Working His Magic: An Interview with Thomas Schumacher

Thomas Schumacher, President of Disney Theatrical Group, shares his thoughts on serendipity, the importance of creativity and an insight to the birth of Disney characters

Thomas Schumacher could tell you a story about almost any famous person you care to name (and is particularly effusive on the joy and wit that is Julie Andrews).

He is President of Disney Theatrical Group, the arm of The Walt Disney Company responsible for stage productions. Schumacher has been with the company since 1988 working across film, television, animation and theatre and has overseen exquisite and enormously popular stage productions including The Lion King, Peter and the Starcatcher, Newsies, Aladdin and dozens of animated works such as Lilo & Stitch, Tarzan and Mulan.

A California boy turned New Yorker, Schumacher is a fierce advocate for arts education and last December took on the role of Chairman of the Broadway League. With the most successful musical of all time on his list of achievements, a life that would make a fabulous movie and a 30 year career inside the magic kingdom, what does he think about serendipity?

THIS IDEA OF SERENDIPITY...

Don’t you actually think that, somewhere deep, we’re going to find out that whenever our passage happens, that what we call ‘serendipity’, is actually life! That’s the reason why serendipity runs through myth, through legend and lore, why it’s passed on from culture to culture. It’s why everything that we do in the arts, and primarily what we share as humanity around the world is the arts. No matter where we were born, no matter where we come from, no matter what epoch we live in, that serendipity runs through it.

MEETING JULIE TAYMOR AND UNDERSTANDING JAVANESE ROD PUPPETRY…

I keep thinking, wondering, that if it would be revealed to us why things happen. Why did I grow up loving puppets? Why did I study puppetry at UCLA where I was then able to go into a deep dive about international puppetry? And then 20 years later, I meet Julie Taymor and then 10 years after that I decide to ask her to direct The Lion King. It meant she and I could bond over, not the idea of puppetry, but the literal mechanics of an Indonesian shadow puppet versus a Javanese rod puppet versus Bunraku puppets. Actually, I was with Julie two days ago. I am so crazy about her and she is a giant thinker and a fantastic collaborator. I have found in my career, over and over and over again, that the people I met, people I’d thought about, ideas that I had come back to, that these things are becoming themes in our lives that interlink with someone else. What we call serendipity may, in fact, have some larger meaning. I just wonder about that.

ARTISTIC COLLABORATION, CHANCE AND HAPPENSTANCE…

I would argue that’s the same of my relationship with John Lasseter who founded Pixar. John and I met through a mutual friend who has since passed away, an artist named Joe Ranft; a Disney artist who was on my first film Rescuers Down Under set here in Australia which brought me to this glorious country for the very first time in 1988. Joe came with me on that trip and we made that movie.

Joe had gone to college with John Lasseter and went on to work with Tim Burton and John on The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I also oversaw. I had this close relationship with Joe Ranft, and at the time John Lasseter was very spooked about coming back to Disney because the whole thing had changed since he’d been animator there. But Joe said, “oh, you have to meet Tom Schumacher”. So anyway, the fact that I had asked Joe Ranft to be the head of story on Rescuers, and bonded together in Australia – literally canoeing through Katherine Gorge – somehow led to Joe telling John, “you can come to work at Disney… you will find these people inviting”.

So you can argue there’s a serendipity of Joe and I on a canoe going through Katherine Gorge that gets Pixar to come to Disney. Right? I think it underlies everything.

Then there’s Barry Cook. Barry Cook is an artist that nobody talks about, who I think is brilliant. He was one of the directors and a real life force on a movie called Mulan that I love. There was an idea on the table to make this movie about a young Chinese woman and none of us were happy with the idea – she gets rescued by some white guy and something on the Yangtze river. It’s like, what is that saying? And it was really just Barry thinking about his life as a father and about what would he want a daughter to see which led to the idea of Mulan, who doesn’t pursue anything in that movie for self-service. She does it all, truly, truly, heroically – sacrificing herself and 'saving China'. I love everything that movie stands for, about empowering young women about being able to follow your own voice. Although I think it is interesting people never think about the artists who are behind those stories.

TRUST, OPENNESS AND THE BIRTH OF LILO…

Chris Sanders created the story on Mulan and then went on to create Lilo & Stitch. There was this time, all of us in animation wanted to make our Dumbo. And Dumbo – most people who don’t work in film don’t realise – was following on from Snow White and Pinocchio and Fantasia, all these hugely detailed and expensive movies. Dumbo was the idea of two guys, Dick Huerner and Joe Grant, who I knew very, very well. In fact, we brought Dick back to Disney as an elderly man during my time at animation. They wanted to make a movie that was simple. A very simple tale but also very simply animated.

And so we were all at a retreat, we said our generation should make our Dumbo and everyone said, “yes, we’re going to do that”. I was president of Disney Animation at the time and decided Chris Sanders should be the one to do that. We all loved Chris and his inventions. I went to him and said, “you’re going to make this movie”, and that was in Florida. I said “I’m going to come back in two weeks and you’re going to have an idea because I know you already have one”.

And two weeks later, I was back in Florida because one of our animations studios was there and I took him to a karaoke restaurant at 7 o’clock and the singing would start at 9pm. I said, “Chris, you’re going to tell me your idea for our generation’s Dumbo or you’re going to have to get up and sing at karaoke”. And to my great good fortune, he really did not want to sing. He reached out and he drew. We’d started talking about the idea of Lilo & Stitch and then he actually drew a picture of a Lilo on the paper table cloth. There was a little red wine spill on the table that he used for rouge on her cheeks and it’s hanging on my wall at home because it was the birth of that. That idea, of a moment in time. There needs to be a catalytic event, and whether that catalytic event grows out of serendipity or that the conditions of the catalytic event grew out of serendipity, I think that’s a really valuable thing – the fragility of the arts.

WALT DISNEY, CREATING NEW WORLDS AND TELLING STORIES…

Well, a curious thing you know, I do have the same birth date as Walt Disney. I know, it’s crazy. I was born on Walt Disney’s birthday. But by the way, for clarity, I was also born on the same day that a very famous American General named George Custer led the battle of Little Bighorn River. He underestimated the mighty strength of the native peoples of America and was slaughtered for his arrogance, his hubris and his ignorance. I’m mindful that I wish to be more like Walt Disney and less like George Custer!

When you think back on Walt as a storyteller, it’s a curious thing because Walt began as an artist drawing all these short films and simple stories. And then Walt took his deep dive into storytelling by making the first feature-length animated movie. He created Snow White and it was the first time anyone had thought you could draw 24 frames a second. But the big thing that changed the world wasn’t animated film making. It was Walt’s idea that entertainment required narrative.

Walt went to a funfair and it wasn’t as fun as he wanted it to be. Today we bandy about the term ‘theme park’, but it was Walt Disney who said the attraction, the ride, if you will, will be more fun if it has narrative, if you can tap into that story. That idea of narrative ran through everything he touched and whether he was a great futurist – yes he loved nostalgia – he also wasn’t afraid of scaring children, he wasn’t afraid of a challenge, he wasn’t afraid that you would think the mountain was too high and too hard. Even with the Casey Jr. Circus Train climbing that hill chanting, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”.

I personally never met Walt. He died in 1966 when I was nine. Walt was a big thinker and what he did was to inspire how so many artists work. I don’t think people even realise how often they are tapping into something that is maybe in their DNA, but certainly it’s a kind of primal thinking, that they have actually learnt from some application of Walt’s artistry.

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