Disney is celebrating its 25th anniversary on Broadway this month with three hits that mint money: “Aladdin,” “Frozen” and “The Lion King.” That last, with a worldwide gross of $9 billion, is the most successful live entertainment property in the history of show business.
But what about the shows that got away — the ones Disney wanted to bring to Broadway that didn’t quite make it?
I put that question to Thomas Schumacher, who’s run Disney Theatrical Productions for 15 years, as we sat sipping sparkling water in his all-glass office atop Disney’s headquarters in the New Amsterdam Theatre.
No. 1 on his list was “Winnie the Pooh,” which was going to be written by . . . Edward Albee.
“I was reading an article about Edward and he said his favorite piece of literature was ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ ” Schumacher says. “We had the theatrical rights, which Walt [that’s Walt Disney] bought from A.A. Milne.”
Schumacher got Albee’s home number, called him up and was surprised when Albee answered the phone himself. “I’m not in awe of a lot of people, but when you’re talking to Edward Albee, you melt,” he says.
Schumacher invited Albee to lunch. They met at Nobu, around the corner from Albee’s Tribeca loft.
“We sat in a table by the window for 2 ¹/₂ hours, with Edward ordering the most radical sushi you can imagine, and reveling in it,” Schumacher says.
He told Albee that anything he wanted to do with Winnie the Pooh, Disney would do: “Is it a one-man show? Is it the characters as people or the characters as animals? Is it about Christopher Robin? Whatever it is, I will commission you and pay you a big fee.”
Albee was enthusiastic, and then one day Schumacher got a call from Albee’s agent saying the great American playwright was “too busy.”
But now that we know Albee loved Pooh, we can see why the young wife in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is named Honey.
Another show that got away was “Dumbo.” Stephen Daldry, the celebrated English director of “Billy Elliot,” approached Disney about adapting the Disney cartoon for the stage.
“ ‘Dumbo’ is problematic,” Schumacher says. “There is so much in it that is uncomfortable” — starting with the black crows, which are delightful, as many kids who see the movie will tell you, but racist. Another problem was that there are only a handful of songs. “There just wasn’t enough music,” Schumacher says.
But if a great director like Daldry wants to do it, you try. Schumacher brought in Michael Chabon, who wrote “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” to do the script. Schumacher says he also thought Randy Newman could write the music.
Disney was developing “Dumbo” — with lots of ideas involving puppets, as Julie Taymor did so brilliantly with “The Lion King” — when Schumacher went to see an early preview of “War Horse” at the National Theatre in London, with its breathtaking, life-size horse puppets.
“The moment those horses came out, I realized, it has been done,” says Schumacher. And so “Dumbo” was shelved.
So what will Disney, a powerful force on Broadway, do next?
Schumacher has many titles at his disposal. Disney just bought 21st Century Fox, so the back catalog has expanded exponentially.
There could be a “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (my vote) musical or perhaps one based on a 1960 Disney movie that still has its charms: “Pollyanna,” starring Hayley Mills and Agnes Moorehead.
Or, maybe one day, “Winnie the Pooh,” with a few ideas Albee gave Schumacher over that lunch at Nobu.
You can hear Michael Riedel weekdays on “Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning” on WOR radio 710.