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Why it took Disney 18 years to bring 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' to the U.S. stage

A scene from the La Jolla Playhouse's production of
A scene from the La Jolla Playhouse's production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
Courtesy La Jolla Playhouse
A scene from the La Jolla Playhouse's production of
A scene from the La Jolla Playhouse's production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
Courtesy La Jolla Playhouse

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Disney’s theatrical division has logged some of the parent company’s biggest hits. The stage musical of "The Lion King" recently passed $6.2 billion in ticket sales, making it the highest-grossing show ever, anywhere.

But Disney is not above taking chances. Currently at the La Jolla Playhouse, the company recently opened its Broadway try-out for "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" — surprising given that Disney's 1996 animated version was hardly a hit movie back in 1996.

Tom Schumacher, who runs Disney's theatrical division, stopped by The Frame to explain why it took nearly 20 years to figure out how to take the story of "Hunchback" from the screen to the stage.

Interview Highlights

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" movie was released in 1996. Why has it taken so long to get it on an American stage?

We made the movie and, in fairness, this movie with this gorgeous score — which was Academy Award-nominated — wasn’t very successful by our standards then. We were making blockbusters and the movie was very adult, very sophisticated, and maybe didn’t quite fit into the canon of other Disney films. We were approached about doing some European productions early on at Disney Theatrical and we developed a version of "Hunchback of Notre Dame," which played in Berlin. And this was not long after the wall had come down and it was adjacent to Potsdamer Platz. It was the first Broadway-style musical ever mounted in Berlin. It was in German, we rehearsed in English and then switched the company over to German. Don’t ask me how we pulled that off. We mounted it and it played for about five years. But it was never a production that I felt confident about bringing to America. 

What was the nut you had to crack? What was the challenge in adapting it for English language or for this current iteration?

The real complexity to the story is it doesn’t have a happy ending. And in the Disney context of an animated movie, which has to be for the full family audience, you would like the ending to resolve in a way that everything is fixed. But unlike the end of "Beauty and the Beast," where the big, ugly guy with a hairy back is made beautiful and turned into a prince, our guy is going  to stay forever who he is and his love will be unrequited...and poor Quasimodo is alone. And so, what is the lesson learned and what do we feel at the end? We came up with this idea that the poetry would be: what makes a monster and what makes a man? And this is a lyric of Stephen Schwartz’s and I think, now, it resolves in a kind of beautiful way. But it’s emotional and it’s not a happy ending.

As we sit here today, how many Disney Theatrical productions are there running right now around the world?

There are 18 tonight, including 10 "Lion Kings."

"The Lion King" recently passed $6.2 billion in theatrical ticket sales, which makes it the highest grossing entertainment property of all time. Does that sound right to you?

Well, that’s how it has been characterized in the press. When I hear the number $6.2 billion, mind you that’s a gross sales Hollywood, everybody talks about gross numbers, but nobody ever acknowledges the ticket prices keep changing, right? So, my really good friend Cameron Mackintosh, who produced "Phantom of the Opera" — many years before "Lion King" — the ticket prices were really, really cheap. So, the number, of course, is built on the fact that ticket prices have accelerated.

You’ve been in this job at Disney Theatrical Group for 20 years. How has theater changed over that 20 years and what are the challenges you face now that you didn’t face when you started?

A lot has changed...Everything changed on 9/11 in terms of ticket buying. Prior to what happened in New York on 9/11, people were willing to buy tickets a year, year-and-a-half out. "Lion King" was sold out for a year and then three and four months into the next year. Sold out clean. Today, no one has an advance ticket sale that’s like that. Advance numbers just don’t match what they used to, even if you adjust for inflation because people buy in the short term. Ticket pricing has changed dramatically. We have dynamic pricing, so there’s always a lot of tickets available at what I think are reasonable prices. But the more advantaged audience member can buy a ticket very close to when they’re going to see it for what you would have called brokered prices before, but we’re essentially selling the ticket at that price. Who’s coming has changed. Over the last 20 years, since 1994 ... roughly eight million people bought a ticket to see a Broadway show. Last year, roughly 12 million people bought a ticket to see a Broadway show. That is a 50 percent increase in the number of tickets sold. Now, compare that to the number of tickets being sold for film. It’s totally the opposite direction.

Yeah, that’s flat, if not down.

But Broadway is 50 percent more. So, not only are we making more money because the ticket price has gone up, but we’re also making more money because 50 percent more people are coming. 

Is there room within the company to create something out of whole cloth that is not based on a movie? Do you have ambitions to create something purely original?

Most things that have been hit musicals have been based on either a movie, a play or a literary source. And I would throw into that, a historical event. But they’re [all] based on something ... About six times a week, I have to answer the phone to somebody who says, Can I license this or that title from you that exists in the Disney catalog? Since we have the richest catalog of material and since most of it has music in its base already, why would I look outside when our source material is so rich?

As you start to assess what your priorities are going forward — there’s been talk about "Frozen," "Princess Bride," "Freaky Friday," "Father of the Bride," "Jungle Book" — what are the priorities for you in the next year?

The first priority, I have to tell you, is when you have a property that is as beloved and music-based as "Frozen," that has to get an enormous amount of my attention. To say, How do we take this and make a sophisticated, adult evening of theater out of it? Because, as we know with our hits, they have been for that audience that includes the sophisticated theater-goer. As is "Princess Bride." It’s not based on our catalog, we acquired it. Everybody in the theater wanted it. I have a sense of what can become a theatrical event. I’m not thinking just Broadway. I’m thinking what can become a theatrical event. And I have to be open to it. I was a doubter on "The Lion King" ... We couldn’t see a way in where we would do "Lion King" in the fashion of "Beauty and the Beast." Because "Beauty and the Beast" was a very clear mandate: Make it look like the movie. And I knew with "Lion King," I knew that it needed some very, very different idea— and the choice of Julie Taymor and how we did that changed everything. So, I always have to keep that in my head: Don’t assume you don’t have an idea.

The underlying movie doesn’t necessarily have to be a hit to yield a hit show. I’m thinking about "Newsies" in particular. That’s just not a successful movie. Turned out to be a pretty successful show.

And "Newsies" is fascinating because the film that Kenny Ortega made is so delightful and people like it. And the Broadway stage show outgrossed — in one month in one theater — outgrossed the initial release of the movie. That’s a kind of funny concept. But also think about what audience was seeing that movie ... a generation raised on MTV. A generation raised by Disney animated classical musicals grew up. The day we put "Newsies" on sale, to say we’re doing it, we had 85,000 Facebook friends, because "Newsies" was in every fraternity house, everybody, everywhere, was singing from "Newsies."

I was speaking at Emerson College and 500 kids were there and one of them asked me, "When are you doing 'Newsies' on stage?" And I said, “I will answer your question if you can sing 'Santa Fe' for me.” And this boy stands on his chair in front of 500 students at Emerson College and belts out “Santa Fe.” He was moderately good, but the audience went insane cheering for him. And I realized when you began to YouTube it, all these people who had created their own culture around "Newsies."

So, that’s its own specific thing, it was those songs that propelled it forward. And then when you could see those boys dancing onstage, it somehow became legitimate. On film, they might have looked silly, but onstage, they were speaking the vernacular and what Jeff Calhoun and Christopher Gattelli did staging it was so great. It’s a hit and, by the way, traveling all over the country on tour.

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