The Lion King’s impresario producer

Holly Williams interviews the president and producer of Disney’s Theatrical Productions, Thomas Schumacher, ahead of The Lion King musical visiting Bristol Hippodrome this September…

It’s day one of rehearsals at a studio in Bristol that is filled with beautiful puppetry, masks and costumes for a new UK &Ireland tour of The Lion King, and the brand-new cast have just performed their first ever rendition of ‘Circle of Life’. 

“I get weepy, every time,” says Thomas Schumacher afterwards. And as president and producer of Disney’s Theatrical Productions, a producer on the original 1994 Lion King movie, and an executive producer on the new film version, he’s heard the song more than most. 

Schumacher is the impresario of original 1997 Broadway musical. The American, who’s worked for Disney for more than three decades, was the man who got the acclaimed, experimental theatre director Julie Taymor on board to adapt the show. She transformed The Lion King from an animated adventure to a theatrical spectacular that feels even more vibrant today, with its inventive, enchanting puppetry and music grounded in the rhythms and voices of South Africa. 

It takes a village to put on The Lion King, Schumacher says – and it’s a village which can turn into a family. While many of the cast and crew are new to the show, others are returning for second, third or fourth time. Today, The Lion King is one of the longest running musicals in the UK, and has been seen by over 100 million people on six different continents. What’s the secret to its enduring popularity? 

“It was the first movie translated into 32 different languages; it was even translated into Zulu,” begins Schumacher. “Whether you were a kid in Israel, a grandma in South Africa, a college student in Finland, you all saw the same story and it becomes a universal story – because it’s about all of us. It’s about family and community and responsibility and growing up: I think that is just so universal.”

nala and simba

But he adds that it was Taymor, the “genius of the show”, that transformed that fable into a live work that really connects with audiences. “Even though people think of Julie as a visualist, she’s really a storyteller.”

In The Lion King, you always know you’re watching actors – but through the use of masks and puppetry, you’re also seeing the animals of the Pride Lands spring to life. Whether it’s giraffes played by performers on stilts or a dancer animating half a herd of leaping gazelle puppets, The Lion King invites the audience to see on two levels at the same time: the fiction, and how it is created. Somehow, knowing how the magic is made only makes it more magical. 

For generations of audiences, The Lion King has been their introduction to the huge potential of theatre – and the show’s worldwide gross exceeds that of any film, Broadway show or other entertainment title in box office history. But its success was by no means guaranteed. 

“I thought it was the worst idea in the world,” Schumacher deadpans, recalling the first time someone told him to make a stage version of the cartoon. “In the early days of Disney Theatrical, the goal was recreating the film on stage,” he says. But the thought of actors prowling around in fluffy lion outfits did not seem promising.

Schumacher’s background, however, was in theatre rather than Hollywood – and in experimental, international work at that. So he knew there could be another way to adapt The Lion King for stage. “I thought, well, who could do this? Only one person: Julie.” 

Beyond Disney, how influential does he think The Lion King has been on theatre? “I think it has influenced audiences,” Schumacher muses. “It just tells them everything is possible in the theatre.” That, in turn, emboldens producers to trust they’ll be an audience for more imaginative work. 

Still, mounting a tour of a show which is so technically demanding, with so much set and costume, isn’t exactly a breeze. “Over the years we’ve changed the way things are built, how they come together, how they pack. We have things now that self-assemble with magnets: rather than have to pack a big bird kite in a huge box, we can pop the wings off,” Schumacher explains. 

But audiences for the touring show will experience what audiences at the Lyceum Theatre in the West End cheer at every performance: the puppets and costumes may have to be built to withstand travel, but onstage they look the same. “You’ll see the same elephants, the same giraffes; Mufasa will look the same,” says Schumacher. “We just have to reconfigure [the show] because it has to get on and off a truck.”

The makeup of this new Lion King is a little different however – even for a show known for its diverse casting, this is the most international company they’ve ever assembled, with cast, crew and creatives from 17 different countries around the world. Schumacher says “To begin a new tour with such a diverse, globe-spanning company is a real joy. “I think it speaks to what The Lion King is all about,” he says. “It is just so universal.”

The Lion King is showing at the Bristol Hippodrome from September 7 – November 23.

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