Disney’s Lion King roaring back to San Francisco

Lion King 1

Jelani Remy as Simba and the ensemble in “He Lives in You” from the touring production of Disney’s The Lion King. Photo by Joan Marcus


According to the Wall Street Journal, the King really is the King of Broadway.

News came down last month that Disney’s The Lion King is now Broadway’s all-time highest grossing show. It’s a title the regal hit stole from The Phantom of the Opera. The cumulative gross is staggering: $853,846,062 and counting.

Timing of the news couldn’t have come at a better time. Lion King‘s Tony Award-winning director, Julie Taymor, happened to be in town with producer and president of Disney Theatrical Productions President, Thomas Schumacher. They were with a small group at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville to promote the return of The Lion King to San Francisco this November as part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre. That’s the same theater where the show made its Bay Area debut in 2004 and ran for 43 weeks.

Schumacher, a San Mateo native, was working in Disney’s animation division when The Lion King first began to make noise. “I realize I’ve been working in way or another on The Lion King, practically on a daily basis for 21 years,” Schumacher said. He remembers reading a four –page treatment called King of the Beasts, which was sort of like an animated National Geographic special. The movie, after the usual years of revisions and rewrites, went on to become an international smash movie with a musical score by Elton John and Tim Rice.

Julie Taymor

When talk turned to the possibility of bringing The Lion King to the stage as Disney had done successfully with Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s chairman at the time, Michael Eisner, whom Schumacher called a “brilliant but nutty guy,” wasn’t at all enamored of the lion idea. Schumacher remembers him saying something like, “Andrew Lloyd Webber already did a musical with cats.”

But Schumacher said he had a great idea. He called up that great idea, who happened to be Taymor, the rather brilliant off-Broadway and international opera director who is one of the last people you’d associate with a Disney musical based on an animated film.

Taymor remembered thinking it wasn’t all that much of a stretch to think of her applying her artistic talents to the Disney project. The film, after all, had a dark beauty to it. “When you think about it, the film is about a young child witnessing the death of his father.”

Having worked in Asia and absorbed many aspects of theater and puppetry there, Taymor was intrigued by the challenge and was delighted that Schumacher and his colleagues seemed open to her aesthetic.

“I don’t think we could open The Lion King today,” Schumacher said. “It took a certain renegade spirit to do it, and we wouldn’t have the same freedom today.”

When The Lion King opened on Broadway in the fall of 1997, it didn’t look like anything else in New York. It still doesn’t. With its extraordinary puppetry, masks, costumes and theatrical effects – many of which are centuries old – it’s an original fusion of international theater techniques combined with Taymor’s overriding vision, which makes it all feel of a piece.

The signature theme of the evening, visually speaking, is the circle – “The Circle of Life” is the centerpiece song of the show (and the basis for its jaw-dropping opening scene) – a theme you see in everything from the rising of the sun to the spinning of wheels as puppet deer leap across the stage on little wagons.

“It would be easy to do a sunrise projection,” Taymor explained. “But that would not be live theater. I wanted to stay away from anything like film. This was already a film. So our sun is bamboo and silk. Our audience knows that, but as it rises, light shimmering across it, it’s filled with spirit and soul.”

She also described the show as “magic and toys,” which are “the spirit of theater. It’s in our DNA going way back. It’s not about thinking. It’s about feeling.”

Taymor calls working on The Lion King “the most enjoyable work experience I’ve had…and here I am 15 years later.”

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Disney’s The Lion King runs Nov. 1 through Jan. 13 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets are available as part of SHN’s 2012-13 season package. Subscriptions range from $197.50 to $567.50. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Tom Schumacher: From Broadway to bookseller

In his highly enjoyable book How Does the Show Go On? An Introduction to the Theater (Disney Editions, $19.95), Thomas Schumacher recounts, in no particular order, all the jobs he’s had in his life, from childhood in San Mateo to the top of the heap as president of Disney Theatrical Productions.

The list is as follows: “shoe salesman, costume dyer, actor, gift wrapper, director, bus boy, production assistant, kitchen worker, box-office treasurer, custodian, film executive, driver, teacher, puppeteer, movie producer, playground leader, stage carpenter, sound operator, sandwich maker, stage manager, personal assistant to a famous actress and, most recently, Broadway producer,” he writes.


“I want kids to see that you can end up doing a lot of different things before you end up doing what you always dreamed you’d be doing,” Schumacher says over a cup of tea at the Four Seasons in San Francisco.

He’s back in the Bay Area — he left about 30 years ago — to promote his book, which came out last fall and has already sold out its first printing.

The night before, he was in San Jose for an event at Children’s Musical Theatre, where he talked to a group of 200 local young performers whose questions, he says, were “outstanding.”

The showman in Schumacher, 50, also came out during the event. He brought a trunk of props from various Disney shows — a funny wig from Mary Poppins (made, as he told the kids, from “fur off a yak’s butt,” which you can bet got a laugh), a baby doll from Tarzan that “leaked” water on a volunteer from the audience, and a shattering vase from Poppins.

While in town, Schumacher was also on Ronn Owens’ KGO radio show. He was supposed to do 10 minutes and ended up staying for an hour because people kept calling and asking questions — mainly about family members who wanted to work in the theater.

“It was amazing all the people who called,” Schumacher says. “You’d never find people calling to talk about theater like that in L.A.”

One of the callers was an old friend who appears in Schumacher’s book. There’s a photo of a young Tommy Schumacher doing the splits in a Peninsula Civic Light Opera production of Hello, Dolly! (he was Barnaby Tucker), and Barbara Squire, the actress who played Dolly, also in the photo, called to say hello.

Similarly, later that night at the book signing, the intimate group — maybe two dozen people — included many of Schumacher’s friends, family members and teachers.

Several of those teachers receive shout-outs in the book: “Teachers have immeasurably enriched my life,” Schumacher writes. “And there is no one I’m more grateful for every time I enter a theater than the wonderful people who were and are my teachers, whether in school, in life or in theater.”

He specifically mentions three from San Mateo: Marian Haworth, who taught him about technical theater at age 14; Roy Casstevens, who taught him about directing at 15 (“and not a day goes by that I don’t use some aspect of what I learned from him”); and local choreography legend Berle Davis (“everything I know about discipline, practice and respect in theater goes back to Berle”). A fourth teacher, John Cauble, set Schumacher on a producing track at the University of California, Los Angeles.

After all he’s accomplished in his career, Schumacher finally got around to writing a book, the kind of book, he says, he would have been crazy about when he was a theater-hungry kid.

Indeed, the book is a trove of theatrical information. Schumacher illuminates every aspect of the theater, onstage (actors), backstage (designers, crew) and offstage (publicists, house managers) using examples from Disney shows including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Tarzan, Mary Poppins and the latest Broadway hit, The Little Mermaid.

Soon after the book hit the shelves, Schumacher was warned by friends that the primary audience would be MAGU, i.e., “maiden aunts and gay uncles.”
But kids — and plenty of adults — are eating up the book.

One of Schumacher’s friends, the great lighting designer Natasha Katz (whom Schumacher profiles in the book), admitted that, though she has worked in the theater for a long time, there were things she learned from the book.

“That has happened more than once,” Schumacher says. “Theater professionals and people who think they know all about theater are afraid to admit that there are things they don’t know. I’ve been told there’s a secret audience for the book of theater people filling in their knowledge gaps.”

Now that Little Mermaid is up and running (after an opening delayed by the stagehands’ strike), Schumacher is turning his attention to other Disney Theatrical projects.

Upcoming is a reading of The Man in the Ceiling, a new musical by composer Andrew Lippa and author Jules Feiffer (based on his book of the same name). Also in development is a show based on the book Peter and the Starcatchers by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry, which is sort of a prequel to Peter Pan.

“Both of these shows are small shows,” Schumacher says. That is a decided to contrast to the typical Disney spectacular such as the glitzy Mermaid.

Before either of those shows has completed its long journey to opening night, Schumacher will be hopping the globe as he and director Julie Taymor figure out how to make The Lion King both larger and smaller to fit into various international venues.

He’ll have to decide what’s next for Mermaid _ London or Japan? _ and, along with co-producer Cameron Mackintosh, launch the Mary Poppins UK tour and, eventually, the North American tour, and retool Tarzan for Hamburg.

“I love, love, love what I do,” Schumacher says. “It’s agony rarely and joyful mostly.”
There will be another book, he says, whenever he and collaborator Jeff Kurti can get around to it. There’s no definite plan, but the book will likely offer another glimpse into the theater world.
Until then, Schumacher will continue to flog How Does the Show Go On?

“I’m like the Gideons with this book,” Schumacher has joked more than once. “I want one in every house.”

Stage presents: A theater gift guide

So many fine gift ideas, so little space. Let’s get started with some great theater books.

In the realm of books about theater, this year’s standout comes from San Mateo native Thomas Schumacher, who also happens to be the president of Disney Theatrical, the producer of such hits as The Lion King and Mary Poppins. Schumacher’s How Does the Show Go On? An Introduction to the Theater (Disney Editions, $19.95) is geared toward the young theatergoer (ages 9 to 12), but it’s a hugely entertaining look at the entire theatrical picture, from the beginning of a show to the most intricate details of daily production.

The Bay Area can’t get enough of the musical Jersey Boys. For the most avid fans, there is, of course, a coffee-table book. Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons (Broadway, $40) contains the show’s libretto, lots of photos and a thorough guide to the real Four Seasons and their Broadway counterparts.

You think you know everything about The Sound of Music? Think again. Author Laurence Maslon has assembled the ultimate look behind the scenes of the world’s most beloved movie musical. The Sound of Music Companion (Fireside, $40) covers every aspect of the show, right up to the British reality TV show that allowed viewers to vote on the actress who wound up playing Maria on London’s West End.

The hottest show on Broadway is the multi-Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening. Fans already have memorized the great cast album, so give them Spring Awakening (Theatre Communications Group, $13.95), the libretto (by Steven Sater) and a new adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s original play by novelist Jonathan Franzen (Faber and Faber, $11.70). Franzen hates the musical, by the way, so it’s interesting to see how the play and the musical diverge.

This was the year of the movie musical — or maybe I should say the good movie musical. If your gift recipient loves musicals, make sure he or she has Hairspray (New Line Home Entertainment, $34.98 for two-disc version, $28.98 for single-disc), the joyous movie version of the Broadway hit; Once (20th Century Fox, $29.99), a fascinating and musically rich love story about an Irish street musician and an interesting woman he meets by chance; Colma: The Musical (Lionsgate, $27.98), a locally grown musical with catchy tunes and a better-than-average cast of characters. The best of the big-ticket DVD items this year is The Noel Coward Collection ($79.98 BBC/Warner), a veritable treasure trove of Cowardly delights. The set contains seven discs and runs some 19 hours (plus another 12 hours of bonus material that includes interviews, radio plays and more). The plays included are Private Lives (with the delectable Penelope Keith), Hay Fever, Design for Living, Present Laughter, A Song at Twilight, Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill and Tonight at 8:30.

This isn’t a CD, but while we’re on the subject of Coward, this year saw the release of a fantastic volume of Coward’s letters: The Letters of Noel Coward (Knopf, $37.50), edited by Barry Day. The beauty is that the book contains letters both from and to Coward, whose beastly wit entertains in every epistle.

The fine folks at PS Classics, the show-minded label that, in addition to turning out excellent original-cast albums, allows musical theater performers the chance to show their vocal stuff, have released some terrific new discs just in time for the holidays.

The best of the bunch is Lauren Kennedy’s Here and Now, a marvelous collection of show music and pop. Album highlight is Andrew Lippa’s “Spread a Little Joy,” followed closely by Jason Robert Brown’s “In This Room” and Adam Guettel‘s “Through the Mountain” (from Floyd Collins). Kennedy’s voice is so vibrant — at times so Streisandian — it’s irresistible.

PS Classics also is offering two more Broadway divas: Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark (Light in the Piazza) with Fifteen Seconds to Love, a solid collection mixing standards (“Right as the Rain,” “I Got Lost in His Arms”) and newer material (Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Red Dress,” Jane Kelly Williams’ “Fifteen Seconds of Grace”); and Andrea Burns (soon to be on Broadway again in In the Heights) with A Deeper Shade of Red, a set that mixes Joni Mitchell (“Chelsea Morning”) with Stephen Sondheim (“What More Do I Need?”) and Melissa Manchester (“Through the Eyes of Grace”) with Kate Bush and Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Man with the Child in His Eyes/Something Wonderful”).

PS Classics’ Songwriter Series with the Library of Congress’ latest offering is a doozy: Jonathan Larson: Jonathan Sings Larson. The composer of Rent, who died tragically the night before his show opened, is heard singing demos and performing live, and the disc paints an incredible portrait of an artist full of talent, humor and ambition. The accompanying DVD features four live performances from Larson’s gig at New York’s Village Gate.

More with Thomas Schumacher

Earlier this week I wrote a feature story about Disney Theatrical Productions president (and San Mateo native) Thomas Schumacher. You can read the story here.

For the blog, I wanted to take you behind the scenes a little bit because this was a hugely enjoyable story to work on.

First of all, I got to see the two Disney Broadway shows I hadn’t yet seen, Tarzan and Mary Poppins. After Tarzan, which features some extraordinary choreography (involving ropes and bungee-like ropes) and design, I got a backstage tour conducted by the charming Jorge Vargas, a friend of Schumacher’s for 25 years, since they met when Schumacher was working for the Los Angeles Ballet and Vargas was a dancer.

Vargas allowed peeks into the wig and costume rooms, and then let us chat with 23-year-old Josh Strickland, a former “American Idol” contestant who is now playing the chest-beating, vine-swinging Tarzan.

In his Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt, shorts and Yankees baseball cap, Strickland sang Schumacher’s praises: “Tom is not afraid to give new talent a chance. Lucky for me.”

Meeting Schumacher a few days later, he was in the midst of preparing for a party for the American League of Theaters and Producers, who were in town being feted by pretty much every producer on Broadway.

Schumacher energized the rehearsal for the evening’s entertainment, which was a tribute to George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, the young(ish) British songwriters who augmented and modified the original Sherman Brothers score for Mary Poppins. The songwriters sang tunes from their shows and were joined by Strickland and Ashley Brown (the title role in Mary Poppins) and Rebecca Luker (Mrs. Banks in Poppins). As an added treat, Stiles and Drewe were joined by “surprise guest” Richard Sherman.

After rehearsal, Schumacher and I retreated to a cozy dinner spot on Restaurant Row (46th Street between Eighth and Ninth streets), and Schumacher said that even after all his years in show business, he has never quite lost what he called the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aspect of this job.”

“You get to do this thing that you dream of and want to live for,” he said.

As if to prove his statement, our dinner was briefly interrupted by British playwright David Hare, who came over to say hello to Schumacher, who praised Hare’s work as director of Vanessa Redgrave in the one-woman show The Year of Magical Thinking.

Hare was in New York reluctantly because, as he put it, “It’s the most beautiful English spring I can recall. Very difficult to leave.”

After talking about how much he loves being a hands-on producer, Schumacher said: “This will sound stupid to someone who’s at all jaded, but there’s a warm embrace to an empty theater when you’re all sitting in the theater seats, feet up, trying to solve a problem. You’re with the band, the dressers, the crew, and you’re all trying to solve this thing. It’s the same feeling, I learned much later, you have if you’re on a sports team. It’s the rehearsal, the practice. The event is doing it in front of people. I love that coming together thing. A lot. I feel lucky to be doing it.”