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Interview

A Whole New World

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Peter Schneider is a high-achiever whose stellar showbiz credits appear to have resulted from a combination of extraordinary talent, drive, and—according to him—luck. He uses that word frequently in describing his career milestones. While good fortune possibly had a little bit to do with doors that opened for him along the way, one suspects that chutzpah, focus, and his wide-ranging talents played greater roles in his long string of triumphs. At Disney Productions, Schneider headed the animation division during the renaissance in that art form that began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. Then he launched and ran the company's theatrical division, beginning with the hit Broadway musical Beauty and the Beast. Finally he segued to the powerful position of studio chief. The further he climbed up the corporate ladder, the more his job became about bureaucratic drudgery and less about creative work in the trenches. "I had 17 diverse and extraordinary years at Disney," Schneider says. "Then, three years ago, I decided it was time for a change. With much grace and support from Roy Disney and Michael Eisner, I sort of moved on to the next chapter of my life. As you get paid a lot more money and go further up the chain, you find that you are getting further away from day-to-day artistic choices. You do a lot of managerial things that aren't really creative."

He left Disney in 2001 and at present is rolling up his sleeves to return to the hands-on work that he says he has missed so much. He's directing the Colony Theatre revival of the Tony-winning 1989 Broadway musical Grand Hotel. "I am so grateful to Barbara Beckley [the Colony's artistic director] for allowing me to come in here and direct," he says. One imagines Beckley is likewise quite thankful to have such a pedigreed craftsman helming her latest production

Schneider's professional roots are in live theatre. "I was always interested in the field of theatre in general," he remarks. "At first I was an actor, but I always looked like I was 12 years old, so I got into directing and stage managing." Originally from Chicago, he began dabbling in productions while attending high school in Madison, Wis., then received a degree in theatre from Purdue University. Following that, he went to New York where he says he spent four or five years directing and doing "sundry things in theatre." For a few years he served as managing director of Chicago's St. Nicholas Theatre, and then he resided and worked in London. He returned to the U.S. to direct the Olympic Arts Festival in association with the 1984 Olympic Games.

"Most of my career has been about some aspect of the creation of art," Schneider says. "Whether producing it, directing it, or managing it, I have been involved in the creation of very theatrical events, you might say. I was very lucky when I was hired at Disney by Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Roy Disney. They were looking for someone who knew something about animation, a little about film, and could do 'this and that' rather well. The recommendation given to them about me from a friend of mine was that I didn't know anything about animation and not much about film, but could do 'this and that' very well. So they hired me. This was at a time when animation was not that important to them—certainly not a mainstay for the company. They had just released The Black Cauldron [he chuckles, communicating volumes in the process]. They were doing animated films sparingly and not very successfully."

This changed dramatically under the leadership of Schneider, with the quadruple punch of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast—still the only animated film ever to win a Best Picture Oscar nomination—The Lion King, and Aladdin. In the 1950s and '60s, Walt Disney built his animated film empire on the strength of beloved musical fairy tales such as Snow White and Cinderella, and charming animal stories such as Lady and the Tramp and Bambi. Schneider revived that tradition while enhancing the genre with state-of-the-art animation techniques as well as a theatrical flair, by virtue of his background. Another key ingredient in this success was the prodigious team of composer Alan Menken and his late partner, lyricist Howard Ashman (the Little Shop of Horrors collaborators), who wrote Broadway-style song scores for the animated films during Schneider's tenure. Suddenly the animation field was once again a burgeoning Disney enterprise, with other studios quickly jumping on the bandwagon.

Many critics rhapsodized about Beauty and the Beast's strong stylistic resemblance to traditional Broadway musicals. So, in 1984, when Schneider switched from the animation department to head Disney's new theatrical division, Beauty was the ideal choice to launch this new producing arm. Musical theatre history was made with the still-running Beauty and Lion King,continuing to flourish on Broadway and in national tours, and other commercial successes such as Aida.

"Lion required more thought to bring to the stage," Schneider recalls. "Tom Schumacher [Schneider's partner in the theatrical division] and I were extremely blessed by having Julie Taymor as part of the creative team. I think Beauty and Lion will live forever in the history of popular theatre, though Lion was more arresting. It was a change of form for Broadway, bringing something new to musicals, and the images that could be created. Beauty is a darn good show in a conventional kind of way."

Perhaps tellingly, Schneider seems more interested in talking about his work in the animation and theatrical departments at Disney than in his eventual powerhouse job as an executive routinely greenlighting or nixing multimillion-dollar film projects. At the moment, he is even more jazzed about describing his work on Grand Hotel, which will be his Los Angeles debut as a theatre director. "Part of the fun in doing this show is that it has not been staged too frequently," he remarks. "I had a definite idea of what I wanted to do with it. Luther Davis [librettist] has been very supportive during this production. I reinstated a song that was written [by the composers Robert Wright and George Forrest] for an early version but not done on Broadway. Luther and Bob were thrilled about this."

He continues, "I told Luther that I was really going to focus on the text. I felt that inside this show is something quite passionate: a message about living life fully every day, because it is so short and fragile. I reminded Luther that the original production received tremendous reviews—but primarily for the style, the glitz, and the glamour, and that I felt I knew a way to really focus on the text to get to the heart of the piece, without losing the glitz and the glamour. That's what I'm attempting to do. Now, as to whether I'm successful, you can be the judge of that. The most exciting thing for me is the great cast we have assembled. I approached Jason [Graae] prior to our auditions to offer him a role, and he immediately said yes. I'm honored to have him and Beth [Malone] and Robert J. Townsend in the cast, as well as all of the others. More than anything, it's important to trust your material and hire a great cast. I think it will be a very emotional evening; the last moments are extremely moving."

Schneider admits that he is probably one of the few people who has worked in animation, films, and theatre, having the privilege to develop creative projects in all of these art forms. He has high words of praise for Eisner, whom he says treated him with great respect and did a lot for him both professionally and personally. Schneider greatly enjoys living in Los Angeles with his wife, Hope, and two daughters—one in high school and one in college. In terms of his future adventures in the biz, he says he has no set agenda. He's able to consider different options at this point in his life. "There are a couple of other theatre projects I'm developing," he says. "Some are large musicals and some are small theatrical pieces. And I just finished directing a live-action animated short film with Julie Andrews for the 40th anniversary DVD release of Mary Poppins. I actually got behind the camera and did a little live-action directing. It came out great, and Julie's very happy with it." His enthusiasm in describing this latest adventure resembles an excited kid who has just discovered a new toy. Just as Grand Hotel thrives on the metaphor of a revolving door, with people coming in and going out as they make their journey through life, Schneider continually enters new doors with the hopes of finding joyful treasures on the other side. BSW

"Grand Hotel" will be presented by and at the Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. (Also Sat. Oct. 23 & 30, 3 p.m.; Thu. Nov. 4 & 11, 8 p.m.) Oct. 16-Nov. 14. $30-40. (818) 558-7000.

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