Disney's theatre boss on Frozen — and Star Wars: the Musical

Thomas Schumacher has worked with entertainment mega-corporation Disney since 1988, firstly as a producer in the film division and eventually moving up to heading the company’s lucrative multibillion dollar theatrical arm. He oversees Disney’s 17 theatrical productions now touring the world and is in Sydney this week to announce the new Australian production of Aladdin.

Disney Theatrical has created a number of theatrical productions of successful existing Disney movies, but Schumacher says the company’s success is down to the way it transforms the properties entirely for the stage.

“Our job isn’t to plot the movie on stage,” Schumacher told Daily Review. “Our job is to make something that is purely theatrical, and you need to look at the source material and think ‘could it be made theatrical and if so, what would you do?’ Beauty [and the Beast] is very faithful to the movie, Lion King uses all the elements of the movie but really rearranged the priorities of some of the characters and presents it in such an amazing visual way. Poppins went to the film and the books of Pamela Travers as a source and picked the best of both.”

Schumacher says that while a “sure thing” doesn’t exist in the world of Broadway where between 75 and 80% of shows fail to make back their investment, using pre-existing material as inspiration gives the company a small “leg-up”.

“Broadway is now a global business and for us, who are producing these large-scale musicals and taking them around the world, it’s logical that you want to base something on material that has been widely seen.”

Disney has an excellent success rate with bringing its family-friendly properties to the stage, and now with its acquisition of George Lucas’ Lucasfilm, there are even more properties to play with. So should Star Wars fans be anticipating a theatrical version of that property?

“Obviously there’s all sorts of things one could do with the elements of Star Wars — its glorious score, its fantastic themes — but you tell me, do you envision something that’s based on so much extraordinary cinema and special effects, does the theatre serve that? You have to ask, is there something theatrical in any property?”

Unlike many producers, the films adapted by Disney are mostly movie musicals to begin with, with writers who have stage experience. Schumacher points to Disney’s first major theatrical venture The Beauty and the Beast, also composed by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich famously said the original film was a better musical than anything he’d seen on Broadway that year.

Another valuable property which Schumacher insists has musical theatre in its DNA is the 2013 animated hit Frozen, which is well on its way to the stage. The songwriters for the film Robert Lopez (Book of Mormon, Avenue Q) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez are working on new songs to add to their line-up of hits like Let it Go, but Schumacher isn’t giving a progress report to the media. He says the show needs the time that it needs to develop and he won’t rush it to the stage before its ready.

“Are we working on it? Absolutely. Do I have a real handle on what we’re going to tell and how we’re going to tell it? Absolutely. But we’ll keep it internal completely until we’re ready to show any of it. I’m sort of keeping that all to myself.”

Disney has been one of the biggest organisations moving screen stories to the stage and therefore at the centre of a trend which has exploded over the last two decades. But Schumacher says Broadway musicals have always been adaptive and feature films have been a major source of inspiration ever singe they began.

“This goes back to even The King and I. When Gertrude Lawrence saw the film Anna and the King of Siam, she literally called Richard Rodgers the next day and said ‘please turn this into a musical for me’.

“If you look at the history of the classic Broadway musicals, really almost all of them are based on some underlying material. It used to go the other way around — movies used to be based on stage shows and stage shows were very frequently based on plays or novels.”

Schumacher says that by using global properties, even when projects don’t catch hold on Broadway, they can go on to have a life elsewhere around the world.

“We’re about 80% successful on Broadway. The 20% of stuff that we’ve done that hasn’t quite worked on Broadway has ironically gone on to become big successes around the world. In the case of Tarzan, which we’ve done on Broadway with the music of Phil Collins — it was a very successful movie and didn’t translate in America well to the stage, but when we took that production to Europe, we’ve had great success with it.

“The same is true with The Little Mermaid, which had, for us, a short run on Broadway of a year and a half. You can’t call it a flop, but you’d say it wasn’t successful to the level we would have wanted, yet, when we took it around the world, it’s become a hit in Europe and a giant hit in Japan.”

But the biggest question is always whether the story will resonate broadly, one which is usually answered by Disney’s filmmakers in the first place, who create films for extraordinarily large audience.

“What we’re trying to do is tell stories that have some universal truths, some element that you can relate to emotionally and are built with extraordinary music and brilliant visuals, so turning to successful properties and using them as inspiration makes sense.”

Featured image: Star Wars: in concert

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