as lead producer in the spring, Finding Neverland, after replacing the entire original creative team. Any advice for him?

Having been out of town with something that was going really well and then came to Broadway and flopped, and having been out of town with something that was not going well, like Aladdin in Toronto …

You've got to work on your show and get it right. Having had both versions of out-of-town, all you can do is try to produce the best way you know how. Harvey is really smart, really passionate, and based on his beaming smile when I saw him last week, he's loving this.

Other Hollywood studios have tested the Broadway waters with varying impact, but none has established the foothold of Disney. What's the secret?

I think a few things. One is the juice of our properties. They were inherently musicals and in many cases were created by theater people. These are theatrical things at their core. The second piece is that we genuinely committed to work on it. I live here full-time, like every other real producer on Broadway. The Walt Disney Company made it very possible for us to actually build a business here. And then look at the people we've worked with. Look at this array of directors and designers, the caliber of artists we work with. We try to give them the best resources we can, and then we sit here as good shepherds every day. And Disney, whether starting with Michael Eisner or obviously with Bob Iger today, is deeply dedicated to the quality of this business, not just the economic return.

Stage insiders used to gripe about the "theme-parkification" of Broadway. Has that changed?

One of my dearest friends is a very old-guard producer, who said to me the first time she took me to lunch, "You know, I really want to hate you, but I just can't." I think there was an idea that this hose of money was going to somehow be dropped on Broadway, just artificially keeping things alive. Once the real theater community — I mean the real theater-makers, not just anybody who ever invested in a show — realized that all our shows lived and died on their own merits, and we could succeed or fail and took our slugs like anybody else, I think that changed things.