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Young at Art

Date: Dec 04, 2007


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Attentive riders of the D train might occasionally notice a thin, well-dressed, tastefully bespectacled man en route to Bensonhurst, where he disembarks for regular visits to Lafayette High School. These days he's likely to have some attractive hard-bound books in tow.

Clued-in theatre watchers among us might recognize him as Thomas Schumacher (pictured above with Henry Hodges, from the cast of Mary Poppins), President of Disney Theatricals, who takes time out of his busy schedule producing such shows as The Lion KingTarzan and the upcoming The Little Mermaid to be a mentor for Theatre Development Fund's Open Doors program, in which stage-seasoned pros act as theatregoing guides over the length of a school year for a group high school teens, many of whom have never been to the theatre before.

But these days, Open Doors isn't the only educational outreach Schumacher is doing to get young audiences excited and informed about the theatre. Hence those hardbound books: Schumacher's lavish but reasonably priced new book, How Does the Show Go On? An Introduction to the Theatre, written with Jeff Kurti, was essentially created with a younger version of himself in mind.

In fact, that's a response he got from a number of colleagues.

"In making the book, I asked everyone who works with me to be a part of it," Schumacher recalled recently. "Then I sent them advance copies of the book, and without exception, everyone said: 'This is the book I wish I had when I was growing up.' "

Though the book focuses, unsurprisingly, on Disney productions, what is striking is that under Schumacher's leadership, Disney Theatricals has amassed enough productions for How Does the Show Go On? to cover a substantial breadth of material. From lighting designer Natasha Katz to fight director Rick Sordelet, from composer Elton John to press agent Chris Boneau, the book is packed with enough detail, insight and anecdotes to enlighten and inspire newbies (and a few dab hands, too).

Also included in the book are several beautiful pullout examples and interactive elements, from liftable transparencies that show actors before and after makeup is applied to a sketchbook of designs for The Lion King. There's even a sample Playbill and pair of tickets (non-redeemable, of course).

It's all designed to demystify theatregoing--or, as Schumacher memorably put it, to "de-terrorize theatre"-- for audiences who aren't habitues of the Rialto.

"Any business can tell you, whether it's retail or restaurants, that the hardest thing to do is get someone to come the first time," Schumacher said. "We did some polling at The Lion King this fall and learned that on some nights as many as 40 percent of the people in the audience were seeing their first Broadway show. And that's the adults."

When it comes to young people, Schumacher finds himself uniquely qualified to play a kind of ambassador role.

"I have this common history with kids because of my past life at Disney Animation," said Schumacher, who until 2002 headed up the legendary animation department that originated much of the material that has since made it to Broadway. "So I've helped to plant a lot of dreams in their heads."

That gains Schumacher unique entrée into young people's taste and imagination. Their concerns, too: With his Open Doors group, for instance, he says, "We talk a lot about not just what's onstage but about the makeup of the audience, who theatre is intended for, who feels welcome. When I took them to Pygmalion, the students couldn't help but notice the color and age of most of the audience."

That's one reason Schumacher is proud that shows like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins, among others, have introduced so many people of all ages to the notion that "attending the theatre can be a really joyful, rich, exciting, entertaining time."

While he means to demystify the world of the stage with his new book, he doesn't imagine that its detailed peek behind the curtain will spoil the magic for audiences. A former actor and puppeteer who one day decided he'd prefer to work behind the scenes, Schumacher has been in and around show business for most of his life, and he still gets goosebumps, chills, thrills and laughs from the unique world of the footlights.

And, he has to admit, he gets a fair amount of tsuris, too.

"I'm a nail biter," he confessed. In the book he reports that both he and Poppins co-producer Cameron Mackintosh could often be seen pacing the back row during early performances of the show. Audiences might notice the same thing taking place these days at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where Disney's next musical, The Little Mermaid, is in previews. Its original December 6 opening was delayed until January 10, in part by the recent Local One stagehands' strike.

"There are different kinds of producers, and I'm the kind who's very hands-on," Schumacher said. "I'm there 'round the clock." Miraculously, the technically complicated Mermaid was up and swimming again the night after the strike ended, though Schumacher said that at the first post-strike reassembly of the cast, he joked with them: "Now, does anyone remember what to do?"

The better-seasoned Lion King got roaring again with a little more ease, though the strike happened to fall on the show's planned 10th anniversary gala. "We had people who flew in from Africa and Europe, so we still had a big party--we just did a little earlier in the evening," Schumacher said. In attendance were all but four of the original Simbas and Nalas, and Schumacher noticed one detail that testifies to the show's longevity: "The first round of young Simbas is old enough now to play adult Simbas."

He hopes that when the members of today's Simba set are old enough to buy their own tickets, they'll keep choosing live theatre. Thanks to How Does the Show Go On?, they'll know a lot more about what to look forward to.

On Wed., Dec. 12 at 6 p.m., Schumacher, Kurtti and Mary Poppins star Henry Hodges will speak and sign copies of the books at the Lincoln Triangle Barnes & Nobles (1972 Broadway).