“Everyone thought it was a terrible idea,” says producer and president of Disney Theatrical Productions Thomas Schumacher of The Lion King as a stage musical. “Everyone told us it wouldn’t work.” But Schumacher is not one to back down from a challenge.
After the success of Rob Roth’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway and the box office smash of Disney’s 1994 animated Lion King, Michael Eisner, chair of Disney at the time, approached Schumacher, executive vice president of Walt Disney Features Animation, and Peter Schneider and tasked them with putting The Lion King onstage.
“There was no giant business plan. It was, ‘Let’s just see if we could make this work,’” says Schumacher.
Eisner didn’t care how Schumacher mounted the show, he just wanted it done; Schumacher took that creative license and ran with it. “Based on the way Beauty had been mounted, which was a very faithful representation of the movie, we said, ‘You cannot do that with Lion King. Beauty is a classic musical that happened to be animated,” Schumacher explains. “Lion King was a piece of cinema that had a lot of songs in it and that’s a very different thing. That’s why I made the call and went to Julie Taymor.”
Together, Taymor, Schneider, and Schumacher began to develop the show that is now known across the globe. Trained in puppetry, Schumacher understood Taymor’s vision better than anyone. “It was very easy for me to understand the different techniques we were talking about because I knew a lot about them ahead of time,” he says. “We shared a language about it.”
But others were not as mentally agile. “When they, the studio folks, came to see the first workshop, they hated it,” says Schumacher, “and it’s exactly what we have onstage [today]. They all told us to do something different and we didn’t.”
It was a huge risk, but one that paid off. The triumph of The Lion King marked the official launch of Disney Theatrical Productions, the arm of Walt Disney Studios that specifically produces and licenses Broadway productions and has a hand in mounting Disney on Ice and Disney Live! events. Since The Lion King, Disney has opened eight more Broadway shows, including Aida, Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid, Newsies The Musical, and the currently-running Aladdin. And more than box offices successes, from The Lion King onwards, Disney’s shows have earned 49 Tony nominations and 19 wins.
Still, Schumacher recognizes it’s not always possible to hedge your bets. “I honestly don’t think knowing what we know now that we would have rolled the dice so big,” says Schumacher. “We rolled the dice so big because we had very little to lose. If the whole thing had blown up, people would have said, ‘Oh, good try,’ and they would have talked about it for three weeks and it would have been gone.”
Which is why if you ask Schumacher about a lesson he takes from The Lion King about staging successes he’ll tell you without a hint of sarcasm: “There’s nothing to be learned from The Lion King.”
“The recipe for success is the formula for failure,” he continues. “Even though The Lion King has been successful, it doesn’t tell us how to do the next one.
“There’s an element of kismet, there’s an element of luck that comes when you have the right combination of people with the right story at the right time and under the stewardship of Julie that has made this happen,” says Schumacher. And what has kept it happening for 20 years is the commitment of the team and their vigilance to maintaining the original artistry.
No matter what Disney produces on Broadway for years and decades to come, The Lion King will always be singular—as an entity and as the official launchpad of Disney Theatrical—and a place full of pride.
For more exclusive features and interviews celebrating The Lion King’s 20th anniversary, go to Playbill.com/LionKing.