Peter Schneider's Grand Entrance

 

LA Stage, September/October 2004

 

 

By Rob Kendt

 

Hollywood may have a revolving door for some of its talent--ingenues and hotshot directors, for instance, whose careers often seem to last no longer than the latest Vanity Fair stays on the newsstands.

 

That wasn't the case with Peter Schneider, a 17-year employee--and briefly, studio chairman--of the Walt Disney Company, where he teamed with Tom Schumacher to spearhead the 1990s revival of Disney's animated film musicals and their stage incarnations, including Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Since leaving the company in 2001, he's ventured into solo projects, including his newest: directing a revival of the 1989 musical Grand Hotel at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, which opens in October.

 

It's a multi-character show whose central metaphor is a revolving door, in fact, as the guests of a posh Berlin hotel come and go. As Schneider has learned of late, the transience of life should be less cause for alarm than for hope.

 

That's part of what led him to leave the company he'd served for so long. "I had the best time of my life," says Schneider, a wiry, silver-haired 53-year-old whose ready smile is somehow also audible in his voice. "I'm a real fan of the company. I grew up there, in some sense; I was 33 when I started there."

 

Schneider clearly harbors no hard feelings about the company he left in June, 2001, and he has no dish to offer about the recent feud between CEO Michael Eisner and former board chairman Roy Disney. "They were very generous to me," Schneider recalls. "Michael Eisner is a really interesting guy, and Roy Disney I just adore. As someone who loves the Disney brand as much as I do, I'm sad to see what's happening there."

 

But his ascent at Disney took him to a midlife impasse that's fairly typical of overachieving creative types. "In animation I was a doer," he says. "I was artistically actively involved every single day with the artists, doing and making. As you get higher and higher in organizations, and you take on more and more responsibilities, and you get paid a whole lot more money, you stop doing and you start supervising. It's an interesting challenge, and I was good at it, and the studio made lots of money when I was there. I found it less satisfying personally."

 

Just months after he left Disney, he and his wife were on a runway at JFK Airport when the World Trade Center Towers across town were struck, prompting a cathartic moment of stock-taking. "You have to make a choice and say, we better be living our lives exactly the way we want to live them if we can, because life is short," Schneider says. "It's kind of obvious, people talk about it all the time: You have one life. But we don't do anything about it. We get stuck: ‘Gosh, I'm not really happy with the job, blah blah blah--well, I can't really change.' We get trapped by our fears.

 

"I've done a lot of thinking about what it is that makes me interested in life, and makes it worthwhile to keep on living," he continues. "I had directed and been involved in theatre for many years before I went to Disney, and I said to myself, If there's one thing I would want to go back and do, it's to start directing again."

 

He had helped run Chicago's St. Nicholas Theatre in the 1970s, and directed theatre in New York and London. But since he and his family are based in L.A., and Schneider is a regular playgoer here, he started asking around in his own backyard. Several theatres said yes--but only Barbara Beckley of the Colony Theatre actually followed up.

 

"She said, ‘OK, what do you want to do?' That of course is the big challenge," Schneider says. "We explored several options, Pajama Game being one of them. Just as we said, ‘That would be interesting,' they announced a New York production to open in October, with Kathleen Marshall directing and choreographing."

 

Schneider went back to the drawing board and found a show that was far from overlooked on Broadway--it won Tonys for its director and choreographer, Tommy Tune--but wasn't exactly admired. "If you go back and look at the Broadway reviews, Grand Hotel was a triumph for Tommy Tune--a big dance piece, glitzy and glamorous," Schneider says. "But it got somewhat nailed for having no substance."

 

As directors love to do, Schneider dug deeper. "Of course, I said, ‘Ooh, there's great substance here if we focus on it, ' Not neglect the glitz, but make it much more of a chamber piece." Such a chamber piece, in fact, that the show's signature set piece--the revolving-door entrance of the titular Grand Hotel--isn't being built. "I said to the set designer, David Potts, ‘We need a revolving door in the damn thing, because the metaphor of the whole show is that life is a revolving door,' " Schneider says. "None of his designs had a door in it. And I kept saying, ‘Where's my door?' and he kept telling me why the door was not going to be there."

 

It was his choreographer, ballroom dancing star Cate Caplin, who unexpectedly bailed him out of this back-and-forth with the stubborn scenic designer. "I went to a rehearsal of one of her pieces, and in the middle of this piece, here was her partner Gary, standing straight up--she is on his hip, her legs are spread, and she does this scissor movement," says Schneider. "And I went, ‘Oh my God, it's a revolving door!' The door can now move all over the stage, and it's a much more interesting image."

 

As a producer of such extravaganzas as The Lion King and Aida, though, does Schneider ever miss that kind of scale and largesse? "I haven't even thought about it; it never crosses my mind," Schneider insists. "You know when you walk into the Colony Theatre that you're going to have to be creative in terms of solving problems in a way you won't have enough money to solve. I said to the costume designer, ‘We can't afford to do this show, so pick your moments.' "

 

"I was so reminded of doing animation; it was the same conversation. One of the things I pushed the artists on is that they were spending so much time on things that were on the screen for an eighth of a second. And I would say, ‘Why? No one can see that. Let's focus on things that are onscreen for a second or two seconds. Let's put our energy, our money, our best people where we actually get a bang for it.' "

 

Besides, he says, as much as audiences respond to theatrical tricks and treats, that's not the main course on the menu. "Ultimately when you go to the theatre, you go for the story, you go for the emotion. If I can make you cry a little bit, laugh a little bit, and feel as though, ‘Oh, that was good,' you won't care that the door wasn't there, or that we cut out three characters, or the script's a little clunky in Act II."

 

Schneider does have a trick of sorts up his sleeve: Jason Graae in a serious role, as a terminally ill clerk determined to have one last spree. "I've seen Jason in so many things for so many years, and he's always cast as the funny man, the second banana. I knew Jason could do something serious, but he'll bring such humor, that sense of comedy to it."

 

A leavening touch is a good counterbalance to the show's inherent cyncism. Indeed, playgoers expecting a breezy musical may be surprised to find something a bit closer in its world-weary tone to Cabaret than to, say, 42nd Street.

"The show is quite serious, in some weird way; it's not this fluffy comedy," he avers. All the characters, as he sees it, are either dying physically or emotionally and find in the course of events some reason to go on: love, health, or just tomorrow's morphine fix.

 

"The whole piece is about this issue: We must live each day of our lives, we must find reasons to live, we must get up every morning. I think that message is fun. That's why I'm attracted to the piece, not for the dancing, not for the glitz. In there is a small chamber musical."

 

Who else but a man steeped in Disney's entertainment values could call a message "fun"? In Schneider's case, he not only means it--his track record and enthusiasm make it seem likely that the fun will be catching.