The men behind Mary

Walt Disney and Sir Cameron Mackintosh have united to bring Mary Poppins to the stage. Thomas Schumacher, Disney's musicals impresario, tells Matt Wolf they're a dream team
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The Independent Culture

There are not many theatre impresarios on either side of the Atlantic who constitute a recognisable brand name: the list could be said to begin and end with Florenz Ziegfeld, David Merrick and Cameron Mackintosh. To that line-up, however, one is tempted to add Thomas Schumacher, the boyish 47-year-old Californian, who might be better known if he didn't come allied to the corporate behemoth that is Disney.

There are not many theatre impresarios on either side of the Atlantic who constitute a recognisable brand name: the list could be said to begin and end with Florenz Ziegfeld, David Merrick and Cameron Mackintosh. To that line-up, however, one is tempted to add Thomas Schumacher, the boyish 47-year-old Californian, who might be better known if he didn't come allied to the corporate behemoth that is Disney.

For the first time, Schumacher's Disney Theatrical Productions is teaming up with Mackintosh - on Mary Poppins. Will audiences care whose money financed the show, provided that the staging, by the director Richard Eyre, soars? Perhaps not. But you can be sure people will be watching to see whether this maiden collaboration between two production mavericks turns out to be a meeting of minds - in which case, their combined muscle is going to be harder than ever to match.

When the stage-musical version of Mary Poppins was announced, the forgivably crude early response was to imagine the self-made British mogul, Mackintosh, entering into an aesthetic marriage of convenience with the men in suits at Disney. Each, after all, needed the other: Mackintosh had the rights to the books (and the blessing) of Poppins's author, P L Travers, who has since died, while Disney clearly controlled anything to do with transposing the beloved 1964 movie to the stage. In fact, the ostensibly anonymous Disney brigade turns out to be one man, Schumacher, who doesn't seem any more corporate than Mackintosh; he certainly isn't wearing a suit in conversation at his Soho eyrie.

On the evening we meet, Poppins is undergoing what's known as a "dry tech" at the Prince Edward Theatre; previews are to begin a week later. And with the show's eight-week try-out in Bristol now finished, Schumacher can focus on what it was that brought him together with Mackintosh: the desire to find a new global theatrical franchise to keep Disney shareholders happy while perhaps, if we're lucky, advancing the musical art.

"We have to give audiences a show that delivers what you hope will happen when you come to see Mary Poppins and not just ride on the title," says Schumacher. But how can the last in a busy autumn sequence of big London musicals - The Woman in White, The Producers and now this - be anything other than a blockbuster? "It's impossible to predict how Poppins will go," Schumacher says, clearly not wanting to tempt fate. "These things end up sort of having their own life-force: would you have predicted The Phantom of the Opera to do what it did [gross more than $1bn worldwide] or Beauty and the Beast [ditto]? You really can't."

Besides, says Schumacher, refusing to be drawn on the specifics of a hefty advance sale (£12m and climbing), whose figures Mackintosh has been quick to quash, "Look at shows that have had gigantic advances, some of which just don't stay the course. The most interesting thing is not what you have before you open, it's what you sell after you open. The Lion King's London advance grew substantially after we opened, and it was very healthy before."

The Lion King, of course, remains Disney's dominant theatrical calling-card, with nine productions running concurrently around the world of a stage musical that added ample imaginative flesh (and some welcome multi-racial hues) to a very white-bread movie, which was part of Schumacher's earlier Disney tenure as head of animation. Schumacher and Peter Schneider, who left the company in 2001, weren't at the helm of Disney Theatrical Prods when Beauty and the Beast first opened, in 1994, on Broadway, where it is still running, despite largely sniffy reviews.

And though that show to date has grossed $1.2bn worldwide, the subsequent Lion King marked Schumacher and co's chance to prove to the industry that Disney had taste alongside a talent for raking in the dosh: its masterstroke lay in importing into the fold a darling of the American avant-garde in the director Julie Taymor. The result won six 1998 Tony awards, including Best Musical, only to be pipped to the post at London's Olivier awards two years later by Britain's own Honk! The Ugly Duckling, which was the work of the songwriting team George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who have written the additional songs for Mary Poppins.

A further three shows are in active development - Crowley will direct as well as design a stage-musical version of Tarzan - with two more, stage transcriptions of Pretty Woman and Sister Act, likely to be licensed out. Indeed, so deep are Disney's pockets that when Taymor abandoned a mooted Pinocchio in favour of a pet project of her own, Schumacher went right along with her. Unusually for Disney, which likes stage versions of brand-name films, it is funding the development of a new, as-yet-untested Taymor piece.

The model for all this activity, says Schumacher, is Mackintosh, whose defining quartet of 1980s smash hits ( Cats, Les Misérables, Phantom and Miss Saigon) set the bar for a level of output that these days probably only Disney could afford. "It's unarguable. Cameron is the most successful person who does what he does. We have modelled much of our business on how he does it, and yet we have also learnt things that have changed a substantial amount since Cameron rolled out the 'big four'."

How have the two producers worked together? "Probably the biggest surprise is that we haven't struggled, which I know is wildly disappointing. Julian Fellowes [the book-writer on Poppins] refers to me as 'infinitely subtle', which has never been used around me except perhaps in the presence of Cameron Mackintosh, who really is larger than life, deeply passionate and able to engage with anyone on anything. We've been remarkably in sync, and even though stylistically we're very different, we have certain obvious things in common: we're both singing show tunes constantly.

"People talk about the partnering thing," he says, "but, you know, in fairness, you're always partnering with someone when you're making something, so that really wasn't a big struggle." The greater achievement is that, in an age when most producers are really trumped-up investors (just look by way of illustration at the forbidding roll-call of names attached to The Producers), these guys have truly produced. " Poppins", says Schumacher, "has been about making something, about coming back to the table again and again and again. It's a unique thing because we've actually had to do it, and now we have." And if he sounds as if he's flying, we'll soon see whether West End audiences are, too.

'Mary Poppins' is previewing at the Prince Edward Theatre, London W1 (020-7447 5400) and opens 15 December. Matt Wolf is London theatre critic of 'Variety' magazine

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